Aug 21 2015

Indian Expressionist Painter Sunil Das Dies at 76

by Hanae Ko

Indian painter Sunil Das, who passed away on August 10, 2015. 

On August 10, Indian Expressionist painter Sunil Das died of a heart attack in Kolkata. He was 76 years old. A prominent post-modernist painter in India, Das rose to prominence with his dynamic depiction of horses, which he is said to have made in the thousands. An indefatigable artist, Das was known to freely move between styles, using not only brushes and pens, but also his fingers and the palm of his hands to create his paintings.

Sunil Das was born in 1939 to a middle-class family in Kolkata. After completing his secondary education he enrolled in the local Government College of Arts and Crafts, which he graduated in 1959. During his time there, Das became the only artist to have won India’s prestigious Shiromani Kala Puraskar award for arts and culture while still an undergraduate student. In 1961, he received a French government scholarship to study at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He spent three years in the French capital, where he studied graphic art under artists William Hayter and Krishna Reddy, and also trained as a painter at the prestigious Académie Julian and Atelier 17. While in Europe, Das also spent a few months in Spain, where he developed his life-long passion for horses and bulls after watching a series of bullfights.

Das was known to use soft brown, mauve and white for the background of his paintings to create dramatic contrast with the main subjects, which were often portrayed in stark blacks and whites. He used the art of suggestion and minimalist forms to produce melancholic depictions of horses and bulls, as well as mysterious female figures. In a statement on his website, Das described his artistic process thusly: “To express my authentic feelings about reality, I have to interpret it, I have conceptualize it. The previous reality gets transformed in the laboratory of minds. Then, I bring it out on the canvas.

Das’s paintings have been featured in several exhibitions, including a 2008 solo show at Kolkata’s Ganges Art gallery, as well as international festivals such as the Havana Biennial and São Paulo Biennial in 1989. His works are also part of the permanent collection of such institutions as the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, the Glenbarra Art Museum in Himeji, Japan, and the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, Germany.

Most recently, Das had been envisioning a project to build a space to nurture emerging artists. Late in life, Das, whose father had warned him that he would starve if he chose to make a living as a painter, had generously contributed a large portion of his savings to financially support artists in need. As an extension of such activities, Das had plans to create the Sunil Das Artist Guest House, which he had been discussing with his colleagues right up to the evening before his passing.

Commenting to the Times of India, filmmaker Arun Kumar Chakraborty—director of a yet-to-be-released documentary on Das—discussed Das’s dauntless outlook on life and, consequentially, death: “[Das] had wanted his body to kept sitting in a chair before his cremation. He was so full of energy that he never wanted to lie down even during his last journey.”

Hanae Ko is web and reviews editor at ArtAsiaPacific.