Of energy & empathy

Of energy & empathy

Different strokes

Of energy & empathy

The outstanding and outspoken Bengali artist Sunil Das allowed his canvas to embrace many themes, writes Giridhar Khasnis.

Five years ago, in early 2011, veteran artist Sunil Das held a month-long exhibition titled Beware - Be Aware in Gallery Kolkata. The uniqueness of the show was that the artist displayed a set of his original paintings along with fake ones!

“I have been all over the world with my paintings,” he explained. “But never have I come across a painter whose works have been copied as many times as mine!” He estimated that over 2,000 of his artworks had been copied. He was fed up receiving images of his paintings seeking authentication — most of them being fakes.

“Previously, I did not care about fake art doing the rounds because I have seen works of some greatest masters, such as Jamini Roy and Hemen Majumdar, being copied and sold. But, over the years, this menace has spread like wildfire. I therefore decided that as a painter, it is my duty to create awareness about this issue amongst art lovers and patrons. There is a huge fake-art industry that’s operating in the country. And it needs to be stopped.”

Das’s show Beware - Be Aware expectedly raised a storm in the art circles of Kolkata and elsewhere. Even earlier, he had hit the headlines. While inaugurating a group show in 2010, he was shocked to see some of the paintings on display bearing his signature, all of them fakes. Enraged, he had taken off the paintings, scribbled the word ‘fake’ in bold letters on them, before putting them back on display!

Das always bemoaned the absence of institutional mechanism to address the issue of fake art in the country. He was also pained that art galleries by and large lacked the expertise or education to differentiate an original and its copy. “Museums and galleries abroad have their own research centres to verify and analyse artworks with scientific precision. Such an infrastructure and facilities, along with qualified people, are required in our country too.”

Sunil Das, who passed away last August in Kolkata, aged 76, was both an outstanding and outspoken artist. In a distinguished career spanning over five decades, he produced works that amazed both the critic and the connoisseur with their diversity. He worked in many mediums like charcoal, water colour, oil, collaged-drawings, and in later years, even sculpture. “Trying my hand at any new medium has never been a matter of debate for me. Picasso, who worked in many mediums, has always inspired me.”

A prolific painter whose work has always been in demand, Das hailed from a middle-class Bengali business family. As a young boy, he had decided to pursue art despite hardships and familial resistance. His innate ability, skill and hard work had eventually yielded good dividends by fetching awards and scholarships. He not only gained direct entry into the second year of Government College of Arts, but also went on to win a National Award even when he was still a student. Later, a French government scholarship took him to the prestigious art school, Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts, in Paris.

A frequent exhibitor in the country and outside, his works were included in the Biennales of Paris, Dacca and Tokyo. He served as commissioner to the São Paulo Biennial and was a member of the jury of the Prix des Étrangers, Paris. In 2014, he was awarded the Padma Shri. All the fame and glory did not erase the memory of his early days of struggle. In his twilight years, he was known to set aside a sizeable part of his savings to support financially weak artists and art students.

Bulls & horses

Das was particularly popular for his brilliant rendering of horses and bulls. In his younger days, he would spend days and nights at the stable of Mounted Police, studying the details and body contours of horses. “I must have done 7,000 horses between 1950 and 1960. I like things which have a lot of rhythm and energy.” As for the bull, he was mesmerised watching the raging animal in bullfights in Spain in 1962. “I was tantalised by the passion of the bulls in the fighting arena; their body movement, their power — all of it was so overwhelming that I spent hours trying to capture them and thus started the bull series.”

Besides the bulls and horses, Das also embraced many other themes. From the burning ghats to the flowing rivers, from the gaiety of the Parisian boulevards to the violence of the Gulf War, from the vibrancy of Kolkata streets to the plight of prostitutes and slum dwellers — he took them all on his canvas. “I feel I am a member of the community of the world — East or West does not matter to me. I’m a human being and I love other human beings.”

She inspires...
Das’s rendering of the mysterious feminine form was unique. “Women have inspired some of my most significant works,” he would admit. “The curves, the cleavage, the concaves and the convexes, the narrowings and the broadenings, the projections and the recessions of the female anatomy have increasingly made me curious about the unseen and therefore mysterious aspects of womanhood. The prostitutes who inhabit the dingy gullies of Kalighat have inspired some of my most powerful strokes.”

Das was associated with the Indian Weaver’s Service Council for decades and retired as its director in 1997. He always loved to travel and interact with various weaver communities. “It was while staying with the weavers that I observed the various sights and sounds of rural Bengal,” he once poetically described his experiences. “I have realised that days and nights are completely different in the villages. The trees looked exotic with the myriad hues of multicoloured strings tied around them, and various objects like lamps and vermillion strewn around them as an offering to the deities. These emblems created an illusion of mystery and at night I found it to be a completely mystifying scene. It was almost surreal, the way the little pieces glimmered at night.”