I have always loved the mad eyes and wild postures of a Sunil Das bull. But bidding for it at auction didn't feel right for the times we are in
Sunil Das rose to prominence painting horses, creating close to 7,000 between 1950-60. One of India’s most significant post-modernist painters—he remains the only Indian artist to have won a National Award while still an undergraduate art student—it was after a visit to Spain in 1962 that he shifted his fixation to bulls.
A Sunil Das bull is an alluring creature. In black watercolour, pencil or charcoal on paper—sometimes, with a hint of tomato red—the bulls leap vertiginously in their frames, leaving lines of motion on paper. Das won a scholarship to the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris but before that, he studied sculpture at Santiniketan. And indeed, there is something three-dimensional about his modestly-sized bulls.
Das died in 2015. I never had the chance to meet him in my years as an art journalist but various profiles paint him as a man of great energy. He might be the only Indian artist I know of who described himself as a “good sports man"; he liked “things which have a lot of rhythm and energy". An obituary in The Times Of India quotes his biographer Arun Kumar Chakraborty saying Das had instructed his friends to keep his body 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."
Das’ bulls are full of energy. I have always loved their mad eyes, their wild postures and their stubbornness in refusing to be still. And I have always wanted one in my living room. I must have spoken about this enough times because last week a friend messaged me when a Sunil Das bull was up for auction on the StoryLTD online platform: “I was going to bid on something and thought of you." The friend is a seasoned collector and proceeded to send bursts of information and advice my way: There was no reserve price on this auction lot, the current bid was low, it was a good work, I must read the fine print on percentages before parting with any money. “Let me know if you need advice closer to the time." The estimated price was low, at ₹1.5-2 lakh, and the current bid was even lower, at ₹66,000. His big tip was to wait till the very end to bid.
Fortified by his encouragement and by the current bid, I registered on the site and told people around me this would be my birthday gift to myself. I have purchased nothing apart from groceries and a variety of house-cleaning equipment over the past month. Further justifications involved my zodiac sign, a bull. This was meant for me. And how thoughtful of my friend to send this my way.
I take his advice to wait till the very end. I set a cut-off for myself and the bid is still way below the cut-off. As I wait, a Ketto ad with a mother and infant pops up on my screen. In the last 10 minutes of the auction, the bids rise rapidly (clearly, everyone has the same strategy). When it crosses my cut-off, I consult my husband, who says I should still go for it (I suspect this is to make himself feel less guilty about not being able to organize a proper birthday celebration, as is his duty). I wait. More Ketto ads. Among my email alerts, a donation receipt from FeedMyMumbai. I text my friend that I feel guilty doing this in the times of covid. He says we all need some charity. “It’s called feel good."
In the end, though, I was unable to do it. I don’t know if it was the timing of the donation receipt which said it saluted donors. It said donors made them proud, grateful, it set an example. It mentioned blessings and prayers.
I might never get as good a deal on a Sunil Das bull again. I have tried in the past: Enquiries through another art dealer friend a couple of years ago had led to some unimpressive, tired ones. In examining why I didn’t close, I realized it’s also to do with why I have always wanted a Sunil Das bull in the first place.
In stock market terminology, the origin of the term “bullish" comes from the act of a bull striking upward with its horns, correlated to the upward trend in the stock market. “Bearish" comes from the act of a bear striking down with its paws, correlated to the downward trend in the stock market. The bears and bulls pull in opposite directions. A bull isn’t stronger than a bear or vice versa. It is simply about different strategies, and about the right strategy for the right time.
This Sunil Das bull, with its attendant motion and madness, leaping with such power that half its body is air, just didn’t feel right for the times we are in. I wasn’t feeling bullish.