In the ink-black night, a wizened, weather-beaten man addresses a group of villagers. Men and women huddle around this messiah-like figure, their faces in rapt attention and illuminated by a kerosene lamp. While demonstrating his dexterous handling of chiaroscuro, modernist sculptor and printmaker Somnath Hore (1921–2006) also injects an acute sense of anticipation into this arresting black-and-white woodcut—untitled and undated, like many of the artist’s works. We sense that something is brewing, but what? The print was most likely created to document the meetings planned as part of Bengal’s Tebhaga Peasant Movement in 1946.
Hore’s socialist leaning manifested itself very early in his career. Born in Chittagong (now in Bangladesh), he created depictions of recent atrocities—of victims of the Japanese bombing in Bengal during World War II and of the devastating Bengal famine of 1943—that caught the attention of the Communist Party, which published his drawings in its magazine People’s War. Later, he became a member of the party, portraying its rallies and mobilization of villagers. Such subjects can be spied in the oil paintings CP Rally, 1955, and Congregation in a Village, 1957, as well as in his prints portraying the 1946–47 Tebhaga uprising and the nearly concurrent tea garden workers’ agitation. Underscoring the artist’s empathy for the toiling masses, the curator of the show, Roobina Karode, thoughtfully grouped his striking woodcut prints of laboring bodies (all untitled, ca. 1970). With just a few masterful strokes, the artist conveys the energy expended by a rowing boatman, the exertions of peasants as they harvest grain, and the sheer exhaustion evident in the bare back of a seated laborer. In the mid-1950s, however, Hore parted ways with a party whose ideological strictures hampered his artistic freedom and decided to chart an independent course.
During his student years at the Government College of Art and Craft in Calcutta, Hore came into contact with painter Zainul Abedin, whose renditions of the famine and the widespread suffering it inflicted made a deep and lasting impression on him. Hore, too, could never exorcise the images of the hunger, starvation, and utter deprivation he had witnessed, and these themes continued to haunt his lithographs, etchings, and watercolors well into the 1980s. Emaciated figures with sunken, lifeless eyes devoid of any hope populated several of the untitled watercolor and crayon works on display. Here, too, Hore was able to powerfully convey the suffering and despair of the downtrodden with the barest of brushstrokes.
In the mid-1970s, the artist cast his imagery in bronze, using the lost-wax process. In Untitled 4, ca. 1980s, a masklike bust with empty eye sockets, its mouth agape in a Munch-like scream, conveyed unspeakable horrors. Many of the figures perched on pedestals had hollowed-out bodies accentuating their skin-and-bones appearance. Arrays of matchstick-like forms served as rib cages, just about holding the folds of metallic flesh together.
Some of the most compelling works in the show were to be found in a section devoted to Hore’s “Wounds” series, ca. 1970–89, for which the artist abandoned figuration altogether, turning toward abstraction and the monochrome in white-on-white and red-pulp prints. In Wounds 3 and Wounds 54, both 1983—handmade paper sheets with indentations, gashes, and lacerations marking their surface—the very material speaks of deep injuries and trauma inflicted by mankind’s history of social injustice and violence. By perpetrating these wounds on the paper himself, Hore gently reminds us that we all are, in one way or another, equally complicit in the atrocities occurring around us.