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From a student to his teacher

Updated: May 20, 2021

KS Radhakrishnan & Aashna in a discussion on his upcoming book on SOMNATH HORE

PC- KS Radhakrishnan

There will always be artists who will stay true to their vision and may not acquiesce to commerce. Somnath Hore was one such artist. The mastery of his craft mesmerized generations of students at the famous Santiniketan leaving an intangible mystique long after the dust of the classroom studio was just a cherished memory in their minds.

One of Somnath Hore’s students from Kala Bhavana in the 70s sculptor K.S. Radhakrishnan discusses his close acquaintance with him. Many students got guidance from the master printmaker & sculptor Somnath Hore. And the artist is remembered in his centenary year with an exposition curated by K.S. Radhakrishnan along with a book to be released on his art on that occasion.

As we will learn in the following interview of K.S. Radhakrishnan by Aashna Abrol, Somnath Hore was an exceptional example for the kind of subjects & ideas he dealt with which finds a consistent relevance even today. His empathy for the poor, the meek and the weak were monumental. The theme of “suffering” filled his prints and served as the foundation of his sculptures throughout a career spanning 70 years.

He was a maverick who thought out of the box and experimented with different techniques in an era when experimenting in printmaking may not have been the norm of the day. His diligence, incredible work ethic and the stubbornness to not give up or to lose belief in the importance of his art has stood the testament of time and speaks a volume on the importance of passion, excellence, technique and craft as pivotal components to longevity and the bedrock to realizing success as an artist- even today!

Somnath Hore spent a lifetime as a teacher. He was a professor in the Dept. of Graphics at one of the prestigious art institutes of our country, Kala Bhavana, Visva Bharati at Santiniketan. There he became a close associate of the painter K.G. Subramanyan and the sculptor Ramkinkar Baij as the story has been told countless times.

Former Governor of West Bengal and Author Gopal Krishna Gandhi wrote in “The Telegraph”...

“Somnath Hore was more than an artist. He was a witness of the human drama but a witness with a skill that translated his witnessing into art. In an age when secularism, socialism and peace can be seen- or rubbished- as shibboleths, he knew them to be vital needs. In times when art can become a play-thing of drawing rooms and auction halls, he kept it close to its springs-his human sensibility.”

Title: Untitled

Medium: Drawing

PC - KS Radhakrishnan

K.S. Radhakrishnan, the curator of the upcoming show, recollects Somnath Hore not only for his incisive attention to the lives of the ordinary but also for the man who lived his life for his art.

Somnath Hore is well known for his series of works under the title ‘Wounds’ created with different mediums among them the white on white pulp print in the 70s are highly researched about. His famous Tebhaga series evolved after India's partition in the 1950s and Radhakrishnan points out that Somnath Hore was a radical thinker and a revolutionary throughout his life. Perhaps that is why one might argue his radical extreme beliefs shaped his art. A member of the Communist Party and its ideals in his youth; it is no surprise that his sketches were published in the Communist Party publications 'Janayuddha' and 'People’s War’ Publications.

Radhakrishnan notes Somnath Hore was deeply affected by the effect of politics and influential power groups on the trajectory of social change which would shape the destiny and evolution of Humankind.

According to many scholars and the curator, Somnath Hore was inspired in his youth by the jubilant and confident style of German printmaker Käthe Kollwitz and Austrian Expressionist Oskar Kokoschka. He also gravitated to certain aspects of Chinese “socialist” realism and German expressionism. That is why when one views his work and its evolution, one notices that his art becomes more minimalistic as his ideas and belief become stronger.

His art was a “reaction” to major upheavals and events of his time. The human form has been a constant in Somnath Hore’s figures. His work is bold and the textures are extreme as he uses rough textures in his prints and slits, holes and exposed channels in the sculptures. The exhibition and publication will be a comprehensive documentation of the life and times of one of Somnath Hore the pioneer in the field of printmaking and sculpture which will be sponsored by Takshila Museum of Art.

AA: I know you met Somnath Hore in Shantiniketan, how was your relationship with him?

KSR: I took to sculpting in the third year of a five-year BFA course at Shantiniketan. I was 18 years old when I came from Kerala to Shantiniketan to do an intense art program with a specialization in painting. In the first two years, there is an integrated course where you get to work and explore many genres of art such as woodcutting, printing, lithography, sculptures, besides painting. I decided to take up sculpture as my focus inspired by some of the masters who were part of the faculty.

“Even though I concentrated on sculpting in my third year of the program, I came in contact with Somnath Hore while doing the integrated course to work on woodcuts, and my understanding shifted as Somnath Hore worked on his sculpture’’

Title: Untitled

Medium: Lithograph

PC - KS Radhakrishnan

You carry this guidance throughout your lifetime. Though I wasn't a direct student or printmaker, I must say he influenced my life. At the time, Somnath Hore was larger than life in printmaking on the campus and in India.

Somnath Hore stood out among the teachers and the staff, even among his colleagues. I had a wonderful relationship with him and his presence on the campus was so huge in terms of his drawings, wood-cuts and also prints. Many teachers don’t do their practice along with the students. My relationship was built around that. He was always continuously working in the studio (not his watercolours was the classroom. He was accessible, and he was very concerned about the students and gave everybody individual attention. His entire attitude and approach that he took towards his work of art had a seriousness, a belief.

I learned from him first-hand. Though I was not a direct student or a print-maker, I learned so much from Somnath Hore through informal dialogues not only about art technique but also about all the important ingredients that are on the periphery but equally important.

Title: Untitled

Medium: Drawing

PC - KS Radhakrishnan

AA: Would you say Somnath Hore influenced your art?

KSR: Though Somnath Hore was a printmaker. He was also a humanist. In 1975, he made a sculpture based on the theme of what war does to you. He always imbibed people’s suffering. Suffering has always been there; anytime; anywhere; in the last century- especially during the famine and Vietnam War. He witnessed extreme human suffering. This theme was woven into his work throughout his life.

“He truly believed that human suffering should not be ignored and his art projected this thought.”

This was the year the Vietnam War was over. He had just completed a sculpture that was three feet high. He moulded the structure of the sculpture by only using wax sheets. The sheets are bent and joined together. He ended up creating a free-standing structure which he titled, “A Mother and Child”. A woman is standing with a baby clinging on her chest, integrating mother and child. This was a very strong image and statement, two figures are put together to become one. When the sculpture was made in 1975, it created a ripple effect of appreciation. He joined the wax pieces together- which was unusual. Normally, we do a sculpture in clay and then cast it in plaster of Paris or bronze.

Because he directly jumped to moulding in wax -when he cast it — he was able to retain all the details in the wax. However, if you cast directly from wax, the wax will eventually get lost. Thus, you cannot make a second cast of the sculpture. So, you can only have one cast from that mould.

AA: Sadly, the sculpture went missing as there was only one.

KSR: Precisely, and my story starts from there. The sculpture went missing.

AA: Do you have personal anecdotes? You used to meet Somnath Hore on campus. Any anecdotes you want to share?

KSR: As a student, I have shared the studio of Sarbari Roy Choudhury, which was on the ground floor and Somnath Hore’s studio was above mine. Because of that, we get to meet very often for informal chats at one of the Bokul trees. It was an intimate dialogue in terms of knowing each other emotionally and as a teacher-student relationship. Someone you can talk to a lot, obviously because of our shared love for art. Then the friendship begins. He was not a 'heavy shouldered' person. He was not a snob. Whoever he was friendly with, he used to talk to them. He was not a public persona, despite his fame. Thus, he valued his privacy and between us, there were a lot of private dialogues. If you had an inquiry, individually, he would talk to you. He was approachable. That’s why I could maintain a successful relationship with him. He was a workaholic. He was always drawing. He had a plethora of sketchbooks. The sketches are dated with the day and month. Hundreds of sketches he has done. He worked with pen and ink, charcoal, pencils, pastels and watercolours. A lot of mediums other than printmaking he explored and that kept him experimenting. Making sketches was a practice that was so strong among artists who lived and worked at Santiniketan. Many artists from Nandalal Bose to Ramkinkar Baij. It could be a postcard, newspaper or paper, to using brush, ink, pencil, charcoal. Ramkinkar Baij and Binode Bihari Mukherjee continued this tradition and hence continued the process and used these sketches for an idea to develop and workaround. These collected ideas, through the sketches, were used as a starting point for the final work of art.

“Sometimes you would draw a dog, and sometimes you would imagine a dog and when you drew the dog from imagination -what you produce creates a conscious figure and structure and an intentional departure from the actual structure of the subject of the dog or human or figure.”

Title: Dog

Medium: Bronze

PC - KS Radhakrishnan

That is a conscious departure from reality, and you create your structure. All these exercises combined became the prerequisites of his technique and supported his style of creating lithographs, woodcuts and prints. All these exercises were the true lessons that lead to his methods of printmaking. That freedom he always enjoyed; sometimes looking at the figure and drawing and sometimes working from imagination. Eventually, they found their place in his lithographs, etchings, intaglios and prints.

Title: Untitled

Medium: Etching

PC - KS Radhakrishnan

AA: He just did not do printmaking. He has done woodcuts, lithographs, a pulp-print technique for his 'Wound series' and bronze works. Can you talk a little bit about that?

KSR: When he retired in 1983, he established a foundry in the courtyard of his house, so he could sculpt. He leads a simple life. Like all villagers, he lived in a mud house.

In 1958-68 he was Professor at Delhi Art College. After that, he got the invitation to elevate the Department of Graphics at Santiniketan where he started in 1969 till he retired. He did sculptures till the late 1990s. In the late 90s, his lungs were very badly affected by the kind of materials he worked which involved acid, smokes etc because of which he fell sick. All that put together affected his health and led to an infection in his lungs. His health started deteriorating, but until the age of 80, he remained active.

Title: Wound Series

Medium: Pulp Print

PC - KS Radhakrishnan

AA: Did you see Chinese realism influences and Russian-German impressionism in his Tebhaga series?

KSR: Many artists were influenced by many sources at that time of revolution. And Somnath Hore was a revolutionary. The Tebhaga Series was made in the 1940s. The woodcut method has a reproductive nature because of which the process can reach out to a lot of people. There was a lot of gravitation from outside sources. He made slogans and posters which were being made to reach out to people. Mass-produced posters were a part of that era.

“The Chinese calligraphic aspects of some of his works inspired his final artworks at the time.”

The figures were emerging from the very dark to the light. Chinese elements were evident in these series.

At the time, he was in close association with many revolutionary people and many of the secret meetings were held especially at night. This is the reason, the people in his works emerged from dark to light. The individual portraits in the Tebhaga Series stand out for depicting expressions and seriousness. The idea was to protect the life and struggle of the movement involving the farmers' strike at that time. The largest strike of the farmers- the country had seen then. It was a strong statement of the life of the struggle; a documentation of the individual and collective struggle. Some influences are there, always, for different artists. It is very natural for painters to get influenced or to make an impact on fellow artists who are working in the same direction.

Radhakrishnan's full documented book on Somnath Hore was to be released on the 13th of April this year on the hundredth birth anniversary but is postponed for another convenient watercolour so the pandemic throughout the country.

Somnath Hore whose contribution will be felt strongly by the Art fraternity and any common man. He is the man who devoted all his life caring for humanity and expressed the same through his art, passed away in 2006 at Santiniketan.

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