It is a daunting task to retrace an artist’s life, who has been as prolific and multidisciplinary as Amar Nath Sehgal. But now a new book is attempting to take a deep drive into the artist’s practice spanning several decades. 100 years of Sehgal, a 250-page hardbound volume published by Amar Nath Sehgal Private Collection—perhaps, the only single-artist museum in the country—pays a tribute to him, with contributory essays authored by family members and scholars.
Amar Nath Sehgal (1922-2007) grew up in Lahore in undivided India. He graduated with a degree in science and began his career as an engineer before changing tracks to study art at the Lahore School of Fine Art in 1945. The events following Partition forced the family to migrate to India, and the horrors that he witnessed from Pakistan to the Kullu-Kangra valley went on to inform his work.
The first section of the book focuses on significant moments in Sehgal’s life—his move to New York for higher studies in art in 1950 after receiving a scholarship; some of the landmark commissions like the bronze statue of Mahatma Gandhi installed at the Ram Bagh Garden in Amritsar and the 2000-square-feet mural at Vigyan Bhawan, New Delhi. The section also provides a detailed account of international travels and assignments, as well as awards and accolades received by Sehgal.
Mandira Row, resident curator of the collection, states in her note, “Our job here has been to protect the past and the life in Sehgal’s art. As a community, we are meant to be the keepers of history with no social agenda.” Row’s essay in the book titled, A life less known, brings to light Sehgal’s early days, family background, education, and influences. She writes that he engaged with the art of radical American expressionists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, and that expanded his visual vocabulary.
The essay further describes the influence of Pandit Nehru’s ideologies that led to Sehgal’s eventual return to India. He began to focus on the revival of folk and tribal traditions in Punjab and Haryana. “He believed the tradition of inheriting design, colour and form from the forefathers should be protected, even while teaching new techniques and adding functionality to preserving the folk arts,” writes Row. Sehgal’s contributions in this context are unparalleled. He was a consultant with the UNESCO, and worked with architects and urban planners on projects that favoured art in public spaces.
In his personal practice, he started by experimenting with material, trying to find one that would express his ideas completely. He even tried working with gold, creating works with 18 karats for a Luxembourg bank. “However, throughout his life, he maintained that bronze, ‘the eternal material’, was his main medium. That is perhaps because he studied engineering and metallurgy, and could understand this medium thoroughly…. The Government of India, among other world institutions and hotels, was one of Sehgal’s biggest patrons, and one can see 20 commissioned sculptures and installations across Delhi NCR. There is theFlight, from the 1980s, at Akbar Bhawan, andThe Captiveat India International Centre. The latter is a replica of the work designed by Sehgal in 1986 to highlight the United Nations’ opposition to the apartheid regime in South Africa,” mentions an article in Open magazine.
However, one of his commissions for Vigyan Bhawan—a 480x1680 inch mural made in 1962—became a matter of a thirteen-year-long lawsuit between the artist and the Union of India. The trigger was that the mural had been removed during renovation in 1979 without informing Sehgal or seeking his permission. Finally, in 2005, the Delhi High Court decided the case in Sehgal’s favour, upholding the moral right of an artist over his work.The case, for the first time, highlighted the significance of intellectual property rights and the rights of the creator of the work.
It is noteworthy thatwhile Sehgal’s practice was both significant and prolific, he was never a household name like his peers, M.F. Husain or Ram Kumar. Art historian Yashodhara Dalmia, who has also contributed an essay to the book, explains possible reasons for this. “Amar Nath was well known within the artistic community. Maybe he did not become a household name as he was intent on perfecting his art, and worked in a singular and solitary fashion," she says. His aim was to create sculptures which would be humanistic, reflecting the plight of the deprived and the downtrodden.
Sehgal, himself, had experienced the pain and agony of the Partition, and this emotion found a way into his evocative sculptures. “A work like Anguished Cries(bronze, 1971), for example, isan amalgamation of distressed faces, where the welded heads with wide open mouths create a united expression of a conjoined scream,” adds Dalmia. The work depicts an accumulated tragedy. A similar pathos can be seen in Cries Unheard (bronze, 1958), which features outstretched forms of a man, woman and child, raising their arms in outcry against their desolate conditions, explains Dalmia.
Other essays in the book include an account of Sehgal’s time at Luxembourg penned by his son, Raman Sehgal, who calls the country “his second home”. An article titled Music in Plastic Form, authored by Prof. PN Mago, that was first published in The Financial Express in 1991 has been reproduced in the book. It emphasises on Sehgal’s unique ability to create fluid and sensuous forms using some of the most rigid material like wood, stone, and metal. Then there is an edited transcript of a candid interaction with Rajiv Mehrotra, a friend of Sehgal’s. It provides precious insights into the thought process and concerns of the artist. They discuss the ‘agony’ of art making, role of public art in society, and his belief in intellectual freedom.
Row has been closely involved with both curating the family collection of Sehgal’s work for the museum, and also in planning the publication. “The journey of putting together multiple voices has given us the opportunity to convey to our readers the variety in his work—the multiple mediums he worked with, the aspects he covered in his art. For an artist to do all this in a single lifetime is so rare,” she says. The idea was to rebuild the personality of a man forgotten.“We have reprinted his poetry from his personal journals to make the book as authentic as possible. You get to know him better, and as a result, his art too,” she adds.
For the artist's younger son, Rajan, the Amar Nath Private Collection is an initiative close to his heart—one that began after the passing of his father. The book and the museum are intended to preserve his legacy. “We want these to inspire people, especially young artists and students. We have conducted workshops and seminars for school students so far,” he says.
Sehgal was popularly known as an ambassador of peace. This became the context of his work itself, often originating from personal tragedies of violence and disharmony. “Art was a cathartic practice for him, more than a profession. It was his way of making sense of pain, and that made him a universal artist,” says Row.