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The unhealing wound: The works of Somnath Hore

Ninth Symphony, 1962, Print Collage  

What I draw is the unfolding of my being — which in my case is inscribed as ‘wounds’.

— Somnath Hore

Draupadi is a lonely old woman. The world marvelled at her tribulations and moved on, the storytellers killed her off once her narrative had served its purpose. But she seems to have one friend left, as she sits on the ground, supporting her head, supporting a lifetime of pain, on a thin bronze arm. There is someone who is faithfully recording her exhaustion.

Distilled pain

When he sculpts, a child clings to its mother’s breast though it is not clear if she has any life left to share with him. When he etches, young human bodies become an agglomeration of sharply defined ribs, vanishing limbs, and that bloated belly which is a cruel paradoxical marker of a starving stomach. The older bodies simply lie, skeletal and supine, powerless to rise. It is as if the artist has seen Draupadi being exiled, disrobed, humiliated, rendered destitute, witnessing her children getting killed, again and again. And in his own way, he has.

Somnath Hore — born on April 13, 1921, in Barama, Chittagong — was 22 when he saw the Japanese bombing of Chittagong in 1942. He was 23 when the devastating Bengal famine — and the wartime policies of the colonial government — caused the

displacement and death of around three million people the next year. Much of his life, the young boy had drawn images copied from magazines and books, wonder-struck by the talent of unknown artists. Now, he found himself taught by the Communist artist Chittaprasad on how to portray the brutal suffering and starvation around them, such that the drawings could be reproduced in party organs and posters.

At the other end of the scale, he found inspiration and hope when he documented and sketched the Bengal sharecroppers’ uprising, called the Tebhaga movement, in 1946, and the tea garden workers’ protests.

Hore never forgot these early lessons, though his understanding matured and took new shapes as he witnessed history unfolding around him: Communal massacres, the exodus of refugees, Partition, the Vietnam war, the shadow of nuclear destruction, the genocide in Bangladesh, the troubled and violent Naxalite years, the bitter and violent falling out among old comrades... All became distilled in the concept of ‘wounds’, which were, in his words, “intimations of only one subject matter — the helpless around us, the rejected, the hungry... a wound that would not heal”.

Spiritual home

The technical and experimental journey of the artist as he gave form to these concerns is remarkable. Though initially, Hore was introduced to printmaking — mainly woodcuts and linocuts — as a means to mass-produce images for the Communist party, in the 50s he came to see it as an artistic pursuit in its own right. Printmaking was not as well developed an art in India as in the West, and there weren’t many references for him to use.

In the 1950s and 60s, especially after taking charge of the printmaking department at the Delhi Polytechnic in 1958, he kept expanding his horizons. He moved from relief prints to the ‘intaglio’ processes of etching, engraving and aquatints. He mastered the new viscosity process (in which you apply different processes and coloured inks to the same metal plate) by reading and experimenting. He was something of a pioneer in the field in India.

Even as exploitation, injustice and suffering remained a steady theme, Hore moved away from figurative representations to more abstract depictions. Despite his creative flourishing, he left Delhi in 1967, feeling stifled by its “success-oriented attitude”. In 1968, he took charge of the printmaking department at Kala Bhavana in Shantiniketan, where he finally found his spiritual home, and lived there till the end.

At Shantiniketan, the presence of the masters Benode Behari Mukherjee and Ramkinkar Baij was a crucial influence on Hore. In them, he found a template for a committed art practice, away from the patronage networks of commercial art. Sculptor K.S. Radhakrishnan narrates how Hore once caught a train to visit Delhi, but returned midway. He was reluctant to hold exhibitions, generously gifted his artwork to students, lived in a mud house near a pond after retirement, and refused the Padma Shri (though he was honoured with a posthumous Padma Bhushan in 2015).

Luminous clarity

In the early 70s, Hore’s practice of distilling human suffering into prints reached a stage of luminous clarity. He started making white-on-white paper pulp prints from clay or wax sheets that he slashed and lacerated. These were ‘wounds,’ he said: “The ruts left on the road by wheels, the cut from the axe on the side of the tree, the injuries on the human body left by weapons.” With this work, he moved on from depicting human or animal figures as objects of suffering and was now making himself, and us, participate in the suffering itself. We were face to face with the wound, where would we turn away now?

Around 1974, Hore started playing with the wax thrown away by students of Kala Bhavana’s sculpting department, and made forays into waxwork and bronze casting. In 1975, moved by the Vietnam war, he embarked on his first formal sculpture — a nearly 3-feet high depiction of a mother and child. To his utter shock, the work was stolen, possibly destroyed, and never found again. It was a violent blow to the artist’s spirit. He gave up sculpting for a while and never made any piece at that scale again.

In the 80s, when he did return to sculpting, Hore changed its meaning and language fearlessly. He would take sheets of wax and mould them with his fingers, creating intimate, emotional, palm-sized pieces with rough textures, unfinished surfaces, gaping spaces (“...armed with sheets of beeswax, I carry on with my endless investigations of the same subject”). You could look into and through these bodies. He even retained the conduits by which molten metal is poured onto the wax, which other artists remove, turning these appendages into stick-like limbs for his figures.

Sculptors make moulds of their original work so that copies can be made. But Hore directly cast his waxwork into bronze, such that each piece was a unique creation. This intimacy and directness of process was perfectly appropriate for, indeed it emerged from, his utter involvement with the wounds he was carving. He did not even call them ‘sculpture,’ simply referring to them as bronzes. “They have no weight, no substance and no dimensions: all they have is the aspect of wounds. However, the wind can pass freely through these figures,” he said. Hore thought of his bronzes as ‘wounds’ too, because: “As long as there is exploitation, the problem of ending it remains”.

Hore sculpted as long as he could, responding even to India’s nuclear testing at Pokhran. “During the final years of his life... as if in a final act of empathy”, says art historian R. Siva Kumar, “he came to resemble his own sculptures of wounded and suffering men.”

And yet, was the artist a joyless, grieving man? Of course not. “I do enjoy working,” he had written. “I have never experienced the lack of joy... irrespective of what subject matter a work of art is grounded in, the very act of creation removes an artist to a different world.” He worked, as palpably evident in his art, “much like the songbird is overcome when the need to sing arises”. And what he could not help but sing about was the wound.

The author is a Delhi-based writer and photographer. All images are from the forthcoming book, Somnath Hore, curated by K.S. Radhakrishnan and produced by Takshila Museum of Art.


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