Somnath Hore: The artist-teacher who forever remained a student

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One of the many 'bronzes' created by Somnath Hore — a series of works he started making out of wax discarded by students of the sculpture department at Santiniketan | Courtesy: 'SOMNATH HORE', curated by KS Radhakrishnan, published by Arthshila Trust

Continued from Part 2.

Somnath Hore, one of the most prolific artists in the canon of Indian Modern Art, was not only an accomplished visual artist, but also a well-respected art teacher. 

After graduating from the Government College of Art & Craft, Calcutta, Somnath taught at the Indian College of Arts & Draftsmanship, Calcutta from 1954 onward. He left for Delhi in 1958, where he was appointed the head of the newly set-up printmaking section. He taught here for nine years, till 1967. During this time, he also taught at the MSU Baroda, as visiting faculty. In late 1967, Somnath joined Kala Bhavana, Santiniketan, as visiting faculty, and in 1969, joined as permanent faculty there as the head of its Printmaking department. In addition to these teaching stints, Somnath became a member of the Society of Contemporary Artists in 1960.

In this one individual then, we see the influence and intermingling — in addition to some rejection and resistance as well — of various streams of artmaking present in India in his time. Somnath Hore’s story isn’t just a story of an accomplished individual in visual art, but also of a fervent time in Modern Indian Art history, where interaction among teachers and students, as well as among fellow artists, was a key part in the collective development of a native tongue of the Modernist visual language.

Somnath Hore (first from right in the front row) seated among other prominent Indian art luminaries of his time, such as Zainul Abedin and Dinkar Kowshik | Courtesy: ‘SOMNATH HORE’, curated by KS Radhakrishnan, published by Arthshila Trust

For our research, we are deeply indebted to the book, ‘SOMNATH HORE’, curated by the eminent sculptor KS Radhakrishnan, and published by the Arthshila Trust. This painstakingly-compiled tome shows how Somnath was an integral part of an era when, especially in places like Santiniketan, institutional hierarchies in Indian art colleges had a fluidity to them, and an artist could live the life of a teacher, as well as that of a friend to the student, with relative ease, while simultaneously thriving in their art practice. At Santiniketan, in fact, Somnath wasn’t Somnath sir for students, but Somnath ‘da’ — an elder brother. 

Below, we look at a few interesting facets of Somnath Hore, the artist-cum-art teacher, through some recollections of his life in two prominent art institutions where he taught — the Art Department of the Delhi Polytechnic, now called the College of Art, Delhi; and the Kala Bhavana of Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan.

 

Invited by colleagues to join as teacher

In his essay, ‘My Concept of Art’, Somnath said that, “…in 1954, I accepted a low paid job at the Indian Art School, at the invitation of the artist Atul Bose…. A teacher can never inspire students merely through what he learnt during his instructions at college. His experiments during his creative work are what connect him to the thoughts and feelings of his surroundings each and every moment. This is why, despite the very low salary…I gladly accepted Mr. Atul Bose’s call; he had, of course, been one of my teachers at art college.”

Many paragraphs later, he said something similar about his Santiniketan stint as well. “I would…not have come to Santiniketan had I not been invited by my senior friend, Kowshik. And had he not been there, no one would have asked me to come.”

Both these recollections give us a picture of a person for whom personal relationships were an important part of his artistic life. While financial conditions must have been a key motivating factor for Somnath to become a teacher after graduation (there were very few art galleries in the country back then), the interaction with, and the interpersonal relationship with fellow artists was definitely an important part of his life as an artist. 

Somnath Hore (right), in a joyful mood with artist Sarbari Roy Choudhury (centre) and theatreperson Khaled Choudhury | Courtesy: ‘SOMNATH HORE’, curated by KS Radhakrishnan, published by Arthshila Trust

Experimentations in Delhi Polytechnic

In the same essay mentioned above, the artist fondly recalled enjoying the company of art stalwarts like BC Sanyal, Dinkar Kowshik, Sailoz Mukherjee and Dhanraj Bhagat, among others — all fellow art teachers at the Delhi Polytechnic (now College of Art, Delhi). 

Away from Bengal, and removed both in time and space from his Communist association (both he and his artist-wise Reba hadn’t renewed their Party membership in 1956), Somnath was now more reflective of his aesthetic concerns and made good use of the facilities available at the printmaking department to explore both medium and form.. 

KS Radhakrishnan, in his essay, ‘Man, Artist, Wound: Somnath Hore as I knew him’, comments, “If you see the intaglio ‘Ninth Symphony’, it is a product of nine plates with different gradations and colours, being registered one at a time, like different layers, on the paper.” Such innovations were possible because Somnath was free from the Communist agenda while in Delhi. While during his Calcutta days as a student, he had been surrounded by ‘progressive’ writers for whom progress entailed depicting the life of the downtrodden, here he was surrounded by ‘progressive’ visual artists for whom progress lay in unfettered experimentation with and exploration of the art medium itself, thereby pushing its boundaries without worrying much about the subject matter. 

‘Ninth Symphony’, print collage, Somnath Hore | Courtesy: ‘SOMNATH HORE’, curated by KS Radhakrishnan, published by Arthshila Trust

Somnath’s interactions with fellow artists, who were more in tune with the Modernist art world than his erstwhile Calcutta contemporaries, made him explore the formal aspects of image-making, rather than be fixated with the subject matter as in his Bengal days.

KS Radhakrishnan, in the aforementioned essay, states, “If you see the images dating to 1959-1960s, you can see the difference from the preceding work immediately. He is working a lot with etchings and aquatints now, some abstraction enters the images, you can see they are less realist now.

1962-1967 was a very rich and fertile period for Somnath Hore in terms of experimentation and new ideas. The colour intaglios he made are especially striking.”

A viscosity print created by Somnath Hore during his Delhi tenure | Courtesy: ‘SOMNATH HORE’, curated by KS Radhakrishnan, published by Arthshila Trust
An etching done by Somnath Hore during his Delhi tenure | Courtesy: ‘SOMNATH HORE’, curated by KS Radhakrishnan, published by Arthshila Trust
Colour intaglios done by Somnath Hore during his Delhi tenure | Courtesy: ‘SOMNATH HORE’, curated by KS Radhakrishnan, published by Arthshila Trust

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Also, Somnath was not only instrumental in setting up the printmaking department of the Delhi college as per his knowledge and learnings, but went a step further by introducing new methods that he encountered through a wider exposure to Modern art during his stay in the city. These methods and processes have become an integral part of that department today, thanks to his experimentations born out of curiosity. R. Siva Kumar, in his essay, ‘Somnath Hore: A Reclusive Socialist and an Ardent Modernist’, says, “The exhibition of Krishna Reddy’s coloured intaglios, printed at one go from a single relief-etched plate, held within a month of Somnath’s arrival in Delhi in 1958, …served as an inspiration and a challenge to him. Almost independently, with the help of books and trial and error, he not only learned to make multicoloured etchings from a single matrix in less than a year but also perfected it over the next few years.”

 

The artist-teacher at Santiniketan

The renowned sculptor KS Radhakrishnan was a student at Kala Bhavana when Somnath Hore was the head of the printmaking department there. While not a direct student of his, Radhakrishnan shared a special bond with Somnath ‘da’. He recollects in his essay, that “One of the marvellous aspects of learning at Kala Bhavana was that many teachers preferred to work among the students—it was simultaneously their art practice and their teaching…. Working together made for a fantastic atmosphere. We were exposed to all these evolved sensibilities and we absorbed so much.

As first year students, we did not learn under the masters directly but, for example, whenever I went to do printmaking, Somnath da would be there with the senior students…. The finished works of the teachers would be put up on the board just like those of the students. We soaked everything in.”

Somnath Hore on work at makeshift foundries at Santiniketan | Courtesy: ‘SOMNATH HORE’, curated by KS Radhakrishnan, published by Arthshila Trust

Radhakrishnan, in the same essay, goes on to elaborate on how he learned much from just observing the work ethic of Somnath Hore, “Somnath da never delegated work to any assistants; apart from having labourers help in melting and pouring the metal while casting the bronze, he did everything himself. That was the school of work he belonged to. As students we were lucky to benefit from a rare combination of a great artist and a great teacher who had so much integrity and commitment.”

 

The Teacher-Student

Somnath Hore’s output and exploration in his Delhi years is a testament to the fact that despite being assigned the role of a teacher in prestigious art colleges, he chose to continue to remain a student of the field. 

This studentship continued in his much later years in Santiniketan. Somnath wasn’t the type of teacher to restrict himself to the classroom or even to the confines of the studios of his department. Radhakrishnan recalls in his essay, “In 1974, Somnath Hore started experimenting with pieces of wax thrown away by students of sculpture at Kala Bhavana.” These pieces of wax would become Somnath’s body of small, palm-sized sculptures that he would refer to as his ‘bronzes’. Further, “…in 1975, …Somnath Hore started making his first ever sculpture. At this point, Sarbari Roy Chowdhury had created an excellent department of sculpture…. And Somnath da was inspired to work with wax. He started work on a nearly 3-foot sculpture…” In this way then, Somnath was very actively learning from others around him, while at the same time inventing his own methods to suit his artistic needs. This constant thriving to develop one’s own method is also reflected in something he had started making a few years earlier while in Santiniketan—his now-iconic ‘Wounds’ series of paper-pulp prints. That he would continue to develop new methods to suit his needs, reflects how Somnath was both an artist, a researcher and a student all at the same time, while diligently tending to his duties as an art teacher as well. 

‘Goat’, one of many small ‘bronzes’ by Somnath Hore | Courtesy: ‘SOMNATH HORE’, curated by KS Radhakrishnan, published by Arthshila Trust

Santiniketan also gave Somnath a renewed opportunity to interact with and learn from fellow senior art practitioners. While in Delhi he made good use of the company of urban Modernists, in Santiniketan he absorbed from reclusive luminaries such as Ramkinkar Baij and Benode Behari Mukherjee. 

Radhakrishan illuminates in his essay, “Despite all the varied work he had done, coming to Santiniketan in the presence of masters like Ramkinkar Baij and Benode Behari was a major influence on Somnath Hore.

There is a very eloquent photograph of him, standing deferentially in front of these two masters while they are taking out a print, which I think captures the larger scenario perfectly. In his mind he did stand like a student in front of them. And with his exposure to their art practice, his own focus and aesthetics changed.” 

Somnath Hore (in the dark shirt, vest visible) standing in reverence of the artist-teachers Ramkinkar Baij and Benode Behari Mukherjee | Courtesy: ‘SOMNATH HORE’, curated by KS Radhakrishnan, published by Arthshila Trust

But Somnath’s humility is reflected in his eagerness to learn from his students as well. Radhakrishnan, in his essay, recalls, “During all the years that I knew him, with his colleagues or even with a much younger artist like me, he would be full of questions—”How does one get this patina? What chemicals can be used?”—with no sense whatsoever of a senior artist talking to a younger one. It was because of this spirit and innovations that the printmaking departments he set up in Delhi as well as Santiniketan were some of the richest centres in the country.”

The generous Teacher-Friend

In his essay, Radhakrishnan narrates an interesting experience from his student days, where Somnath played a very important role in encouraging him not as an art student but as an artist. “One day, early in 1975, I had a woodcut printing class. I got myself a slab of wood, carved on it and took out a print. It was damp and I pinned it up on the soft board to dry…. I was in the canteen when I found that Somnath Hore, with a European gentleman by his side, was calling me. Apparently, he had seen the print and learned from the other students that it was my work. I went over. Somnath da’s companion was an Italian scholar and artist called Rosario. It seemed that Mr. Rosario had seen my print and wanted to buy it. I was astounded. 

Somnath da asked me what I would like to charge for the print. I said, “Somnath da, I have never sold anything in my life! I don’t even know what it is to earn money through this work. So if he likes it, he can just have it”. But Mr. Rosario took out a Rs 50 note and gave it to me. Somnath da gestured to me silently that I should take it, so I did. And then ran back to my friends!”

The teacher-student relationship in Santiniketan appears to have not been a very rigid one, evident by Radhakrishnan’s recollections of his time spent with teachers such as Somnath da, not in the capacity of a student, but in the role of a friend. He recollects in his essay, “…the university used to give studios to the professors to work in. Sarbari da [Sarbari Roy Choudhury] would work from home and his studio at Kala Bhavana lay unused. So he suggested that I use his studio when I wanted to work undisturbed. …Somnath da’s studio was on top of Sarbari da’s studio space and he used to work there a lot. So we met quite regularly as he came and went, and our interactions started growing. 

Somnath da became my friend—in a very special sense…. As I became more and more comfortable with the Bangla language and we kept meeting in the studio, he was happy to spend time with me and share some experiences of his life.

He would come down the stairs of the studio, and we would regularly sit under the evergreen Bokul tree (also called Moulsari) outside the building, just chatting informally. Often he would talk to me as if I was his contemporary, as if he had forgotten that I was a student….”

An etching gifted by Somnath Hore to Mimi and K.S. Radhakrishnan | Courtesy: ‘SOMNATH HORE’, curated by KS Radhakrishnan, published by Arthshila Trust

In Santiniketan, there existed an informal tradition of gifting of artworks by the artist-teachers to their students. KS Radhakrishnan’s wife, Mimi Radhakrishnan, was a student in the printmaking department headed by Somnath da.  Radhakrishnan recalls in his essay, “In one class, a young boy was seated in front of the students as a model, and Somnath da was explaining how they should draw a human body from a live model. In the course of his explanation, he completed the painting. Mimi said to him, “Somnath da, now that you have completed it why don’t you sign it too”. So he did. And he simply gave it to Mimi.” The artist-couple fondly call this piece the ‘Blue Boy’, owing to the heavy use of blue in it, and consider it a prized possession, given to them casually by their brother-teacher Somnath ‘da’.

Life study done for demonstration purposes and given to Mimi. Now called the ‘Blue Boy’ | Courtesy: ‘SOMNATH HORE’, curated by KS Radhakrishnan, published by Arthshila Trust

Sources:

  1. ‘SOMNATH HORE’, curated by KS Radhakrishnan, published by Arthshila Trust, 2021.
  2. saffronart.com
  3. aicongallery.com

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