Somnath Hore: A Centenary Exhibition, curated by K.S. Radhakrishnan at the Emami Art, Kolkata, is an ode to the artist-pedagogue who excelled in a range of mediums across sketching, painting, printmaking and sculpture.

Born on April 13, 1921, Hore grew up in the village of Barama in Chittagong (in present-day Bangladesh). He came to study at City College, Calcutta, in 1940-41, but was forced to leave when the Second World War broke out. It was during this tumultuous period that he became involved with the underground activities of the Communist Party of India (CPI). He made posters for the Party’s English weekly, People’s War, and also started working with drawings after meeting and being inspired by fellow artist-activist Chittaprasad in 1942. With the help of Party Secretary P.C. Joshi, he got admitted to the Government College of Art, Calcutta, where he spent the next few years training in technical skills to emerge as a printmaker. Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, he worked with graphic art, channeling his talents towards political causes. However, Hore soon began to feel stifled by the Party diktats; he decided to disassociate with the CPI in 1956 and left to teach at the Delhi Polytechnic two years later. During the ten years he spent there, his works moved beyond woodcut and engravings to embrace experiments in lithography, etching and colour printing. Post 1967, he sought a different kind of freedom and slower pace of life and returned to Bengal to head the Printmaking Department at Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan. This institution would witness the most mature phase of the artist’s works where he also emerged as an impressive sculptor.

Even though the exhibition starts with a chronology of the artist’s life and career, it refrains from structuring its main displays around this order. Rather, it chooses to segment the works according to the different mediums Hore engaged with. At each stage of his five-decade-long artistic trajectory, his search for new visual idioms and the zeal to “master various techniques” becomes evident. [1] What runs as a common thread across the sections is the artist’s abiding interest in and commitment towards representing social reality and human trauma -- a life-long concern stemming from the horrors of the World War, the Bengal Famine and the Partition he witnessed in the 1940s.

The displays open with his lesser-known works -- pages from his sketchbook from 1987-88 and oils on canvas (probably from the 1950s). In their hurried unfinished lines and bursts of energy, the sketches capture scenes from working-class life and activity. The oil paintings (digitally reproduced at the exhibition) reflect a similar theme with a more subdued and studied aesthetic sensibility. In paintings such as The Chicken Seller, we find a figure who will recur in other forms in the artist’s depictions of the dignity and toil of everyday labour.

The next section of the exhibition is devoted to Hore’s drawings, woodcuts and prints that progress from Famine victims to participants in the Tebhaga Andolan of 1946-47. While the first lot of portraits (for example Famine) show humanity reduced to its bare bones through hunger, suffering and exhaustion, the latter depict bodies energized by political resolve. As an artist-activist, Hore was assigned the task of documenting the Tebhaga peasant agitation initiated by the CPI’s All India Kisan Sabha in Bengal to demand rights for sharecroppers to retain a greater amount of the harvest they had earlier given up to landlords. [2] During this period, he recorded all that he saw in the form of a personal diary that both reads like a novel as well as an in-depth study of the different facets of a peasant uprising. It also provides insights on the way the artist negotiated a balance between his political ideology and responsibilities, his aesthetic pursuits and cultural imagination.

Even though Hore said “I am not a writer”, [3] in many ways he performed the task of an author mediating between the peasant masses and their leaders. Some of Hore’s sketches and prints of the movement, published in Tebhagar Diary (original in Bengali), are included in the exhibition. His pencil portraits of the people he interacted with -- such as Rupkanta Da, Togru Mohammed and Mohan Da -- assign agency to these individuals, ensuring that the peasant no longer remains nameless and faceless. In other works, such as the woodcut At the Night Meeting (1946), reminiscent of Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters with flickering shadows on hardened faces, Hore beautifully captures the coming together of these individuals as a collective in a public space of protest.

Hore’s black-and-white prints make way for colour intaglio in the 1960s. There is a certain textural quality in images such as Untitled (1963) where the palette takes on earthy tones of green and brown. In Dreams (1962), the artist uses sugar aquatint on paper to create an eerie image that floats in empty space and remains fragmented. Here too, he is unable to let go of the scars of the 1943 Famine. But suddenly, from 1968, there is a shade of vibrant red that appears in his works, especially the lithographs. This is reflective of Hore’s continuing formal and technical experiments, but may also be interpreted as his response to the political upheaval brought on by the Vietnam War and the Naxalite movement closer home, with blood taking on a revolutionary character.

In Santiniketan, Hore’s obsession with the human body (starving, broken, wounded, almost dead, afflicted by war and trauma) found a new medium of expression in sculpture. He created pieces by collecting discarded wax from the Sculpture Department at Kala Bhavan, and casting them with the help of his student Chandravinod. In its third section, the exhibition displays digital prints of around 120 of these works, which suffice in the absence of the physical originals that lie scattered and are difficult to source from different private and public collections.

Some sculptures have even gone missing, such as the 3-feet-high Mother and Child (1977) Hore made as a “homage to the Vietnamese people who stood up to brutal power and triumph”. [4] Unfortunately, it vanished overnight from the university after it was displayed outdoors, a loss which left “an unhealing wound” in the artist. [5] A surviving photograph of this artwork shows how it captured the ruthlessness and sacrifices of war: a child clutching at the arms of his/her mother while being torn away from her. The Mother and Child theme comes up in Hore’s work in other mediums as well-woodcut (1958), engraving (1983) and watercolour (1986).

Shocked and hurt by the 1977 incident, Somnath Hore never returned to large-scale sculptures, but carried on with smaller pieces “making sheets of genuine beeswax bending flexible sheets, fragmenting the hard ones and the standing uprightwiththehelpofwaxrodsofvaried sizes”. [6] The unfinished surfaces and gaping spaces heightened the impact of bodily torture. Describing these “bronzes” the artist said, “They have no weight, no substance and no dimensions: all they have is the aspect of wounds.” [7]

This sense of hollowness and experience of violence reaches its visceral peak in the Wound series, created in the 1970s. Here, the deliberate marks on cast paper pulp resemble injuries and scars on the human body. While describing the techniques behind this series, Hore said “I would make moulds out of cement and take pressings from them. The complete process required an enormous amount of labour.” [8] Then the paper pulp would be moulded to form wound-like-marks on the surface of the white paper-white on white; thus, signifying the invisible traces that trauma leaves behind, which remain embedded within one’s own being.

This “symbiosis of technique and imagery, regulated by the modernist aesthetics of material and process” [9] seals Hore’s position within the legacy of Indian modernism. Looking back on this rich and varied body of work and assessing its relevance in contemporary times, one finds in it the hauntings of our historical past and a reminder of ongoing everyday violence. More importantly, the art makes us introspect on what makes or unmakes us as human.

The exhibition is a fitting extension of the form in which it was originally conceived and displayed in Arthshila, Santiniketan. Put together as a homage by Hore’s student K.S. Radhakrishnan, the show is also a celebration of the teacher-student relationship and the artist-pedagogues who shaped Hore’s ideology and practice, including Zainul Abedin, Chittaprasad, Nandalal Bose, Benode Behari Mukherjee and Ramkinkar Baij. Imbibing their combined sensibilities, Hore remains that remarkable instance of an artist who forged a path by bringing together the formal and political aspects of art with great simplicity and humility.

Somnath Hore: A Centenary Exhibition is on at Emami Art, Kolkata, from June 19 to July 24, 2022.


[1] Somnath Hore, My Concept of Art, trans. Somnath Zutshi (Kolkata: Seagull Books, 2015), 12.

[2] Tebhaga referred to “sharing by thirds”, with the peasants demanding that the share of the harvest that was given to their landlords be reduced from half to one-third. The CPI had already been in touch with the peasantry through the relief they provided during the Famine of 1943, and used this base to initiate a new agitation.

[3] “Ami Lekhok Noi,” in Preface to Tebhaga Diary (Calcutta: Subarnarekha, 1991). Translation of extract by Brishti Modak.

[4] R. Siva Kumar, “Somnath Hore-The Artist Who Remained Preoccupied with the Concept of the Wound,” The Wire, April 3, 2022, , accessed July 18, 2022.

[5] K.S. Radhakrishnan, Curator’s Note to the Series of Wounds exhibition.

[6] Hore, My Concept of Art, 34.

[7] Juhi Saklani, “The Unhealing Wound: The Works of Somnath Hore,” The Hindu, May 8, 2021, , accessed July 19, 2022.

[8] Hore, My Concept of Art, 30.

[9] Siva Kumar, “Somnath Hore”.

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