Many artists arrive at their vocation through trial and error and after a meandering education that has finally led them to discover their true passion when they sacrifice all else for its sake. An artist's early life is often one of change and adventure, of the pursuit of ideals or of the illusory mirage. This ability to deviate, to choose, to fashion one's destiny, accepting a deep satisfaction as the only touchstone characterises the true creator. The cost of the struggle is generally great; again, there is the long apprenticeship when the lessons of -art have to be learnt or discovered not so much through study as through experience, till life and art become one medium. Like the words and tune of a song, both unite and are aspects of the same reality. Then it is that the personality of the artist leaves its stamp on his work as a recognisable and inseparable signature.
Somnath Hore chose graphic art as his language after a long quest. Born in 1921 at Chittagong, his early years were not unusual. He was educated at the Jilla School in Maldah and at matriculation stood first in his district which won him a scholarship. He joined the Chittagong College where he did his I.Sc. and later was admitted to the City College for B.Sc. It was then that the idealist in him appeared. The famine in Bengal caused many young people to turn to leftist ideologies. Somnath was involved with relief work and started his art career doing posters for this purpose. This led him to be excited about art, he dimly sensed its possibilities and joined the Art School in Calcutta in 1945. But after working a few years, Somnath was again involved in the political struggle. However the rough and tumble of political life hardly suited a person whose temperament was inherently gentle and sensitive. He returned to painting for solace and succour. He started teaching art, a job that also gave him time to paint. In 1954 he gave up school teaching and joined the Indian College of Art and Draftsmanship where he was in-charge of the graphic section. The Indian College had a number of promising young artists at this time and there was a general enthusiasm for work. Somnath married the painter Reba Das Gupta in 1954 and together they held joint exhibitions of their works in 1956, '57 and '58. Somnath's painting was already well received, he was developing a firm but gentle personal style. A new phase of his art and life began with his moving to Delhi in 1958. Here he joined the Fine Arts Department of the Delhi Polytechnic where again he was in-charge of the graphic section.
Somnath's early experiments had been mainly with wood engraving but now he took up lithography and etching exploring each medium more intensively. The graphic section of the College was slowly and carefully built up by Somnath's devotion to it. Indeed an entire crop of young Delhi graphicists owe their training and technical knowledge to his guiding hand and eye for he was among the most encouraging and painstaking of teachers. This period was also one of growth and self-discovery in his own work. He progressed from thematic compositions to prints based pre-dominantly on abstract values. Though his works continue to be figurative or imagist, they are not merely so, rather they consist of an association of forms and motifs in space, in colour juxtapositions, in line and texture play and in experiments through which he could discover for himself what could and could not be done. He developed a loyalty to the media. Somnath received the National Award for Painting in 1960, and afterwards for his Graphics in 1962 and 1963.
He resigned from his Delhi job in 1967-mainly because he did not find enough time for his own printmaking. He felt a discontent with his progress which needed perhaps another change and refreshment. By this time the artist had long accepted graphic art as his primary language of expression. He considered the mastery of technique, only a means to an end which was a highly personal expression in terms purely visual. Though Somnath uses images and motifs, there is no attempt to preserve their original unity or identity or to use their allusions. He continues working on a plate till a new image, which is his image, is achieved. He works on a plate slowly waiting or allowing the composition to arrive of itself. To work creatively, he says, the process itself is both pleasure and pain, patience and discovery.
The graphic art of Somnath Hore can be studied according to the various major techniques he has practised. As stated earlier he moves from an earlier figurative phase and set subject-matter to an abstract expression which though removed from reality still retains a tenuous link with known forms. He also progresses from a comparatively careful and measured style towards spontaneous and casual works. All of his work, however, whether early or late, carries the characteristics of the artist's temperament, a feeling for the human condition, a style which is poetic rather than merely grammatic and a restraint or delicacy of expression. There is no bravado of texture or feeling, no extravagance in size or virtuosity, rather the artist speaks with a mellowness which is part of reticence and refinement.
Somnath's early engravings and woodcuts usher in the style revealing the artist's sympathies and his artistic roots. If they are thematic, nevertheless, we see that they have a characteristic expressiveness; though concerned with subject-matter they are also concerned with form, and also, they are in term of the black and white textures of the medium. (Perhaps it is necessary to keep in mind that at this time in the early 1950s there was hardly any new work being done in graphics, the only works of the past that the artist had seen were those of Ramendranath Chakravorty, Mukul Dey, Nandalal Bose or Muirhead Bone.) An early engraving People's Meeting conveys the tentative nature of his work, and the artist's feeling for his subject. In this print, we see a huddle of figures, naturalistically portrayed, crowded around a lamp, the light falling partially, on individual faces reveals the scene where an elderly man in a shawl is talking to the group. The mood of the composition is not one of violence or anger, rather the atmosphere is one of quiet interest. It is clear that the artist felt a deep sympathy for the poor and disinherited. Similar subjects from everyday life such as Tea Stall or Street View engaged the artist from 1950 to 57. A more confident treatment is seen in woodcuts where the texture of the wood chipping is preserved. The movement is flowing rather than jagged, the forms seem wrapped up in themselves. A small example is Sitting Figure which might be said to have biographical overtones. The figure is only a motif which is pressed flat on to the surface or the Plane the print is really a play of textures, one notice; that the artist does not go in for accidental effects, rathertheabstract qualities in the study of them-selves form the work and convey a mood.
Somnath's etchings form the bulk of his work in the second period at Delhi, many of these were done in softground, the artist preparing the materials he needed himself. Old etching presses were carefully rehabilitated, inks and colours mixed and tried out. While interested in technical effects Somnath's work does not thrive on them. He never succumbed to a display of virtuosity, rather his works done with great sincerity and feeling have become what they are because of a restrained and delicate handling of print processes. We see the emotional content of the artist's work coming through in spite of the complex technical print language. In etching the earlier works tend to be extensions and distortions of figurative images while the later works are more abstract, and their colours softer. There is use of textural variations including embossed and deeply etched areas. The melodic quality of the artist's style is maintain-ed. In the earlier compositions of this second phase the figure of man is a dissolving shape. The space surrounding him is a holocaust, he is caught in the web of a destiny to which he seems unequal. The rough, uneven, eaten away textures seem to be a pessimistic forecast of man's impending doom. The period of this heightened textural surface is also one which is common in contemporaneous painting. The colours are mat, and often the artist uses black or other dark colours. For example, The Magician, The Dream, Birth of a White Rose etc. A more elemental and clear type of composition follows in the second half of the sixties, in which the juxtaposition of forms or their comparison with each other is the real theme. The arrangements are flatter and there is no concession to atmosphere. The colours are subdued and sophisticated as for example In the Pod and Child both of 1967. The lines, forms, and surface texture are used almost tenderly.
In 1967 the artist moved back to Bengal. Though he had experimented before with lithography he now returned to it to evolve something comparatively basic and elemental. In our country the artist is also the printer and so part of his energies are devoted towards attaining excellence in printing. In Somnath's recent phase he aims to get the maximum effects of smoothness and spontaneity from it. The forms are broken up into their constituent units and the brushwork is very fluid, the structure of the work is loose and free. Three major kinds of work characterise his present output: (a) in some we see a composition which is an arrangement of delicate tones-the effect is almost that of a collage of transparent 'tissue paper cuts, (b) secondly there are some with bold calligraphic units, where the artist writes or draws figurative hieroglyphs and (c) thirdly we have compositions of textures drawn in small motifs and patterns which become an all over pattern like a crazy quilt. To all of these works the artist brings his usual sensitivity and care.
In conclusion Somnath's work as a teacher should be recognised. When he came to Delhi in 1958 there were isolated graphicists working here, but shows exclusively of prints were rarely seen. Somnath not only built up the Graphic Department of the College of Art but taught and inspired a large number of young printmakers. Graphic art has since become a popular medium and regular exhibitions of it including one man shows, of a high standard are held every year. The turning point in the tide has largely been due 70 his efforts in creating an enthusiasm for the graphic process. The burgeoning harvest of prints today may be said to be at least partly due to his ten years of work in Delhi.
Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary, 1972