South Asian Picture Book Biography: Meera Sriram talks about BETWEEN TWO WORLDS: THE ART & LIFE OF AMRITA SHER-GIL
Hello Mixed-Up Filers! I’m pleased to welcome Meera Sriram, author of BETWEEN TWO WORLDS: THE ART & LIFE OF AMRITA SHER-GIL (Penny Candy Books, 2021), illustrated by Ruchi Bakshi Sharma, and other titles for an interview at Mixed-Up Files today.
Hi Meera, thanks for joining us today at Mixed-Up Files.
About BETWEEN TWO WORLDS: THE ART & LIFE OF AMRITA SHER-GIL
BETWEEN TWO WORLDS is a non-fiction picture book for children (6-11 years). It is illustrated beautifully by Mumbai-based artist Ruchi Bakshi Sharma. This book is a biography of Amrita Sher-Gil, a remarkable painter and a pioneer of early 20th century modern art. Amrita lived and created art on her own terms. Her father was a Sikh scholar from India and her mother was a Hungarian Jewish opera singer. Throughout her life, Amrita traveled between Europe and India. She was also a woman ahead of her times in a male dominated art world. This story layers Amrita’s journey navigating cultures over her artistic journey trying to discover where her art belonged.
On Amrita being a rebellious artist
Even as a little girl, Amrita hated being taught art. She always believed art came from the heart. Growing up, her art reflected her bicultural identity. While in Paris, she learned a great deal about European art. She painted many portraits of herself, her family members, friends, and lovers of both sexes. And she did this unabashedly. During this time, she also longed to paint what she’d experienced in India. Eventually, she found her “voice” by fusing western techniques and Indian subjects – something that was ground-breaking in the artistic world during that period. Amrita also pushed boundaries in how she centered women in her paintings. As a feminist, her art was unapologetic about brown female nudity, and her work celebrated ordinary, less privileged women at a time when women were mostly objectified in art.
On reading and writing picture books and how they are an integral part of your writing career
I did not read picture books as a child growing up in India. I fell in love with them when I started reading them to my daughter many years ago. I was blown away by the themes, aesthetics, and more importantly, the impact they can have on children. I believe they are an intensely powerful medium as they have the ability to influence young minds. When I noticed the invisibility of children of color as well as the entire gamut of immigrant experiences, I decided to tell our stories. I hope to continue to write about people, places, and experiences less commonly seen in stories for children.
On a moment in your life that inspired this story
I was sitting on my bed in my parents’ home on a summer night in India. Someone sent me a New York Times article on Amrita Sher-Gil pointing out what an incredible story it would make. I’d known about Amrita Sher-Gil. In fact we’d picked up a picture book for my daughter a few years before that. However, the article prompted me to dig deeper. I sat there obsessed for several hours reading up on the internet. During this time I made a small but striking personal connection with some of her experiences, especially around identity, life across continents, and blending cultures while creating. In those wee hours, I found the inspiration to tell her story.
On the process of immersing yourself in Amrita’s story and writing it for children
Initially, I was reading up every news bit, essay, and article I could find on the internet. Later, I managed to lay my hands on an important primary source, two volumes of AMRITA SHER-GIL: A SELF-PORTRAIT IN LETTERS AND WRITINGS (Tulika Books, 2010) by Amrita’s nephew Vivan Sundaram. This is a compilation of Amrita’s letters and writings along with notes by the author offering chronology and context. It also includes over a hundred reproductions of Amrita’s paintings and many amazing photographs. I researched and made notes for months. The narrative flowed out lyrically in my first draft and stayed that way. However, it took me many revisions and ample aid from critique partners to weed out details and extract the essence for her emotional trajectory as she tried to find out where she and her art belonged.