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Retrospective || Sunil Das (1939-2015)

I do a sketch before I start painting. I always struggle with colours and shapes, until they fall to desired pattern. Like a music conductor, I summon all my music instruments to play and orchestrate an aesthetic unit out of various experiences.

– Sunil Das

With the unique distinction of being the only Indian artist to have won a National Award from the Lalit Kala Academy (The Shiromani Kala Puraskar) while still in the Government College of Arts and Crafts, Kolkata, Sunil Das was undoubtedly one of the finest expressionist painters that the nation has had the fortune to see. Besides winning a French government scholarship to the Ecole National des Beaux Arts, Das has served as commissioner to the Sao Paulo Biennale and was a member of the jury of the Pfix des Etrangeres, Paris.

While his paintings of horses brought him prominence, Das found himself in Spain during the course of his travels witnessing bullfights, where his fascination for the form of the bull was kindled. “I must have done 7000 horses between 1950 to 60,” he says, “In 1962, I went to Spain, where I was fascinated by the bull fights.”

His ardent study of sculpting in Shantiniketan and his zeal for graphic art in Paris has imbibed a certain rigor in his paintings mostly associated with the other art forms. Avoiding warm or loud colour tones, his minimalist style often invokes a sense of grotesque ecstasy in connoisseurs, especially in his treatment of the women in his ‘A woman in her failings’ series or even in his interpretation of Christ. His signature use of charcoal and conté crayons, an invention arising out of the dearth in pigment during late 18th-early 19th century France, is a testament to his sense of the minimal.

Delving into “man’s inhumanity to man”, Das’ philosophy is apparent in his handling of subject when his focus tends to shift from the perfect animal forms. Human beings are seldom as perfect in his eyes and are represented likewise.

A prolific worker who had nearly ten phases in his vibrant career, Das is fondly remembered as ‘Ghora Das’ (The Horse Das) thanks to his fascination for horses. Apart from 88 solo exhibitions across the world as well as having his work included in the Paris Biennale, Das received the Padma Shri award from the Indian Government in 2014. The finery of Das’ paintings is almost an echo of the primordial painters of humanity, who were as fascinated by the terrific form of the bison as Das probably was with that of the horse and the bull.

Bearing the weight of humanity in his 76 years of hallowed existence, Sunil Das passed away on August 10, 2015 in Kolkata. []

First Published: CultureCult Magazine, Issue Two: November 2015

A specimen of the series on Horses by Sunil Das
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