Somnath Hore: Chronicling Pain

The artist’s exhibition, titled Birth of a White Rose, is on view at Delhi’s KNMA till September 30

Somnath Hore: Chronicling Pain
Images from Somnath Hore's exhibition - Birth of a White Rose

New Delhi: Chronicling 101 years of the Chittagong (present-day Bangladesh)-born artist Somnath Hore’s life, Delhi-based Kiran Nadar Museum of Arts (KNMA) has mounted an impressive exhibition of his works across different phases of his life. A huge chunk of the exhibition largely stems from his depiction of the Bengal famine of 1943 and the peasant movement, known as the Tebhaga movement of 1946. In fact, the title of the exhibition - Birth of a White Rose – draws from the artist’s iconic work of the same name, which received the Lalit Kala Akademi National Award in 1962. The seminal exhibition at the KNMA is on view till September 30 and presents an array of Hore’s artistic oeuvre - from prints and printing plates to paintings and bronze sculptures.

The term ‘lost in the pages of time’, perhaps holds true for Hore’s phenomenal oeuvre. While his compatriots – the likes of VS Gaitonde, SH Raza, FN Souza, MF Husain and more – have long shown bright in the artistic world, Hore has unfortunately been relegated to the wings. Hore’s artistic spirit and aesthetic idioms find similarities with Austrian artist Oskar Kokoschka, who like Hore was also a poet and teacher and like him is known for his intense expressionistic portraits. Another artist Hore found similarities with is German artist Käthe Kollwitz who is also known as a sculptor and printmaker of note.

“Hore internalised the crux of socialist values and transmuted them into a visual language—lucid, tangible and comprehensible to the masses. His works from various phases in diverse mediums were markers of the volatile times that the artist lived through,” says curator Roobina Karode, adding, “Chronicling societal dynamics by observing class conflicts and the violence around, they were contemporary to a transformative cultural juncture when literature, theatre, cinema and other creative expressions in Bengal were touching crescendo.”

A look at the exhibition at KNMA lays bare the pain that Hore felt during his time. Skeletal forms, sunken eyes, bare-bodied wiry forms with hunger, pain and hopelessness writ in the eyes… The artist’s canvas is one filled with pain and despair. Darkness engulfs each work. It’s not a picturesque village canvas that one sees, or delicately moulded sculptures full of life and light. The forms in the canvas, prints and sculptors are aching for hope. The manmade Bengal Famine of 1943, the peasant unrest (Tebagha movement) of the mid-1940s, the Partition in 1947 and the resulting migration from the east of Bengal, and the two-decade-long Vietnam War ending in the 1970s all find resonance in his work. Each artwork forces you to face the dark side. And once you do, it is difficult to tear your eyes away from it.

Hore was an artist of hardship. He did not have time for the superficial beauty of life. Rather, he delved into the dark underbelly. In chronicling the raw pain of the Bengal famine, Hore follows in the footsteps of his Government College of Art, Calcutta, teacher, the Bangladeshi painter Zainul Abedin. Hore, along with Abedin and his friend and mentor Chittaprosad Bhattacharya, a political artist who like Hore used prints to disseminate leftist ideas, distanced himself from European academicism and the lyricism of Bengal and Santiniketan schools. His practice revolved around social realism as well as humanistic modernism.

“Hore tried to capture the daily struggles for survival and dignity in fast-paced documentative sketches. Some of these drawings were published in the Communist Party magazine Janajuddha (People’s War), along with his diary entries and sketches of the Tebhaga movement. The expressive nuances of the faces with anatomical details, depicting intense moments of mass gatherings, established his unique style from this phase. Many of these drawings were transferred to woodcut prints in the 1950s,” says Karode.

In fact, Hore’s relationship with the Communist Left was a long-standing one. It was with the help of the Communist Party that the artist finally managed to find a space in the Art College in Kolkata. His sketches and prints continued to make their way into the Left literature. During a particularly hard time for the Communist Party – when the political outfit was banned – Hore had to leave his studies at the Art College mid-way and go underground fearing arrest. He was that rare modernist who effortlessly combined art, politics and awareness.

Hore moved primarily from sketches to printmaking after he took up a teaching job at Delhi Polytechnic which later became the College of Art, Delhi and later at Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan where he mentored generations of art students and artists. At Delhi Polytechnic, Hore was instrumental in setting up the printmaking department, a passion he carried forward to Santinektan when he set up the department of graphics. The passion he had for printmaking was long abiding. Hore was first drawn to printmaking when he came across Japanese wood engravings during his Art College days. Even though he continued his practice of sketches, he would keep returning to printmaking every now and then.

“He is also known for his versatile handling of a wide range of mediums such as oil on canvases, drawings in watercolour and crayons, different methods and techniques of printmaking and bronze cast sculptures—a versatility that has been highlighted through the works displayed at KNMA. Metal plates that he used for taking prints, diaries, lithographs, woodcuts and etchings are some of the attractions of the show,” Karode signs off.