Artist Somnath Hore's ‘Wounds’ series, on display at New Delhi, portrays raw reality of starvation, loss, suffering

It was perhaps the trauma of being witness to a catastrophe like the Bengal famine in 1944 that Somnath continued to feel drawn towards pain, a theme that has come to define his artistic practice

author_img Trisha Mukherjee Published :  15th May 2022 06:23 PM   |   Published :   |  15th May 2022 06:23 PM
Congregation in a village, oil on canvas (1957)

Congregation in a village, oil on canvas (1957)

For those who know their art, the name Somnath Hore instinctively brings to mind the anatomically haunting sketches depicting the horrors of the Bengal famine. One could say that he practically documented the man-made tragedy in his no-flesh, only-bones drawings and etchings of people and animals living through a life of acute hunger.

The image of hollowed out bodies with ribs staring through the barely there skin, even on paper, is difficult to shun and Hore witnessed it first-hand as a young man in his early twenties, and the year-long tragedy continued to impact his art long after it was over in 1944. It was perhaps the trauma of being witness to such a catastrophe that he continued to feel drawn towards pain, a theme that has come to define his artistic practice. It can be seen in his paintings and sculptures of the Vietnam War, and the US bombings of Japan but even after the wars ended and his art transitioned from figurative to abstract, he continued to explore the notions of starvation, loss and suffering, almost a decade after, as is evident from his ‘Wounds’ series.

“He internalised what he had seen so much, that the thought never left him. So, even if he saw a mark of some kind on the road, he felt that the body of the Earth was gouged by those marks, whether those marks were made by a careless truck driver or whether somebody had cut a tree and left a mark. All these markings and traces became like wounds for him,” says Roobina Karode who has curated a retrospective of the artist currently underway at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) in New Delhi.

It is the physicality of the nature of a wound, its depth and bulges, and the fissures and chasms, that he dissects and then recreates with paper pulp––a medium he spent years to arrive at––in his ‘Wound’ series.“The extension of the concept of wound went beyond the human beings and animals, it then went to trees, roads, Mother Earth. So, I think the thought never left him. And that is why his entire life was spent around the recollection of a wound,” the curator explains.

The retrospective, which was originally scheduled for last year for Hore’s birth centenary (born in 1921), comes on the heels of what hopefully is an ebbing pandemic. Karode feels that the experience of witnessing something as unprecedented as Covid-19 might enable viewers to appreciate the artist’s work even better.

“What Somnath was saying is that what you’re seeing there (in his works), if it is not stopped, it will happen again. And this is the way people will suffer and die, whether through war, man-made famine, or our greed... these are all symptoms. And that is the reason why I feel that people will respond to him, because they realise that this is something that has happened to us in the last two years,” Karode says.
It will not be a stretch to compare Hore’s artistic practice, especially early on, to a form of visual reportage, specifically in case of the Bengal famine, and the Tebhaga peasants’ movement (1946-47). 
It is likely that his simplicity of thought and the accessibility of his art, which he ensured consciously, prevented him from achieving the appreciation that he deserved during his lifetime. But fame was perhaps never what he was aspiring for.

Hore seemed to have strived, throughout his life as an artist, towards making his art accessible. Instead of using one-of-a-kind canvases, he worked with metal plates (which are on display at the KNMA show) to create multiple prints of his works so they could reach more and more people. He certainly democratised art like never before, and after.

“It was apparent that he was somebody who had a very distinct way of thinking about, and making art. He’s one of the best printmakers that India has produced and that truth is undeniable, because in the way that he used the medium of printmaking, to make art accessible and inexpensive, to make art reach people, was a very deliberate and significant way of thinking,” Karode says. Hore offered accessibility not just in terms of the works physically, but also that of the image. Even his bronze sculptures, gaping in agony of the hardships, are small enough to be held by hand, and meant to be felt and empathised with.

“I don’t even have to explain his works (to my students),” says Karode, adding, “This is accessibility of image, when you make an image not complicated, that it can appeal to anybody’s imagination. When you see a body which is hollowed out, you understand it is about hunger, and poverty.”A recent auction of the artist’s works at Prinseps shows that he is on his way to finally getting his due, albeit posthumously. Featuring 47 lots, the auction achieved a total value of Rs 93,26,250. Among the key works was a 1977 lithograph titled, ‘Hiroshima (Wounds Verso)’ that fetched Rs 6,25,000.

Even with Hore’s evocation of all kinds of uncomfortable human vulnerabilities, the curator has ensured that the retrospective is not a bleak remembrance of the artist’s life. She has woven the exhibition with patches of hope that are works, created during Hore’s time with the Communist Party of India (CPI), in which he celebrates resilience, and the power of dissent. In these paintings, he is generous with colour, the tenderness is evident, and it is after one such painting that features a blooming white rose amidst a dark sky that Karode has titled the show––Birth of a White Rose.