“I paint only what comes naturally to me,” says HR Das about his art. It is a matter-of-fact statement, but one which reveals its true depth as you begin to take a closer look at Das’s work and life.
For the past several years, Das has been painting farm animals, predominantly bulls, set in vast spaces. Acrylic on large canvasses, the bulls are gorgeous, technicolour and powerful, and capture an earthy energy, which tired cities cannot contain.
Das, who now lives and works in Mumbai, says the animals are a metaphor for his own longing for the villages in which he grew up and first discovered his lifetime love for art. “When I first came to Mumbai in 2006, I missed everything. Sitting with friends by a field and quietly painting. The large space, the silence available to us,” he says with a laugh. “Those things are a luxury in places like Mumbai.” Whether they have ever lived in a village, city-dwellers like us, packed in the multi-storeyed apartment blocks of metropolises, will immediately get what Das is talking about. The yearning for space, so keen it is almost a physical pain.
Das’s animals, suspended in a joyous primary riot of red, yellow and cobalt blue, express both that longing and its end. The city-dweller forever trapped in wanderlust, the village boy finally returning home.
HR Das was born in 1972 in Burdwan district of West Bengal in an artistically inclined family. “My father played music in his spare time, and my uncle loved to paint and dance,” says Das. Exposed to an artistic environment early on, Das found himself natural turning to painting to express himself. But the pressure of having a seemingly more “viable” career had him studying science in school. “My grandfather was a doctor and thought I should be one too,” Das explains. Once it became obvious the young man had little interest in science, his family relented and he enrolled for a B.F.A from the Indira Kala Sangeet Vishwavidyalaya in Khairagarh, Chattisgarh.
“Kahiragarh was wonderful,” says Das. “It was a small town in the middle of nowhere, and we were surrounded by nature.” Das spent many hours sketching in the countryside with his friends, a memory he still cherishes.
After the pastoral idyll of Khairagarh, Mumbai came as a shock. “I moved to Mumbai for work in 2002,” Das says. “And immediately I felt overwhelmed by the crowds, the pace of life. And one of the feelings which stuck around was this feeling that I had been caged in a zoo.”
And that’s when he began to paint landscapes and animals on the side while working as a muralist for interior design companies to pay the bills. Working with rural landscapes freed him as an artist. “I dropped the figurative pieces and the portraits I was forcing myself to do till now. You can say I finally found my muse,” he says. By 2007, he had solo shows at the Bajaj Art Gallery and the Art Entrance in Mumbai. And he could finally quit his day job to work as a professional artist.
Das’s paintings of bulls, cows and calves, present a picture of his own interior landscape. The rustic canvasses represent the space and harmony of the villages, and the animals are his own free spirit.
“I began to paint animals because I could identify with them more once I was in the city, how bewildered must they feel in zoos with the crowds around them,” says Das. But looking at his artwork, there is another evident reason for his preoccupation with the once ubiquitous animals of the Indian countryside. It is important to note that Das doesn’t paint wild or exotic animals, some of which, like the tiger or peacock are more flamboyant subjects. What he has spent over a decade on instead is the humble bull, often yoked by the nostrils.
Why the bull? And why yoked bulls? Perhaps because the farm animals represent a harmony between man, industry, nature and animals, a continuum fading fast and almost lost. And the bulls are yoked because they are not abstract figures in a vacuum, they are real bulls found on farms; whose work is not the drudgery we assume, but creative labour linked with soil and crops.
“Who cares about farm animals now?” rues Das. “Especially bulls, they are becoming redundant in villages too. They are disappearing. It is something that troubles me a lot. Even back home in my village, households now have only the one token animal.”
In that, Das’ bull is both a symbol of the Nandi of Hindu mythology, a gorgeous engine of power, as well as a living relic, an icon of a whole way of life becoming extinct. He represents a time when the borders between “Human” and “Animal” were more fluid. Tellingly, Das’s exhibitions are often titled “Love” and “Affection,” with portraits of calves snuggling up to their mothers. “I transfer human expressions to animals,” Das says, “I don’t see the difference between showing a human’s loving face and that of an animal. Often, people tell me I should draw other things, maybe try figurative themes. But I only paint what comes naturally, organically to me.”
And that’s when the full meaning of his first statement becomes clear; it is not just his approach as an artist he is talking about; Das chooses to paint naturally because he is at home in the natural world.