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Agony Embodied

Agony Embodied

A review of the Somnath Hore Exhibition curated by KS Radhakrishnan at Arthshila, Santiniketan

I stand witness to his empathy and feel the scars of someone else’s wounds pressed against my flesh. Memories of pain and suffering that are not my own but belong, through his works, to all of humanity.

Somnath Hore was and remains today one of the key figures of modern art in Bengal and India. He was an artist but is that enough of an introduction? He was a teacher, political activist, sculptor, painter, printmaker and much more. He was a human being who worked towards what he thought was his duty: to represent those who couldn’t share their own voices, those who are forced into starvation, slavery and silence. If there ever was anyone who shone as a beacon for optimistic resistance, it was him. Born in 1921, he lived well into his 80s with an oeuvre spanning more than 60 years. He passed away in 2006 leaving behind one of the most astounding assembly of works, now distributed among hundreds of individual collectors and organizations.

As I sat there in one of the rooms, surrounded by lithographs and intaglios, I wondered if this was how he had envisioned his works to be displayed. Of course there are two in the white-on-white Wounds series that he himself had mounted. Leaving that, I do find that the cleanliness and symmetry of a gallery space somehow does an injustice to these works. Do we lose a bit of the feeling that he wanted to convey? The rough, crude, broken and beaten down bodies of unrecognizable beings. We are forever caught in the contradiction of enclosing within white spaces those who never felt like they could belong. What Somnath Hore gave us was the ‘suffering human’ that is somehow omnipresent. The de-particularization of spaces and structures helped develop this feeling of the universal being, ever-present and constantly suffering. As R. Sivakumar points out, with this universalization of suffering there is the attached idea of universal violence but beyond all of this, hope: “hope against all hope”. The impact of his visuals is overpowering, specifically because of this underlying craving for justness.

Radhakrishnan considers Somnath Hore to have been a “true friend” with whom, over decades, he could talk about works and their philosophies. In every way, the exhibition is a personal expression of the memory of his relationship with the man. As a sculptor, he admits a better understanding of the little bronzes and a lesser understanding of the techniques of printmaking. As such he has been on a crusade throughout the lockdown where he has collected images and catalogued over 100 of the 160/65 sculptures that Somnath Hore made in his lifetime. Even through many technical difficulties in organizing and bringing forth works from various collections, he has done unprecedented work. Here, as in all retrospectives, we can visualize his life and works as a whole rather than singular entities existing in bubbles.

In this exhibition, we find a narrative of how he lived and worked. What he held as truths and what he felt a need to express. A successful exhibition not only in its scale and reception but through the achievement of its goal: introducing a great artist to newer generations. The display quite effectively gives an overview of the different mediums and styles in which he worked. It highlights major phases in his oeuvre by which we have come to identify him. Early naturalistic linocuts, large woodcuts, lyrical etchings, engravings, water colour paintings, oil paintings, colour lithographs, archival prints of his bronze sculptures and of course the white-on-white Wounds series.

He saw pain and sought to soothe it but lacked what we all do, omnipotence. Immense discipline and focus, determination and consciousness as well as an attachment to the subject at hand built what we see as the epitome of his artistic brilliance. When depicting the world around him, he chose to represent his vision of the wound through certain effective visual motifs. Representations of human emotions in the face of greed, hunger, violence and wanton destruction. These would come to closely resemble what real scars or wounds on flesh look like. He kept changing mediums while the concept stayed the same. The trauma of being a helpless spectator to heights of human cruelty laid a foundation for all his expressions. It built the core of his being, burdened with a need to help and duty-bound to bring those images to the public forums. When looking at his drawings and sketches particularly, one can find an inclination in visual emphasis on certain parts of the body, be it human or animal, in a way that exaggerates some kind of lived experience. Some experiences or situations that give characters or objects within his realm a history and a life. A life that in the case of his creations means going through suffering and scarring. His renditions, therefore, become bleak and hollow or at times stony, cold and coarse- flesh and bones almost indiscernible, that carry the memories of social and natural suffering yet prevail through hope.

After a conversation with Soumik Nandy Majumder, it struck me that one thing I am unable to find in his works is absolute silence. While some of his works are exceptionally loud, even the quietest ones are not silent. They speak, they scream and in the face of total defeat, they keep murmuring. They keep expressing their truths, unhindered by whatever kinds of violence have been inflicted on them. Similarly, if someone is looking for quiet, there is the aura of environmental peacefulness, mostly in his works after settling down in Santiniketan. The heat, the cold and the quiet stretches of land became a part of his being. While all else fades, however, the flesh keeps speaking.

K.S. Radhakrishnan, Sanjiv Kumar and R. Sivakumar at the launch of a commemorative book based on Somnath Hore’s essay, ‘My Concept of Art’.

I have but one count of disappointment. From my personal reading of all that I have seen of Somnath Hore’s works, Reba Hore, his wife and an equally great if a bit less promoted artist, remained a constant supporter and inspiration in his life. Above all, she had a great formal influence on his later drawings. This part of his identity and also this phase of his works are quite starkly missing from this exhibition. The book (in the picture above) however does somehow rectify this. Above being of phenomenal production quality and having an extensive collection of drawings, paintings and sculptures as well as writings and interviews, it is dedicated to the memory of Reba Hore and shows one of her works which resembles her husband’s. Nevertheless, as an ardent admirer of the brilliantly capable woman she was, I must say that the give-and-take relationship remains unspoken.

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Radhakrishnan talks of another aspect of the artist’s life, a kind of hurry in which he lived. The man was always in an urgency to go somewhere or create something and had immense energy to carry out and complete multiple tasks and artworks simultaneously. This speed which he inhabited was as impactful a force as his calmness when working. When working, nothing else seemed to exist, only the task at hand. Radhakrishnan calls this a “quiet speed”. I personally feel this is very well represented in this display. The gallery space enables the viewer to access the works closely and intimately yet sometimes rushes us past extensive collections only to circle us back to them. This has enabled better interactions with his works, even for children. Ruchira Das, Artistic Director at Arthshila has informed me that the space will be used for many more such exhibitions, growing awareness of artists and art within and beyond the periphery of Bengal and their own pan-Indian collection.

Tolstoy once wrote, “Love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills” and Somenath Hore worked with profound love. He could feel greatly which informed his artwork to that effect. His subject was human suffering and he depicted scenes from cruel situations not at all through perverse idealizations but a genuine need to understand, help and change. It gives not only the artwork but also the act of viewing these artworks a kind of meaning we might not immediately understand. Looking at his works is, I feel, a performance where I am participating in the act of keeping the hope alive.

It is barely my place to give you information, just enough of a push for you to explore and experience his images for yourself. As an audience, we must keep to our responsibilities as he kept to his: to understand and act and not just fetishize the agony of others and those that have been other-ed by us. It was his practice to actively correct himself when growing distant from his subjects and we should all be guided by his diligence. To all of you who have visited or are planning to, one day is not enough. For those living elsewhere, if you have been putting off your plans for a vacation to Santiniketan, a more perfect reason will not be presenting itself anytime soon.

Pictures belong to the reviewer and Arthshila.

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