Artists

Memory does not retain every incident experienced by man. It only records those encounters and experiences which stimulate strong positive or negative responses. Such emotional experiences tend to have a profound influence in shaping man's life and his entire being. Social psychologists like Erik Erikson opined, that such impacts are more-liable to happen during 'childhood or early youth' than during advanced years. A pro­found or traumatic adoles­cent experience may often condition an individual's emotion and values to such an extent, as to form a leitmotif for the rest of his life. Often, the effects of early experience lie dormant in memory only to resurface in distilled form when the subject engages in free action, as distinct from day to day activity. If the subject- hap­pens to be an artist, then, his lifelong oeuvres spring from the fountain-head of the germinal experience. Somnath Hore's lifelong involvement in painting, drawing, printmaking and sculpting are similarly, a long odyssey in the pursuit of the most expressive objectification of a wounded human­ity - the first manifestations of which he experi­enced as a young man of twenty-two, during the man-made Bengal famine of 1943.

The early beginning

Somnath Hore was born on 13th April 1921 in his ancestral village in Chittagong district in the undivided Bengal. He lost" his father, Rebati Mohan Hore, at the young age of thirteen, as a result of which he had to go under the care of an uncle to finish his school in 1938. His results in the Matriculation examination earned him a merit-scholarship to do his Intermediate in Science (equivalent to the present Higher Secondary in Science) at Chittagong College, Ms at this stage, that' he developed; some interest in the visual arts. He started copying portraits by the old masters of. European art. However, he did equally well in I.Sc. in 1940, and left Chittagong to take his B.Sc. course in City- College, Calcutta, where for the first time he came in contact with some functionaries of the Communist Party.-Without completing the course, he went back to Chittagong, after the outbreak of World War II when evacuation from Calcutta began; By the end of 1942, Chittagong port came under the threat of bombardment by the Kawasaki bombers of the Royal Japanese Air Force and the civilian population of the city was evacuated. On 10th December 1942, bombs aimed at Chittagong port fell miles south at the village of Patia near Somnath's own village. Just after the bombardment, Somnath saw the rav­aged village, dead bodies with gaping wounds, disgorging flesh, blood, pus and excreta, dead child clinging to dead mother's body and dead dog and dead master lying together at peace. Somnath felt like documenting the scene in all its ghastliness and horror. Words and his com­mand over them, he perhaps felt, would not be sufficient. And so, he drew sketches. These sketches were his first attempts at visualisation of the emotional response to a worlds event.

The direct experience of the brutality commit­ted by an Axis Power on a hapless rural popu­lation brought Somnath closer to the Communist Party which was then the only Indian political party cam­paigning for giving all-out support to the Allied war against Fascism, and advo­cating it as the necessary step towards the - emanci­pation of the masses. Or, if one likes to put the facts in proper sequence, it appears that the experi­ence of bombing raised in young Somnath certain questions about War and Fascism, to which some acceptable answers were provided by Purnendu Dastidar, then the chief functionary of the Communist Party in Chittagong (Dastidar died during the Pakistani crack­down on Bangladesh in 1971).

Through Pumendubabu, in 1942, Somnath came to know Chittaprasad Bhattacharya a self-trained artist from Midnapore, who was living in Chittagong then. Little did Somnath know then, that Chittaprosad would spell an influence on him shortly.

In 1943, the whole of the then Bengal, with parts of eastern Bihar and northern Orissa, was in the throes of a famine, of a magnitude unknown in the history of eastern India since 1770. Recent researches have confirmed the perceptions of the concerned contemporaries that this was a man-made famine. Shortfalls in food grain production for two consecutive years and stoppage of rice imports from the Japanese-occupied Burma were aggravated by the grain purchases of the vastly expanded allied army stationed in Eastern India, the Denial Policy (that shifted all means of normal transport from civilian operations and placed them at the disposal of the army and the Government) and finally, hoarding of food grains by the traders sent the prices of food grains sky-rocketing. The worst sufferers were the landless agricultural labour­ers, the share-croppers, the small and the, marginal, farmers of the rural areas and-the petty non-foodgrain traders and self-employed lower middle-class of both the rural and urban areas. Apart from the big traders and the industrialists, fixed job holding urban classes and workers from the for­mal sector were more or less untouched by, the famine; they became the beneficiaries of the newly introduced urban rationing system and the dearness allowance instituted to off­set the price rise. Peasants died not in thousands, but in millions, while workers from the informal sector and the-self-employed died in thousands.

Had immediate self-interest or even class interest been the only factor or factors governing consciousness, as some vulgar Marxists and historians of the Namierist School would have us believe, we could not have witnessed such an anguished but creative response to the famine, from the very classes which survived the holocaust. The Bengal famine of 1943 was the catalyst for the full blossoming of Tarasankar Banerjee's creative potentials as a novelist par excellence; it was the event that revolutionised the Bengali stage through the production of Bijon Bhattacharya's Navannab; it' was the immediate cause that launched the Indian People's Theatre Association which was to play a crucial role in making indian music, dance and theatre-, contemporary, both in a social and a formal sense; it was one of the factors in the establishment of the Calcutta Group of painters, and sculptors in 1943 (the group, however, did not include painters like Zainul Abedin and Chittaprosad who came into the limelight by working on the famine itself). No contemporary event since the first partition of Bengal in 1906, had stimulated the arts in such a Soul-Stirring manner as this famine. Incidentally, most of the cre­ative artists to be' so stirred were from the urban middle class. As a young commu­nist activist, Somnath, got himself involved in the activ­ities of Peoples', Relief Committee in Chittagong when he came in close touch with Chittaprosad. The artist would go from one famine ravaged, village to another, from one gruel kitchen to the next drawing sketches which were pub­lished by the Bengali week­ly Janayuddha and the Peoples War, the English weekly of the Communist party. Young and inexperienced, Somnath soon embarked on the same work as Chittaprosad was doing. He started a visual reportage from Chittagong.

The earliest visual reportage comprised of three sketches published in Janayuddha of 5 July 1944. These were followed by a deluge of sketches and life drawings. Those early sketch­es and drawings can be broadly divided into two groups: scenes with hapless victims of famine and portraits of peasants. All these were line drawings - definitional lines following, repre­sentational contours.

Even in these hesitant sketches and draw­ings there were certain elements, albeit in archa­ic form, which were to become leitmotif for Somnath's later day works. Though these ele­ments were very much real as experienced dur­ing the famine, once represented in drawings and sketches .They assued almost symbolic qualities - parts standing for the whole. Somnath's human and ani­mal figures were almost always skeletal, with promi­nent thorax appearing as a rib cage-with each rib jutting but prominently, The chil­dren, who" would invariably feature in most drawings would have out of proportion malarious spleens, their heads being enormous skulls with small bony faces perched on rickety, torsoes. How deeply had Somnath learnt his lessons was not to be that apparent in the paintings and prints he made then, as in the engravings, etchings, litho­graphs, and pulp prints he-made much later. As to the question regarding whether Somnath could or, could not have learnt the lessons from indigenous sources instead of turning towards Western avant-gardism, the answer would toe that, he would probably not have what he was looking for. The somewhat tragic view of life that Somnath took, had no parallel in any Indian tradition. The grand tragedy of the Mahabharata is too tumultuous and boisterous to be of any use to Somnath, since it lacks an element of helpless suffering. Sita's lonely suffer­ing has no physcal aspect and is much too dig­nified. The ideologically oriented voluntary suffering, borne out of acquired knowledge, of the Buddhist and the Jain conceptions, has nothing in common with the mute physical suffering of the wounded and the wronged having no hope of redemption either in this world or the other. Moreover, making of an art object is not gov­erned by conception only; conception seeks out phenomena as well as pre-existent percep­tible forms and styles and then transforms them suitably to get objectified in new images. Such-seeking takes the conceiver, that is an artist, to'; forms and styles which can be regarded as the nearest perceptual correlates of his conception. These perceptual-correlates act as take-off point’s for an artist, for the development of his own personal style, commensurate with his individual conception; For Somnath, the stylistic take-off points were Benode Behari Mukherjee's spatial manipulations, Picasso's geometric axiom-like conception of essential human being and Kathe Kollwitz's employment of gesticulating line-mass to express societally conditioned emotions.

Any genuine search for language and idiom of objectification is bound to take into, consider­ation the medium of objectification. Language use, to a large extent, is conditioned by the medium in which the language takes a percep­tible-form. Medium, consciousness connotes a command over the appropriate techniques to extract from the medium all its potentials without doing violence to the medium. It also connotes the artist's capacity to manipulate the medium to

objectify his conception, without succumbing to the caprices of the medium. For Somnath, roughly from around 1954, began a long period of experimentation with methods and materials of a variety of print-making media. By 1954, Somnath had achieved mastery over the relief printing media like wood-cut, wood-engraving, lino-cut and multicolour wood-cut. Although by employing the devices of hatching and cross-hatching and by deploying more than one matrix (block), (just as it is done in the case of multi­colour relief prints), one can get tonal effects, the relief printing media are basically a-tonal. As Somnath was feeling the need to do tonal works, he turned towards the intaglio media of print-making, especially towards etching. He made his first black-and-white etching in 1954 and his first dry-point, the following year.

The early intaglio prints of Somnath, all mono­chromatic, done between 1954 and 1956, were exploratory in nature. In these, one missed, the masterly grip over the medium one noticed in his contemporary relief prints and an attempt at transformation of the phenomenal image to give to them some, conceptual entity was equally- absent. The sketches' of his wife Reba relaxing or at work, of pet dogs and. cats, of domestic scones were impressionistic repro­ductions of partial and selective views of certain mundane and-commonplace objects and situa­tions, in summary fashion, by means of contour lines and tonalities to capture light and shade. The contours lacked the firm angularity and the lines the bold definitiveness of his contemporary relief prints. On the whole, his earliest etchings and dry-points were like sketches and studies. In fact, these- could not have been anything else, because Somnath was then, learning, intaglio printing all by himself without help -from anybody. His relentless endeavours to master the craft of intaglio printing began to yield results by 1957. By that year his etchings were not merely explorations, of a medium, not just sketches. But the tryst with the medium, mean­while, had changed, albeit temporarily - as was to be proved later, Somnath's attitude towards art and arti-life relationship changed. The lure of the soft velvety lines of dry-point and the enchanting movement of the needle (Somnath had not yet used an engraver's burin) over the metal sheet covered by hardground were taking Somnath away from strong and definitive lines and hence from angularity defined figures. Lines were becoming alluringly curvaceous and were getting freed from their function of defining shapes and motifs. Vet, on the whole these free, soft, curvilinear lines were delineating easi­ly recognizable and somewhat lyrical shapes and motifs. Having been defined by freely fol­lowing curvaceous contour lines and shapes and motifs representing mainly, children, females and pets - singly or in twos - became conglomerations of curvaceous lyrical forms on fiat surface exuding joy, reminding one of Matisse. Somnath's attachment to gestural lines had taken an unexpected turn under the impact of the new media. This phase was to last for a few more years and get intensified, with the beginning of his courtship with colour intaglio.

The relationship between the artist's con­sciousness, on the one hand, and pre-existing styles, intrinsic quality of a medium and available technology of objectification, on the other; is a dialectical relationship. In the-operation of this dialectics sometimes one prevails over the other. But so long as one side prevails by sup­pressing the other nothing new really emerges. Something new emerges only when both sides change equally under- each other's impact. Although, from the general run of Somnath's works of 1957-58, it seems that he was being carried away by the intrinsic qualities of etching and drypoint media,, the existing technology of matrix-making in these media and some kind of existing western avant-gardism - he was actu­ally being awakened by the media and technol­ogy. His personality was formed enough not to be dominated by any external force, be it aes­thetic, technological or ideological. The dormant concern of his-personality surfaced off and on, even in this period, to give us. a work like- the. Children, a black-and-white etching with aquatint, done in 1958. It was a closed composition with five standing figures, having no back­ground, perspective or surrounding situation. The figures spoke for themselves. They did not relate to each other with any kind of figural ges­ture. But their figuration was suggestive enough of the situation they were in and of their states of health and welfare. In their very defined geometricity they appeared as real, though typological, beings. In the morphological association of the limbs, with weightless leaves, foliages and cut-fruits, their existence appeared to be pre­carious. Their swollen tummies and cage of ribs stood out as unmistakable evidence of malnutrition. The gestural lines, which etched each rib of the thorax and each cheek-bone, appeared as deep gashing wounds. The aquatint which was resorted to, did not serve any chiaroscuro pur­poses; the aquatinted areas appeared as irreg­ular organic masses with impatient gestural propensities. They endowed the statically drawn figures with some kind of inner restlessness. They were no longer children of the famine, but were representatives of, the most vulnerable section of humanity. Meanwhile; Somnath finally took his Diploma in Fine Arts from the Government College of Arts and Craft in 1957, as an external candidate.

In the world:

In November 1958, Somnath left Calcutta, to join the Art Department of the Delhi Polytechnic (which later grew into what is now Delhi Art College), as a lecturer in Graphic Arts. Within a short span of two three years he not only built-up a full fledged department of print-making, first of its kind in india, but also helped in generating among his students and colleagues in Delhi an enthusiasm for print-making.

In December 1958, there was an exhibition of Krishna Redd’s multi-colour etchings, printed of single matrice by differential viscosity method of colour application. Somnath was deeply impressed by the prints. But Reddy himself was of little help when Somnath wanted to learn the method. Somnath then remembered that he had read something about that kind of print-making in Buckland-Wright's The Art of Engraving in Calcutta, a few years back. Not having seen the kind of print referred to in the book, he did not quite understand the method then. Now, after having seen the kind of print, he longed to go back to Buckland-Wright's book once again. He wrote to his friend Arun Bose (presently, Assocate Professor of Graphic Arts, New City University) in Calcutta to procure a copy of the book for him. Arun complied with the request. Sometime later Somnath got a copy of Stanley William Hayter's The New Gravure. Taking his cue from those two books, in 1959, Somnath made his first multi-colour etching prints, from single plates etched at dif­ferent levels, to each of which colour ink of dif­ferent viscosity was applied/so that a multi­colour print could be taken by resorting to one single pressing operation. In one year he made so many multi-colour etching prints that by the end of 1960 he could hold a solo exhibition Of those prints at All India Fine Arts and Crafts Society Gallery in New Delhi.

Meanwhile, by entering the competitive section, of Annual National Exhibition of Arts of 1960, organised by Lalit - Kala Akadoni, with a painting on canvas done in oil, Somnath got his first award, and that too the National Award. Incidentally, the thematic concern as well as the style of execu­tion of the painting was akin to the Children. He was still dividing his time equally between, painting and print-making, which he would continue to do for some more years.

In Calcutta, Somnath's younger colleagues and friends, founded in 1960 an association styled as Society of Contemporary Artists and he became a member of the organization soon after it was born. Though Somnath was never very active in the organizational aspect of the association, as he was stationed away from Calcutta, he nonetheless was an inspiration to his younger friends. It was largely his print-mak­ing activities that inspired the Society to estab­lish a print-making workshop in Calcutta in 1963 (the Society held two small exhibitions of Somnath's prints in its studio in 1961 and 1962). This was one of the earliest workshops for creative print-making to be established in India outside art educational institutions (it must, however, be admitted that in the 19th century there were several commercial print-making establishments; but the earliest non-commercial print-making workshop centred round the litho­graphic press of Vichitra of Abanindranath and Gaganendranath which started functioning from around 1917).

For about four-and-a-half years from the beginning of 1959, Somnath remained deeply engrossed in exploring the potentialities, of his newly-adopted medium, and in mastering all the tech­niques of matrix-making, colour, application and print making. In this exploratory period which, lasted upto the beginning of 1964, he had occasionally been uncontrollably carried away by the medium and tech­niques. Often he had fallen under the allurement of unintended textural effects and of uncontrolled effusion, of aquatint. On occasions, he had been so charmed by the effects of soft-ground and sugar lift-ground that he had resort­ed to these effects just for their sensuousness. But Somnath was a mas­ter of media and technology of the ilk of the old masters of print-making. He might' temporarily succumb to the runaway powers of a medium, might for the time being be carried away by the lure of techniques, but he never allowed media and techniques to dictate terms to him for long. Once he had mastered a medium or a tech­nique and had learned everything there was to know, about their potentialities, he would use them only for producing the desired effects. Like the devices of soft-ground and sugar lift-ground, Somnath was the first man in India to try the spit-biting technique to bring about the effect of a soft and transparent tone in etching like that we get in water colour. In the earlier of the prints where he tried this, the effects amounted to lit­tle more than a novelty. But later the technique was employed to produce chromatically sub­dued masses with gestural shape and move­ments to act as counter-points to the lineally delineated static figures. The effect of posting the counter-points was very striking. It tended to sug­gest, at one level, a situational and at, another level an inner turmoil, of a living being stunned to inaction (on being wounded?). There is yet another instance which shows how after being initially overwhelmed by the powers of the material, Somnath :wielded the material to yield the effects only when he willed. In 1962, in some of his prints, off zinc plates, Somnath found, some unin­tended textural effects which he traced to some unaccountable deposits at certain points on the surface of the plates. Later, he found out that if zinc plates were put into acid baths in which copper sheets had been bathed before, then through a process of electrolysis silts of copper get affixed at certain places on the surface of the zinc sheets. Having learnt this truth Somnath went in for controlled and desired use of this silting up process (that was the name given to the process and the effect by the pre­sent writer in 1962).

The 1959-64 period was, for Somnath, by and large a period of research and experiment, primarily in colour intaglio and its ancilliary tech­niques, and secondarily in the development of a personal idiom by internalizing and transforming suitably certain pre-existing stylistic conventions. It was also a period of experiment in the integra­tion of linguistic (or stylistic) and idiomatic peculiarities with the specific demands of the colour etching medium and its techniques. In this scheme of things, Somnath's over-reaching concern remained somewhat dormant, though never wholly absent (had it been otherwise, there would have been no necessity of choos­ing some among the vari­ous available stylistic, conventions, and absolutely no necessity of internalization and transformation, of the, chosen conventions). Occasionally a print or two, like the Lone dog (1960) and the Father and Son (1960) would stand out of the rest to show that the concern was not only there but was getting intensified and generalised at the same time, and from his experiments with medium and techniques, Somnath was finding methods and, means to objectify the transformations. On the whole, however, Somnath in this period showed a dis­tinct, preference for very intricate compositions which were the same time texturally rich and elegant. The elegance would come from the latent geometricity of the detailless yet graceful figures. A fine example of such grace arid ele­gance, is the black and white etching called The Princess (1961).

Somnath, at this period, was moving towards an expressive use of colours. He would not use very many colours in any single print or painting. His cool and warm colours would invariably end up in sobre. However, the only warm colours that Somnath used then were rusty reds, rusty oranges and rusty browns, the colours of the falling leaves of autumn. An over-powering som­bre or grey would dominate his works to spread a gloomy sadness. This being the range of his chromatic choice, it would not allow Somnath to stray very far from his sad concern.

The colour etching titled the Birth of a White Rose, which won for him his second National Award in 1962, was his first print to be so commended by Lalit Kala Akademi. In the next National Exhibition of Art, held in 1963, his print entitled the Dream got for him again another National Award. Thereafter, Somnath stopped entering his works for competition in any national exhibition. The Birth of a White Rose and the, Dream were intricate compositions which were, saved from being: just, technical, marvels of being, endowed with elegance (in the. construc­tion of the motifs) and sadness (achieved through colour).

Subtle and unpredicatable are the ways of art. Contrary to common supposition, tech­niques can at times be pregnant with meaning. The deep furrows etched by acid into the virgin bodies, of the metal plates, especially where quick gestural lines have been drawn, began to bear, for Somnath, resemblance to stab wounds. This once again, turned Somnath's attention to the wounded, the wronged and to their suffering - which was basically physical, Somnath's restless and rather long formative period ended in 1964. From 1964 onwards we find. Somnath in the pursuit of a single over­whelming concern.

Seventeen, long years lie between-1964 and 1981; if Somnath's concern was a purely formal one, his works would have become monoto­nous and repetitive; he would have lost freshness and- become stale. It is only because his concern was primarily worldly and humane, that the singleness of concern has not stood in the way of his building up a rich repertoire of works of different tastes in a variety of media. Since he never had an a priori theory about visual lan­guage, he could objectify different aspects of his worldly concern and its different ramifications by using the formal language differently, without however altering the idioms which by 1964 had already become the sure marks of his individu­ality. In other words, though Somnath was involved in the question of transforming his con­cerns into configurations of lines, masses, colours and space etc., the motivating factors as well as the frame of reference always remained his worldly concern. Lastly, even though motivating factors behind a work of art are worldly, in formal transformations the references to reality get lost. Nothing of the kind hap­pened insofar as Somnath was concerned. For the sake, of closer scrutiny we can subdi­vide the seventeen year period, from 1964 to 1981 into smaller periods, with great deal of justification. The first sub-period covers a span of three years from 1964 to 1967 Colour intaglio became his major medium and he almost gave up painting during this period. His compositions became extremely simple. There would usually be a child, or a couple of children, or a woman with a child, or a couple of adults, or a lonely human being with a dog, or simply a cat or a dog, and these figures, would not be placed, in a situation made up of other motifs and ihnges. The figures would be flat and linear with sharp definitions. The human figures had lost almost all their temporal identity excepting those pertaining-to their sex and', perhaps to their child­hood and aduthebd; creatures like dogs and cats did not even have that type of identity. Shorn of all their individual and temporal identi­ties, they were given new identities. The figures were no longer skeletal in the anatomical sense, but the basic geometricity of the contours, the enormous, skulls holding small faces with prominent cheek-bones and the inevitable cage like thorax with ribs would immediately identify them as skeletal beings bereft of all conceivable nutri­tion. The ribs etched by deep bitings of acid and the cheek bones now appeared more like stab-wounds. Now and then the same ribs would appear as stitches. Along with these metaphor­ical devices, Somnath attempted another mor­phological transformation of the figure as a whole. The limbs were made to lose their anatomical semblances and the contours were made to assume a resemblance to leaves which began to evoke a suggestion of fragility. Wounded and helpless human animals were indeed like the rusty orange and rusty brown falling leaves of autumn. On top of that, often a mass of textural embellishment would evoke, resemblance to undefined and unformed organ­isms, like cancerous growth and killer gangrene. Often such masses or textural conglomerates would take tortuous gestural shapes - subversively suggestive of situations of turbulence (if such textural embellishments were outside the bound's of the figures) and inner unbalance (if such- textural effects were within the confines of the figures).

There is not an iota of doubt that the images of the Standing Girl in Grief (1964), the grief-striken Refugees (1964) around a dead-body, a father with his dead Child (1964), a begger with his pariah Dog (1965), the Mourners (1965) around a dead-body; the unclad Beggar Family (1966) praying to the sun for a little warmth, a seated figure grieving over a Dead Child (1966), the Child (1966) etc., had their genesis, in the Bengal Famine of 1943. But with each passing year Somnath, on one hand, got distanced from the details of the situation, on the other, the intensity of the immediate experience got intensified through a process of inward cogitation. The cogitation sparked off a process of conceptualization. Meanwhile, Somnath went through the experience of a number of other happenings, like the communal riots of 1946-47, the partition of the country in 1947 and the ensuing uprooting and migration of millions - in all of which he wit­nessed the destitution, suffering and death of hapless human beings, wounded victims of power game. He could conceptualize a resem­blance between all these dehumnization, desti­tution, suffering and death. With such a con­ceptual realization, the specificities of famine, communal riots, partition and daily deaths from deprivation appeared to him as incidental; the facts of destitution, suffering, death and the causes of such socio-pathological states became of primary importance. Now, if destitu­tion, suffering and death can be experienced as visual phenomena, their causes cannot be experienced in the same way. Causes are to be arrived at conceptually, and their visual corre­lates have to be conceived and projected as visual objects. Mere analytical conceptualization of the causes and their projection in terms of descriptive images would not do. The image Correlates of the causes had to be visually self-evident and convincing, that is, those had to be in tune with the rest of the visuals. The images of destitution, suffering, haplessness and death, ho constructed were very much physical. And so, the causes of those, he wanted to objectify visually, had to be physically ramified in order to be convincing. What else but an inflicted physical wound would be sufficient to cause such agony? In the wound mark Somnath found the symbol of all injustice and violence against the hapless underdog of humanity. Nothing could have been more convincing.

After staying for nearly, a decade in bureau­cratic Delhi, Somnath gave up his job with the Delhi Art College and returned, to a volatile Calcutta in 1967. After twenty years of Congress rule the first non Congress govern merit had - come to hold the reins of the state. The two Communist Parties (Somnath was member of one of them when they were one) had become partners in the Government. The people had united the left. In that context even the rebellious dissension of the break-away extreme left seemed neither out of place nor unmanageable. The futuristic Utopia of those radicals also had a ring of optimism in the con­text. Somnath like most other sympathisers of the left, could not gauge the depth of the cleav­ages which separated the different hues of the left. The euphoria was so widespread that everyone thought that the complete unity of the left was just around the comer. There was hope and optimism in the air. The fall of the first United Front Government of West Bengal could not prick the balloon of hope and optimism as it was explained away as a betrayal of the left by doubtful elements. The fall of the second United Front Government of 1969, however, could not be explained in similar terms. With this fall the prospect of the left unity was shattered. The renewed spurt of left extremist activity in its excesses drowned all Utopian hopes it once aroused. The climate of hope and optimism got shrouded in a pall of gloom. But hope once., aroused, takes rather long time to disappear. The liberation struggle of Bangladesh, in 1971, rekindled the flickering lamp of hope and opti­mism, albeit vicariously, for the people of West Bengal, only to be flicked off by early 1972. Somnath's works of the 1967-71 period were-mirrors of the moods of the people of West Bengal; They reflected the hopes and the doubts, the optimism and dejection which swayed and afflicted the people in those transitional years. But in mirroring the moods Somnath never felt it necessary to describe the situation which caused the moods, nor was he interested in the construction of a literary narra­tion. He was interested only in the construction of visual images which would exude the. basic, moods of hope and optimism. Let us briefly see what he did.

Oh returning to Calcutta in 1967, Somnath took to lithography, a medium which although he had tred before, had never sought to make: his major medium. Since, Somnath had, for a long time, been drawing massey lines and endowing to the masses linear gestures, the medium offered him a scope for the fusion of masses and lines, or perhaps the necessity of the fusion of the line and the mass induced him to take up lithography. :

The present writer would, however, like to believe that it was not just a wish to see the technical feasibility of fusion of lines and mass­es that induced Somnath to do what he did. Somnath's endeavour, at that point, was a multi­dimensional one. He was trying to integrate the representational, the metaphorcal, the sugges­tive and the symbolic in flat two-dimensional images of simple integrating structures in which all structural components would fuse integrally, insepararably and meaningfully. In other words, he had found a mode of objectification where form was the form of the content and the con­tent was the form in which it appeared.

Most of the prints-done between 1967 and '71 were duochromatic. Possibly for the first time in. his life, he used so strikingly contrasting colours as the scarlet and the black. On unadorned flat backgrounds of these prints, could be seen - flat silhouette-like (nameless and identity-less beings?) motifs of massey-lines/linear-masses/mass-lines. The comprising shapes of the figures and sometimes even who's figures, would metaphorically resemble frail leaves. At times alternatingly, at other times concurrently, the figures or their parts would resemble whole fruits cut in halves, dagger wounds and. stitched up wounded skins. But the whole figures were no longer the crouching, the squatting and the languidly standing figures of the yesteryears. They were now in action, postures and the gestural verb of the mass-lines evoked the suggestion that their actions were; voluntary and deliberate. The left-out pictorial space functioned as the grounds for the figures to coyer. It seemed that Somnath's damned humanity was no longer, helplessly awaiting their final demise; the wounded were rising up and surging forward. A fine example of the mood was his 1971 piece on Bangladesh. However, all his lithographs of 1967-71 did not reflect this mood of hope and optimism. He also did a number of black-and-red lithographs in which the mood reflected was one of gloom and depression. There, one would find crouching, squatting and languidly standing figures, mass-lines of tortuous gestures, claustrophobic left out space with tortuously shaped textual embellish­ments. One would find in them more red of blood than one found in the other sets of prints.

In 1969, which falls in the period under review, Somnath was invited by his friend and former colleague {at Delhi Art College) Dinkar Kowshik, who had earlier taken over the charge of reorganizing the moribund college of visual arts of vishwa Bharati University, to join the insti­tute as the Professor of Graphic Arts and help him (Kowshik) in reviving the former glory of Kala Bhavan. Somnath accepted the challenge and moved to Santiniketan. He took a little over half-a-decade to make the printmaking department one of the finest in India.

The years following 1971 saw terrible sup­pression of all hopes and crushing of all move­ments of the under-dogs. He could not take the peace of the graveyard as-an alternative to anarchy he would rather have a garbage-dump than, a decorative garden around the graveyard. The wounds once again made their appearance in Somnath's works this time with such ferociousness as had never been seen before.

Roughly, since 1971, Somnath has been engaged in taking prints from moulded cement matrices (the moulds are taken from originals made in clay), on paper pulps pressed flat, without colour. He calls all these prints by the single title, Wounds.

What one finds are a few organic shapes, in low relief, and contortions of the paper surface amid flat or mildly textured surface of white-paper. The shapes and the contortions invariably, have some gestural propensities, some of which are directional. The expanses of left-out space function as the past sources and the future ends of the gestural movements seen. In other words, the shapes and the con­tortions have dynamism of an organic kind, evoking thereby the associations of germina­tion, birth, decay and death. Not only the motifs, even the left-out spaces around the motifs (i.e. the shapes and the contortions) with their porous, goose-skin and freckled textures appear organic. The organic aspect of the space gets further heightened with each directional gesture of a motif, suggesting either an encroachment or a vacation of space. But these works are, in one respect, more tactile than just visual. They take a little time to affect which they do when their visual sensation gets transformed into a tactile sensation with time, given for observation. They grow with intensity of observation and begin to give the sensation of skin and flesh pierced by knives, spiked by bayonets, bat­tered by heavy sledgo-hammers, ferreted by shrapnels and: spoilt by unattended gangrene ooz­ing blood and pus.

There can hardly be any doubt that there is a contin­uous line of development from his earlier works to these. We have seen that Somnath has been successively shedding situa­tional, narratives and other contingent descriptive details to suggestively indi­cate the unseen cause of a social malady and to symbolically evaluate an aspect of seen reality to the status of a causative factor behind the malady. In order to achieve that end the aspect of pre-existent visual reality, now given a larger status, has to lose its representational unreality, to gain an autonomous sensuous real­ity. Somnath achieved this end by integrating the structural elements -of the pictorial language in a fully integrated structural whole where each ele­ment becomes inseparable from the whole and the whole becomes a sensuous object. He arrived at this integration in successive stages. The criticism which is usually levelled against the pulp prints of Somnath is that he has pro­ceeded so far in eliminating the situational narra­tive and contingent descriptive details that he has ended up by eliminating the wounded from the wound and has reduced the validity of the wound as wound. While, thereby, he has hon­estly and in a most direct manner expressed his feeling about wound, he has not only destroyed the communicability of the intensity of his feeling about wound but also of his conception about. the wound itself. The pulp-prints according to these critics are like all other examples of abstract expressionism, born of real life experi­ence but being expressed, in pure pictorial terms do not refer back to reality.

This criticism has some validity; but up to a point. Research of psychologists of the Gestalt school; the psychologists have come to believe in the impossibility of pure sensation. Now they believe that perception of a phenomenon or a situation is invariably the perception of a whole, with different weightage given to different parts. If a part is separated from its usual holistic con­text, the part loses its meaningfulness and, therefore, its communicability.

In answering a part of the criticism concerned abstraction of a part from its holistic-context, one may profitably use the argument of the critics themselves and say that the wounds-of these pulp-prints become more wounds in the con­text of the works of Somnath Hore.

As regarding the problem of communication, nobody can say with certainty as to what really communicates how much to whom, There had existed and do exist wide variations in the receptivity, not. Only of the para-linguistic forms addressed primarily to sense perception, but even of linguistic forms of communication, due to differences in social, cultural, educational and individual attainments. So, even the supposedly simplest formal language of straight-forward rep­resentation of pre-existent visual reality does not necessarily communicate sufficiently to the largest number. Secondly, and more important­ly, if an artist has to create with the receiver with lowest receptivity, in mind, he will have to work under a constraint hindering the free expression of his self; he will not be able to visually objectify anything which is not visually pre-existent; he will neither be able to objectify the intensity of his emotion nor the depth of his conception. From the point of view of communication, what is important is not to whom a work of art commu­nicates, but whether a work of art has an intrin­sic communicability. As we have already seen, Somnath's pulp-prints pass this acid test suc­cessfully.

Although from the first encounter with these pulp-prints one gets the impression that these are yet another example of organic (cf. Wolfang Worringers distinction between 'geometric' and, 'organic' verifies of abstract, art) kind of abstract expressionism, they do in fact refer to the sen­suous correlates in the reality and thereby, evoke real life associations. Besides this, there are a number of facts to testily that Somnath's concern has always remained firmly posted in reality and his aim had always been to visually objectify the unseen reality in the most effective language that communicates directly to sense-perception.

Alongside these pulp-prints Somnath has been taking intaglio prints from engravings done on metal sheets with burin. These are figurative pictures in the conventional sense of the term. All these are flat and linear compositions with neither background nor foreground. He crowd­ed the compositions with, a number of figures engraved in bold definitional lines of geometrical propensity. Though the contour lines are geo­metrical he takes pain to emphasise the skeletal structures of the figures to present them in their inner nakedness. The figural gestures are at their minimum, yet he manages to present them in various physical action postures. This he does, partly, by altering the angles of vision for each group or each figure. The figures are devoid of all temporal identity, excepting those pertaining to their sex, age and health status. The theme is the cycle of life comprising birth, copulation and death. Eating, lovemaking or suf­fering, whatever may be the physical act, in which these beings have been depicted as engaged in, appears as an act to be accom­plished in its finality,' as the last act, before oncoming awesome death. Now, do we or don't we find a family resemblance of these engravings to the pulp-prints?

Emergence of the Sculptor:

It was perhaps in the logic of Somnaths developmental direction that he came to make metal-cast objects-in-the-round, after and alongside the low reliefs in paper-pulp. He was well past fifty, when for the first time he turned To make sculptures and that too by casting bronze which is a difficult enough process, especially when he decided to make the objects directly in wax over metal armatures, instead of doing it in malleable, material like plaster of Paris or clay-When the first few objects came out and were exhibited by the Society of Contemporary Artists in Calcutta, everyone, and that included a num­ber of well established sculptors, were con­vinced that what he was seeking was not a diversion, but an extension of his concern.

Somnath, along with a few others, can be regarded as the progenitor of the main spirit of the seventies in Indian art. Unlike most of his predecessors and contemporaries, he was never primarily motivated by art objects and styles of art, past or present, of indigenous or of foreign origin. Since the ascribed status of pre-existent art styles mattered but very little to him he could never feel content by being an improviser. His primary motivation has always been his experience of the external world around him. It has always been his aim to objectify visually his own experience of the phenomenal world in perceptible terms, so that others can share his experience. To objectify his experience he has never felt shy to learn his lessons from a variety of pre-existent styles; irrespective of the status given to them, this is what many contemporary Indian artists are doing since the late sixties. In this respect, as well, Somnath is a pioneer.

Pranab Ranjan Roy

Art Historian

Calcutta

1981

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