Continued from Part 1.
Early to mid-twentieth century Bengal produced some very fervent artistic developments. Whether it was through the Revivalism pioneered by Abanindranath Tagore, or the Modernism embraced by the Government School of Art, Calcutta, visual art in Bengal gained from such different undercurrents. One undercurrent that had its roots outside the art college though, was that of an expressionism that took birth outside college grounds, in the form of members of the Communist Party drawing posters for its rallies.
One young individual who was making these posters, would go on to become one of the pioneering printmakers of the country, as well as a prominent visual artist, dabbling in painting and sculpture as well. This young man was Somnath Hore, whose artistic journey didn’t begin in an art college, but rather in Communist Party rallies.
Somnath Hore, just like many other agitated Bengali youth of his time, joined the Communist Party of India at a young age. And just like many others, he too made posters for the Party’s protests. There was a particular incident, however, that made him turn from poster-making to visual documentation through live sketching and drawing.
According to the art historian R. Siva Kumar, in his essay titled ‘Somnath Hore: A Reclusive Socialist and an Ardent Modernist’, Somnath “first encountered the brutality of war in early 1942 when the Japanese bombed Chittagong, which left behind a trail of devastation and death. This was followed by the even greater tribulations of the famine, caused not by a shortfall in food production as much as by misgovernance; by governmental hoarding of grains for military use and the scorched-Earth policy adopted by the Allied forces in an effort to stem a possible Axis invasion through Burma. It was a famine that could have been avoided but ended up taking, according to some estimates, as many lives as Auschwitz. The suffering it caused was even more immense than that caused by the war and on top of it the perpetrators were unwilling to even acknowledge that it existed. Coming from a lower middle class family and with his father long dead, for Somnath the experience of deprivation was also personal. This made documenting it an urgent need for young Somnath who was by then an activist, and he turned his raw artistic talent towards it.”
As per R. Siva Kumar, Somnath’s first foray into picture-making at this time was that of making larger copies of images that appeared in the Party organs. These enlarged copies were then circulated as posters. From copying other artists’ images, he soon turned to graphically documenting the famine in Chittagong.
Move to Calcutta
Some of Somnath’s live drawings during the famine, got included in the Janayuddha and People’s War — two periodicals published by the Communist Party of India, that were instrumental in exposing the sluggish response of the British Government of India towards the famine in Bengal.
This inclusion in the Party magazines proved to be a stroke of success for Somnath, as his drawings caught the eyes of the Party functionaries. They convinced him to move to Calcutta (now Kolkata) as a full-time Party worker. Soon thereafter, the Party helped Hore gain admission to the government art college of Calcutta (the ‘Government College of Art & Craft in Kolkata today) in 1945. Here, Somnath would hone his artistic skills further, and had the good fortune of studying under the Graphics department head Haren Das. This education not only enhanced his visual language, but also gave him good exposure to the medium of printmaking — a medium he would contribute immensely to through the rest of his career.
Chittaprosad and Zainul Abedin: Two prominent teachers of the Communist mould
During the live sketching days mentioned earlier, Hore was fortunate to receive the guidance and mentorship of a luminary who was documenting the same and was living in his city, Chittagong at the time: Chittaprosad.
Somnath stated that “Chittaprosad took me virtually by the hand and guided and encouraged me to draw portraits of the hungry, sick, and dying people. Whenever he was in Chittagong, he gave me company. From morning till evening I used to accompany him on his rounds. He initiated me into directly sketching the people I saw on streets and hospitals. With my untrained hand, I toddled from page to page.” (Source: Wounds by Somnath Hore, Readings: Somnath Hore, Lalit Kala Akademi; paraphrased from prinseps.com).
So while an art student generally learns to sketch for the purpose of honing their academic skills, Somnath was sketching to produce live documents of the famine surrounding him. With the help of Chittaprosad, he learned how to capture on the spot, the glimpses he saw in front of him. Somnath in this way became an artist who learned while doing. The sketch was the finished work in these visual documentations and diaries.
Another luminary Somnath had the privilege of learning from was the prominent artist-teacher at the Calcutta art college, Zainul Abedin. Unlike Chittaprosad and Somnath, Zainul was not a member of any Communist Party. He was, however, another key artist who recorded the Bengal Famine with his brush. While Chittaprosad helped in igniting the flame in Somnath, it was the contact with Zainul that made him hone his draftsmanship after coming across the academically sound works of Abedin. Somnath’s work after this period demonstrates this improvement through both technique and composition.
Somnath Hore’s Communist foundation explains the visual language that he imbibed and fostered as an artist throughout his career: that of Expressionism. Hore had seen the work of German Expressionists like Kathe Kollwitz in his youth. Also, drawing the sufferings of the famine-afflicted first-hand, must have necessitated an expressionist use of drawing tools, instead of worrying too much about academic correctness. Somnath’s first artist-mentor, Chittaprosad, was a self-taught artist, and in his quick visual recordings as well, one can see the expressionist mode of drawing in action. And while Zainul Abedin was an academically trained artist, his recording of the famine victims show an expressionistic use of brush strokes, visible in the expressiveness of the lines delineating his figures.
Hore’s expressionism is visible in works such as those comprising the Tebhaga series. The Tebhaga (sharing by thirds) movement was a peasant agitation in Bengal during 1946 and 1947, with the demand of reducing the landlords’ share of land to one-third. Somnath, while a student at the art college, was sent by the Communist Party to north Bengal to document this movement. Like the famine, Somnath took to recording this movement with much zeal. And like many of his works, the drawings in this series contain scribbles that not only model the figures and objects represented, but also reflect the urgency behind the documentation. Equally impressive are the woodcuts he produced as part of this visual documentation. While Chittaprosad’s expressionism had been pronounced in the criss-crossings of his lines, Somnath’s expressionism was quieter at this stage, and would become more jagged in later years.
Above: Somnath Hore’s Tebhaga drawings and wood engravings | Courtesy: Seagull Books and Arthshila Trust
Always going back to “The Subject”—of the helpless and the hungry
After more than a decade in Calcutta, Hore moved to Delhi in 1958 to join the Delhi Polytechnic’s Art Department (Now the College of Art, Delhi) as the Head of its newly established Graphics (Printmaking) Division.
Somnath recalled, in his essay titled ‘My Concept of Art’, that “During my stay in Delhi I tried to free myself of subject matter; but The Subject never let go of me. Quite unbeknownst to me, the wounds of the 1943 famine, the inhumanity of war, the horrors of the communal riots, all these were inscribing themselves into my techniques of drawing. I would work without any preconceived notions as I chiselled the wood for my wood cuts, as I marked the metal with acid; later however, all those innumerable cuts and marks would bring intimations of only one subject matter—the helpless around us, the rejected, the hungry. The chalk that had crossed my fingers to reach my heart when I sketched the victims of famine left a wound that would not heal.”
After teaching in Delhi for nine years, and shifting back to Calcutta after that, Somnath would join Santiniketan in 1969. He would stay in Santiniketan till his death, and would continue to draw, paint, print and sculpt the condition of the poor and the destitute, long after leaving the Party in 1956.