Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, eldest son of Raja Surat Singh of Majithia, was born into the landed aristocracy of the Punjab. While his younger brother, Sunder Singh, was an industrialist and politician, Umrao Singh opted for the more contemplative life of a scholar. He spent a lifetime in the pursuit of knowledge; he was a Sanskrit and Persian scholar, and was interested in the philosophy of religion. He had a long-standing friendship with the poet Mohammed Iqbal and greatly admired the Russian humanist Leo Tolstoy. He was also fascinated by astronomy, loved carpentry and calligraphy, practised yoga, and had an abiding passion for photography.
Umrao Singh’s older daughter, Amrita Sher-Gil (1913–1941), was a pioneering artist and an emblematic figure in the history of pictorial modernism in India. Her talent, beauty, flamboyant personality, cosmopolitan outlook and her sexual emancipation have made her something of a legend while her presence was framed in a more literal sense by the photographic lens of her father.
Umrao Singh’s preoccupation with photography was a private affair, about which he left behind no writings. He printed his negatives, experimenting with toning formulae that master printers would employ. Over 3000 vintage prints along with glass plates and film negatives have since survived. In 2001, his grandson, the artist Vivan Sundaram, made digital photomontages using Umrao Singh’s self-portraits and family portraits to create fictional narratives, and presented them as Retake of Amrita. In 2007, the first retrospective exhibition of Umrao Singh Sher-Gil’s vintage and modern prints (from glass plates and film negatives) was held at the Rencontres d’Arles photography festival in France and attracted critical attention. In 2008, his retrospective was exhibited at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi and Mumbai, India, in conjunction with the publication of his monograph, His Misery and His Manuscript, (PHOTOINK, 2008).
Umrao Singh’s photographs have also been included in important group exhibitions: Moving Still: Performative Photography, Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver, Canada (2019), Vision Exchange: Perspectives from India to Canada, Art Gallery of Alberta, Canada, (2018-2019), Illuminating India: Photography 1857-2017, Science Museum, UK (2017), The Self and The Other—Portraiture in Contemporary Indian Photography, Palau de la Virreina, Barcelona (2008) and Artium, Vitoria, Spain (2009).