A glimpse of Umraosingh Sher-Gil in Sanscrit 1145

Umraosingh Sher-Gil  (1870-1954) is perhaps best known by association, as the father of Amrita Sher-Gil, the avant-garde painter whom the New York Times once hailed as “a pioneer of Indian Art”. But, in recent years, Umraosingh himself has become recognized as an artist in his own right, through his photographs and photographic experiments, chronicling a life spent between Europe and India during the transformative period of the early 20th century.


Umraosingh Sher-Gil

From The Sher-Gil Archive. Courtesy of the Asian Art Archive: https://aaa.org.hk/archive/9984.

But Umraosingh had always viewed himself as a scholar, rather than an artist. Perhaps it is because of his association with Amrita that his artistic output has been lauded, while his scholarly work has not been studied so far. At the BnF, Sanscrit 1145, a paper manuscript produced by Umraosingh of the Pāṇinīyaśikṣā, a “Treatise on Sanskṛta Phonetics,” gives us a rare glimpse of this oeuvre.


Sanscrit 1145, English title page

MS Sanscrit 1145, English title page. All manuscript images courtesy of the BnF.


In 1929, Umraosingh moved his family to Paris to foster Amrita’s artistic career, enrolling her in the École des beaux-arts. But he also had a vibrant, intellectual life of his own, as seen in this manuscript. A scholar of Sanskrit and Persian, Umraosingh seems to have frequented the BnF, perusing the manuscript collection. In a typewritten letter addressed to Edgard Blochet, a librarian in the manuscripts department, he laments the quality of Sanscrit 568, a manuscript of the commentary on the Pāṇinīyaśikṣā, which “contains numerous errors,” and hopes to eventually provide a corrigenda to the text for the library. Moreover, Sanscrit 568 contains only the commentary, without the main text; as Umraosingh writes, “I thought that your library should possess a manuscript of the text also, which now I have made from reliable printed copies published in India at Benares as well as at Bombay, giving the variations in readings which those texts give.”


Letter to Edgard Blochet, recto

Letter to Edgard Blochet, recto. Affixed inside the front cover of MS Sanscrit 1145.


Here, again, we have an example of a manuscript produced by copying printed texts, a relatively uncommon phenomenon which we have written about before. But even within that genre, this item is unique in the way it reflects the hybrid European-Indian experience of the Sher-Gil family. While the page is oriented in the pothi format common to Sanskrit manuscripts, it is bound as a book, with page numbers rather than folio numbers. The title page is written in Sanskrit, but it is decorated with an ornamental horizontal rule taken from European book culture.


Sanskrit title page, MS Sanscrit 1145

Sanskrit title page, MS Sanscrit 1145.


It is clear that Umraosingh intended the manuscript not only as a scholarly work, but also an objet d’art. The pages are made from laid Ingres paper, bearing the Canson & Montgolfier watermark, a high-quality stock commonly used for drawing. Each page is carefully laid out in pencil before being inked, and the written area is covered with a light ink wash.

The residual pencil marks also give us some insight into his thinking and his editing process. On page 8, he has pencilled in Vedic accent marks, which he must have copied from some edition. However, he did not understand them, and they remain uninked; he expresses his confusion in the right margin, with the comment “? ? marks ?”


sanscrit 1145, page 8 detail

Page 8, right margin detail. MS Sanscrit 1145.


Umraosingh’s photographs present a very domestic vision of his life. While in France, he rarely photographed outside, and his Paris photographs largely document his apartment, his family members, and his experiments with fasting and yoga.1 This has led scholars to view him in those terms, as a doting father and an ascetic renunciant. But he did go out; apart from this manuscript, we also have a letter to Ignaz Goldziher, held at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences Library, which attest to his engagement with scholars around the world. Doubtless, there remains much more to discover.


Suggested citation

Li, Charles. 2020. “A glimpse of Umraosingh Sher-Gil in Sanscrit 1145.” Texts Surrounding Texts: Satellite Stanzas, Prefaces and Colophons in South-Indian Manuscripts (Paris BnF and Hamburg Stabi collections). 29 November. https://tst.hypotheses.org/1927

Charles Li

Charles is the resident postdoctoral researcher at the TST project in Paris.

More Posts - Website

  1. “A Savage Garden: The Paris Photographs of Umrao Singh Sher-Gil”. MARG 69:1, pp. 48-57. []

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Charles Li (November 29, 2020). A glimpse of Umraosingh Sher-Gil in Sanscrit 1145. Texts Surrounding Texts. Retrieved July 18, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/uxz6

Charles Li

Charles is the resident postdoctoral researcher at the TST project in Paris.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search