Sculptor and printmaker Somnath Hore’s works have always been populated by fragile, broken bodies. Throughout his life, his media and style kept changing but the core focus of his work did not waver: documenting human suffering, turning an extraordinarily empathetic eye on the pain of the less fortunate, be it peasants or the destitute. Wounds and scars remained, in fact, the mainstay of his art.
Now K.S. Radhakrishnan, a sculptor and Hore’s student, has put together a non-linear show of the artist’s iconic works. Hosted by Emami Art Gallery, Kolkata, in collaboration with the Arthshila Foundation, Somnath Hore: A Centenary Exhibition is celebrating different facets of the artist, including works from an unpublished sketchbook of his drawings of daily life in Santiniketan from 1987-88.
The multifaceted and experimental artist’s repertoire was not restricted to paper works or sculptures; he created wood-cuts, etchings, watercolours, lithographs and intaglios. A deep pathos ran like a leitmotif through it all. Most of the 164 works now on display belong to Arthshila; a few have been borrowed from collectors. High-quality images of 110 sculptures adorn the walls, and a book has also been released to commemorate the event.
Hore, a founding member of the Communist Party of India who dissociated from it in 1955, was born in Chittagong (now in Bangladesh). His visual vocabulary was deeply influenced by the suffering caused by the Bengal famine of 1943, and the Tebhaga Movement of the working class in 1946-47.
In 1954, he joined the Kolkata-based Indian College of Arts & Draftsmanship to set up the printmaking department, moving to Delhi in 1958 to join the arts faculty of Delhi Polytechnic as a lecturer. Some of his famous intaglio prints from his stay in Delhi in the 1960s, such as Birth Of A White Rose, are on display at the exhibition. “His aesthetics changed considerably when he came to Delhi. There was a sense of abstraction in his works and human figures were omitted. Hore began to explore repetitive patterns and large-format works,” explains Radhakrishnan.
The artist returned to Santiniketan in 1969 to head the graphic arts department at Kala Bhavan. Once again, his style took a turn. While his focus on human suffering—expressed in the seminal Wound series in which he achieved a unique style of abstraction, one that was minimal in rendition but strong in message—continued, his works from the 1970s were bold in form and style. He made lithographs in red colour and produced paper cast works. Only after retirement did Hore revisit bronze, albeit on a small scale. He died in 2006, aged 85.
The one thing that stands out in this show is the complete absence of Hore’s expressionist sculptures. This decision has its roots in a 1975-incident. Radhakrishnan was a second-year student at Santiniketan when Hore would regularly visit the studios of the sculpture department. He would gather the left-over wax sheets and make forms out of it. One of the first large works he made was a 40-inch-high figure.
“It was a mother, holding a child to her chest. The chest was however wide open and in place of organs, one could see household objects as though they were her treasured possessions,”says Radhakrishnan.
It was probably the largest work Hore ever made. One morning he went to the department studio planning to finish the surface patina of the bronze, only to find the sculpture missing. “There was only one photographic documentation taken by a fellow student. The work was never found,” says Radhakrishnan. Hore was pained by this incident and did not sculpt for several years. The show has therefore used images of some of his significant sculptures, including one of the ill-fated Mother and Child.