by Ranjan Kaul
In today’s turbulent times when even the most basic human values are getting violated and we are questioning the nature of civilizational progress and development, the ongoing retrospective of Somnath Hore (1921-2006) at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Saket, New Delhi, titled Birth of a White Rose (named after his award-winning print he created in 1962) is of immediate relevance. Born in Chittagong (now in Bangladesh), Somnath received a diploma in printmaking from the Government College of Art and Craft, Calcutta (now Kolkata), and by the 1960s he was regarded as one of the premier Indian printmakers. During his early years as an artist, he became closely associated with the (then undivided) Communist Party of India (CPI) and was considerably influenced by the political artist Chittaprosad Bhattacharya. Distancing himself from political activity, he shifted to Delhi where he helped set up the Printmaking Department at the Delhi Polytechnic. Thereafter, he lived most of his later life at Santiniketan where he taught at Kala Bhavana, the art faculty of Visva Bharati University.
Gallery view at the exhibition entrance (photo by Ranjan Kaul)
More gallery views
This exhibition traces Somnath’s six decades of humanist art-making – from social realism and expressionism stemming from the socialist idealism of an egalitarian society that influenced the early phases of his career as an artist and a communist activist to his later phases when he evolved a unique style of simplified figural representation and reductionism. His early drawings and prints chronicled the social unrest and class conflicts in twentieth-century Bengal and reflected his anguish over the Vietnam war. Just as Chittaprosad documented the Bengal Famine in the form of an illustrated report, Hungry Bengal, based on a tour of Midnapur District in 1943, so did Somnath visually document and report the appalling famine for the communist party magazine Jannayuddha. However, his real coming of age as an artist came about in the early 1950s with his series of drawings and woodcuts of the Tebhaga movement of 1946.
When he moved to Delhi and later to Santiniketan he gradually embraced modernism as a genre to explore his art, while retaining the vision and human values, which stemmed from his witnessing the misery of poverty, hunger and human struggle in his early years. As his art evolved, his drawings and figurative forms became simplified and reductionist, retaining what he regarded as the essentials. Thus emerged his unique expressionist style of contorted and suffering figures using line and form.
Roobina Karode eloquently sums up Somnath’s contribution to Indian art in her curatorial note, elucidating the choice of title for the show, “His art practice indeed is that rare and solitary white rose blooming in dark times, a nocturnal flower promising the arrival of dawn.” Birth of a White Rose (1961) was one of his early etching prints. The whiteness and fragrance of the white flower emerges from bleak and dismal dark times – represented by the broken cities, the prickly plants, the sluggish green water body – dispelling the darkness and putridity. The work offered a glimmer of hope, acting like a soothing balm, a healing, to alleviate his own anguish.
Birth of a White Rose, Variation print, 1971, 19.75” x 17.2"
Left: CP Rally, Oil on canvas, 1955; Right: Howrah station, Oil on canvas (photos by Ranjan Kaul)
Early works of social realism in woodcut (photo by Ranjan Kaul)
Left: The Savage, 1975; Right: Untitled, 1977
One of the earliest works on display, CP Rally (1955), is an impressionist painting on canvas of a political gathering with fluttering red flags. As mentioned earlier, he worked on a series of drawings to document the Tebhaga movement for the CPI magazine, Janajuddha; later, he transmuted a few of them into woodcut prints. Led by the peasant wing of the CPI which drew support of the sharecroppers (bhagidars) of rural Bengal, the Tebhaga movement was an uprising in the mid-1940s against the jotedars (the newly rich rural peasantry), which challenged the prevailing system of sharecropping. His early works show the influence of social realism and German expressionism, specifically the German printmaker Käthe Kollwitz and Austrian painter Oskar Kokoschka. He also experimented with cubism in his early phase; for instance, the fierce-looking work, The Savage (1975), and the Untitled work of a woman biting into an apple ferociously (1977) (see the images above) where the cubist influence is apparent.
Tebhagha drawings and woodcut print on paper (Photos by Ranjan Kaul)
The impact of hunger and poverty on the human spirit would remain a recurring theme in Somnath’s works. In one untitled dark woodcut on display (see below), the hands hold an elongated form of a woman’s swollen belly of hunger; another work again uses the elongated human form and stark use of black and white to depict the human predicament. Using minimal strokes and deliberation abstraction, many of his works are graphic and expressive, using abstracted human forms or subjects such as mother-child. Somnath studied animal forms and later used them as expressive artistic devices and motifs for his bronze sculptures such as the work of a cow and in another case the translated version of his lithograph titled Dogs, depicting them mating, as can be seen in his untitled bronze work, Maithun.
Left: Untitled, Woodcut on paper, 1973; Right: Untitled, Woodcut on rice paper pasted on paper
(photos by Ranjan Kaul)
Untitled, Lithograph, 1977
Left: Untitled (cow), Etching print; Right: Untitled bronze of a cow
Top: Maithun, 1976, Etching print; Bottom: Bronze sculpture
Like the painting of the CP Rally, Somnath did work with paint such as the work shown earlier above of waiting passengers at the Howrah railway station, which uses a limited palette. We see the influence of cubism in the forms and faces of the passengers who wait patiently, filled with ennui, but not looking troubled. However, the artist did not seem to have regarded painting as his forte and mainly confined himself to drawings, prints and three-dimensional bronze works – mediums where he found greater success and expression.
“Wounds” is a minimalist and evocative series which started as drawings and prints, and later culminated in the 1970s as paper pulp prints, to his response to the Vietnam war and the socio-political unrest and everyday violence he was witness to. Here he achieved a unique form of expressive abstraction without sacrificing his long-practised humanism. The unique semi-abstract technique of prints on paper pulp are akin to his pen-and-ink drawings (see below) and prints, where he uses slashes and gashes of knife on paper pulp and in a couple of other cases red spots or coir hair, evocative of the bodily lacerations.
Top: Untitled, Pen and ink on paper, 1966: Bottom: Untitled, Pen and ink on paper, 1967
Top: Wounds (B4), Etching, 1978; Bottom: Wounds, Etching, 1973 (photo by Ranjan Kaul)
Left: Untitled, Pulp print on paper, 1970; Right: Wounds 54, variation proof,
Pulp print on paper, 15” x 16.5”, 1983
Somnath had had a brief interlude with sculpture as a medium of expression at the Department of Sculpture at Kala Bhavan in the 1970s. (In fact, it has been reported that one of his largest sculptures, Mother and Child, which paid tribute to the sufferings of the people of Vietnam, was stolen from Kala Bhavana soon after it was finished.) However, it was only in 1983 that he returned to sculpture and explored it more thoroughly. All that he had learned in his printmaking – the blisters, scratches, gashes on plates as expressionist devices – he applied to his three-dimensional small bronze works, using the lost-wax technique to create the hollowness. (A few of them have been mentioned above and some others are given below.). He felt uncomfortable to ascribe the nomenclature of “sculptures” to them; but not because of their size. Though they are indeed small (barely about 14-15 inches in height), they appear monumental and powerful (see, for example, the bronze work of a starving cow nursing her calves).
Somnath described the bronze as works having “no weight, no substance and no dimensions – all they have is the aspect of wounds. However, the wind can pass freely through them. I find it comfortable to just call them bronzes.”
Left: Riots, Bronze; Right: Untitled, Bronze
Bronze work of cow with calves
Left: Untitled, Bronze; Right: Mother and child, Bronze, 4” x 14” x 4.5”
A particular assemblage titled Riots captures my eye (see above). While it is not now known which particular communal riot he was referring to, the powerful assemblage of four bronzes is evocative and compelling – one upright, looking shocked, while the other two lie lifeless on the ground with a limp hand in the foreground. Many of his bronze works have open-mouthed visages and focus around hollow rib cages (so that “the wind can pass freely through them”) – the figures seem to be screaming or in shock or in pain or anguish, and do away with the remaining bodily parts.
Unwavering in his belief that the human predicament was socially engendered, Somnath Hore created art with an uncompromising humanism and rare commitment, treading a quiet and lonely path. After 101 years of Somnath’s birth, poverty and malnutrition continue to plague the world while we are also seeing war, violence and hostility among peoples and nations. Somnath Hore’s works are inspirational for both laypersons and artists who would like to portray contemporary realities. Viewing the retrospective of his works can perhaps help us regain our lost human values and understand what it means to be human.
The exhibition will remain open till 30 September 2022.
(Image collection of all works and image photos are courtesy of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, unless otherwise stated)
Ranjan Kaul is an artist, art writer, author and Founding Partner of artamour.
website: www.ranjankaul.com; insta: @ranjan_creates