Born in 1921, Somnath Hore has grown to be a widely known and well-celebrated visual artist of post-Independence India, and a staple name in the canon of Modern Indian Art. But why should a general art lover, or even a lay person, care to look at the works of this Modernist? Abir Pothi gives you ten reasons why:
1. Expanding the Expressionist language of drawing in the Indian art scenario:
There were two undercurrents prominent in the Bengal School: One of that of classical drawing, practised by the likes of Nandalal Bose, and the other of the expressionist style, pioneered by the likes of Ramkinkar Baij. Having already been involved with the Communist Party prior to his admission to art college, it is understandable why Somnath chose to develop the expressionist mode, suited to his depiction of the poor afflicted by famine and war.
This expressionism is visible not only in the lines of Somnath’s drawing, but also in the colours used as well as the brushwork. The colours in Somnath’s graphic works exist to evoke mood in order to depict subjective condition, rather than portray objective reality.
2. Embodying the Recluse mould of Santiniketan:
Not long after a stint in Delhi, Somnath Hore ended up going to Santiniketan, and joined as the Head of Department of Graphic Arts and Printmaking. Santiniketan had a significant impact on Somnath’s life as an artist.
As per KS Radhakrishnan in the book curated by him, ‘SOMNATH HORE’, published by Arthshila Trust, Hore “was reclusive and introverted, and very uncomfortable with public gatherings. He was only expressive in his art, otherwise he did not like talking about himself and shied away from the media.”
After nine years teaching, practising art, and living in Delhi, Hore said he “suddenly resigned from my job in Delhi…I was suffocating; I was finding the ambience of Delhi stifling. …I came to Santiniketan…. The external manifestations of the fast paced life of Delhi were absent here; but the unceasing flow of emotions fills the heart.”
It was perhaps this moving to the idyllic surroundings of Santiniketan that enabled Hore to create the very silent yet contemplative series of ‘Wounds’ later on.
3. The Printmaking pioneer and innovator:
For those not in the know, ‘Printmaking’, also known as “Graphics” at a time (before digital graphics took hold), is a process of drawing and painting on a surface and then taking its print, whereby that print becomes the artwork. Although a process started to facilitate making multiple copies of an artwork, printmaking has grown to be a method of artmaking in its own right over the centuries.
When it comes to counting printmaking masters of Indian contemporary art, Somnath Hore would definitely make the list. He created brilliant etchings and woodcuts, where he made very good use of the medium and infused his figures with a great deal of abstraction rooted in the use of the methods and tools employed in printmaking.
Hore constantly experimented with various printmaking mediums, and this culminated in the now iconic ‘Wounds’ series – which are paper casts, born out of his own experimentation with paper pulp. Not only are the works of this set original in their expression, but they are also a unique innovation in paper-casting and printmaking — wherein he combined papermaking with printmaking — born out of artistic desire.
4. A Social Realist:
Somnath was an artist who firmly believed that suffering was a cause of social reality, and not an existential condition unto itself. The art historian R. Siva Kumar, in his essay titled ‘Somnath Hore: A Reclusive Socialist and a Modernist Artist’, says, “human suffering was for him, as a Communist, not an existential predicament, into which we are all born (or a visitation or even a tool to know god as it was for Van Gogh), but something always socially engendered.”
This conviction had its roots in Hore’s personal confrontation with war and famine created by both the Allied and Axis forces in Chittagong, and in his membership of the Communist Party of India, which he joined at a young age. In fact, Somnath Hore’s artistic career could be said to have begun long before he even joined art college. Initially writing posters for the Communist Party, the first-hand experience of the suffering caused by war made Hore move to graphically documenting the famine-ravaged environment at the time, as well as to recording protest movements. It was actually his work from this period that gained him admission to Government Art College, Calcutta.
Hore became a follower of another, older artist who was graphically documenting the conditions of the underclasses at the time, Chittaprosad. The direct, raw, spontaneous drawings of Chittaprosad are reflected in Hore’s own drawings done for the Communist Party. A prominent example of this is his documentation of the Tebhaga Movement of 1946.
5. The anti-war protestor, speaking for the poor:
According to R. Siva Kumar, Somnath “first encountered the brutality of war in early 1942 when the Japanese bombed Chittagong…. This was followed by the even greater tribulations of the famine, caused…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…. Coming from a lower middle class family and with his father long dead, for Somnath the experience of deprivation was also personal.”
Not only did Somnath actively document the common people’s sufferings during his Communist Party year, he came back to this experience again and again throughout his long career. In his essay, ‘My Concept of Art’, Somnath stated, “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…. 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.”
6.Chittaprosad, Baij, Mukherjee, all synthesised into one:
While himself a dedicated practitioner of art, Somnath Hore had the good fortune of being surrounded by other Bengali artistic luminaries of his time, and imbibed their approach to art-making seamlessly.
Hore studied under the prolific printmaker Haren Das as student at the Government Art College, Calcutta, whereupon his stint with printmaking began. Later on he became the head of the Graphics and Printmaking Department at Santiniketan. He continued to stay in Santiniketan till his death. Here, he worked alongside prominent artist-teachers such as Ramkinkar Baij and Benode Behari Mukherjee, and owing to the culture of sharing and learning from each other, the influences of aesthetic and compositional influences of these pioneers could be seen in his work as well.
Somnath Hore was not only an innovator, but a good student of art as well, effortlessly combining the influences of German expressionism, Chinese socialist realism, and the various streams of artistic expression present in the Bengal of his time, especially at Santiniketan. In the works of this one artist alone then, many streams of artistic vision could be viewed together, synthesised seamlessly.
7. The Artist-teacher
In the pre-Liberalization era, the Indian art college used to be a unique hub where students and teachers used to learn from each other. This was evident in the environment of Santiniketan, for instance, where the teachers used the campus for creating art as much as the students did, and would display their works on its walls alongside the works of their pupils.
So while his teachers’ voice could be found in his art practice, Somnath Hore in turn influenced generations to follow, through his own teaching.
In 1958, Hore became the Head of the Graphics Division in the Art Department of the Delhi Polytechnic. This Department would later become the College of Art, Delhi. Somnath spent 9 years in this position, and continued to experiment both with style and medium. Later on, Somnath joined Santiniketan as teacher, again as the Head of the printmaking department of the college.
While Hore was responsible for setting up an entirely new department in Delhi — no mean task — he significantly added to the legacy of the printmaking department at Santiniketan. The interactions he had with his students at both these places, must have been immensely valuable, carried out in the form of regular in-person transfer of knowledge from a prolific artist-teacher to the emerging art practitioners.
8. Wounds: A humanist Abstraction, and an Expressionist move away from Expressionism
The Wounds series mentioned earlier, was not only an innovative method for printmaking, but also a stylistic departure that enabled Somnath Hore to shift away from the figuration he had used in his artistic career up to that point, and begin abstraction. What is interesting though is that even though his visual language changed, his artistic preoccupation remained the same: that of the suffering of the downtrodden. Few artists have been able to so effortlessly move from one visual language, while conveying the same subject matter as before.
It’s not as if Hore hadn’t indulged in abstraction before, but his earlier abstract works had the human figure as a central element. The Wounds series, however, does away with the figure completely, and what remains is a bunch of marks embossed on paper, evocative of the figure in its absence.
What is of peculiar significance is that Somnath arrived at this starkly silent series after a long career of expressionist drawings. In “My Concept of Art”, Somnath stated that his stay in Delhi, away from Bengal, made him reflect more on the “aesthetics of artistic creation.” He said, “Sentimentality creates a barrier to the delineation of the emotional theme. This tendency was particularly noticeable in the work of some of the weaker members of the Bengal School. For personal and political reasons, I too fell prey to this tendency.”
Hore’s later disdain for sentimentality is evident in his Wounds series, where the emotional response is evoked not through heightened scratchings of the etching needle, but via silent, wound-like indentations on the surface of blank, white paper.
9. The Expressionist sculptor!
While the artist is well known for his drawings, prints and his paper-pulp Wounds series, few might be aware of his sculptures that take after his expressionistic drawings. In the same way that Alberto Giacometti was a Modernist sculptor who managed to capture the gist of his sculptural practice in his paintings, Hore was a Modernist graphic artist who managed to capture the essence of his drawings effortlessly in his three-dimensional figures.
10. Refusal to accept Padma Shri, followed by a posthumous Padma Bhushan
Padma Bhushan, the third-highest civilian honour given by the Government of India, was conferred to Somnath Hore posthumously, a feat accomplished by few Indian artists. This goes to show both the respect of the Artist fraternity as well as the Indian government, for this towering Indian Modernist.
However, Hore was to be given another prominent State award much before this. As per R. Siva Kumar, the artist had refused the Padma Shri being given to him during his lifetime, as he did not want to accept a state award. This refusal goes to show the conviction that Hore had in his beliefs, rooted in him being a witness to the State atrocities towards his people during the Second World War and the Famine that ensued as a result.
Continued in Part 2.