Of horses, bulls and life itself

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Life was not always a bed of roses for Kolkata-based artist Sunil Das, who was in the city recently

Sunil Das has painted a series on the dark-eyed women of the red light area and one on apples. He has paintings dedicated to the Bombay blasts and even to the `Thakur-saab' from "Sholay" for the filmmaker Ramesh Sippy. But the artist is most famous for his horses and bulls. His charcoal drawings of edgy horses ready to gallop, that he once sold for a hundred rupees each, sell for anything between Rs. 1 lakh to Rs. five lakhs today. A recently auctioned painting fetched Rs. 80 lakhs. Das is the subject of a new book, "Art Moves" that was released by Jehangir Sabavala in Mumbai, Mrinal Sen in Kolkata and will be released in the Capital by Chief Minister, Sheila Dixit. However, there's nothing planned for Chennai, though the city was once home, says Sunil Das, who was here recently. The Kolkata-based artist, who retired as director, Department of Handloom and Textiles, was posted in Chennai in the early 1970s and has fond memories of working alongside Dakshinamoorthy, Adimoolam and Bhaskaran among others. "When I told my father I wanted to be an artist, he told me I would starve," he reminisces. Most artists in those days (in the 1950s) came from the lower classes, says Das. "When you couldn't get into regular college, you enrolled into art college. There was always a vacancy those days. Even girls who were not married, were sent to art college till a suitable match was found," he says. But that wasn't true of him or his friends Ganesh Pyne, Jogen Chowdhury or Bikash Bhattacharjee. For as long as he can remember, Das wanted to be an artist. A dream that he'd nurtured so passionately that he was thought to be skilled enough to join the second year straightaway. "That's another feather in my cap," he says.

His days of struggle

Here's an artist who won't whine about his days of struggle. He takes pride in them. "I would leave home at seven in the morning and I would return by midnight on the last tram." He worked hard, sometimes even sleeping at the stable (the fascination with horses is an old one), and through the holidays so that he could top the class and be eligible for scholarships, which he did get. He went on to win the National Award, the Shiromani Kala Puraskar, from the then President, Rajendra Prasad, while still in college. Till date, Das is the only artist to have done so. "The whole of Kolkata's art world celebrated. I even bought bran for the horses," he says.When Das won the Fellowship to study at Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, one of the first things he did was to buy a big cube of butter. "While in Kolkata, I used to get one anna to buy bread and butter for breakfast. For that much you only got a pat of homemade butter from the earthen pot, on a little piece of banana leaf. I remember these little rolls of butter packed in butter paper and stored inside a pot of water. I would think you must be a rich man to be able to afford that butter." So when he reached Paris, his first meal was a baguette with jelly that had an entire cube of butter. "With butter dripping from the sides, and on my face...It was my revenge." At 66, he remembers the moment with a childlike delight. If the arts and artists are seeing such good times, it's because life takes such turns. It was on his Fellowship that Das travelled to Spain and discovered the music, the arena, the handsome matadors and the drama that was bull fighting. In his arena, the bulls were always the winners. "At that time, they sold for 350 francs each. I lived like a king."Just back from Sri Lanka visiting a project he'd funded after the tsunami, the artist says he has enough money to spare. "Once I heard of this boy who couldn't continue his schooling because he couldn't pay his fees. I went to FM radio and said here's my phone number call me next time," he says. MEERA MOHANTY




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