A menacing edge to a rarefied elegance

by Somak Ghoshal
The Telegraph

Around this time last year, the Seagull Arts and Media Resource Centre had organized an exhibition of Somnath Hore’s prints, which brought together some of his earliest studies from the 1940s and ’50s along with his later pen-and-ink drawings. While that show chronicled the evolution of the young poster-painter for the Communist Party into a sublime genius, this year, Seagull has selected a handful of bronzes, drawings and watercolours that bear the unmistakable mark of the master’s middle-to-late style. Showing till May 20, this beautifully put together exhibition looks beyond the popular perception of Hore as the archivist of hunger and pain. Instead it revives a somewhat less evident aspect of his versatile brilliance: his lifelong absorption in the little dramas of everyday existence.

Since the drawings and watercolours have been chosen from a set of Hore’s sketchbooks of the 1990s, they often look like pages from a visual diary of someone who is probably confined indoors, but soaks his eyes in the fleeting beauty of daily life. From the feel of the twilight air to the chromatic rhythms of each season, nothing escapes his ever-alert senses and eternally curious mind. We invariably think of Amal in Tagore’s Daakghar, looking out all day on the life that unfolds just outside his window, ever within his reach but forever unreachable. The men, women and animals that fill up Hore’s sketchbooks are similarly touched by a graceful innocence. It is evident that these figures have been brought to life by hands which once keenly felt the ripples of each unremarkable day, and that aching memory of a deeply sensual past remains still alive in every line that these hands have traced on paper.

From being just another daily record, the sketchbooks start looking like a journal of the mind, a history of inwardness, an internalized document of the vestiges of time. The limpid reds and blues become chaotically interspersed with black and brown, the brushwork becomes frenetic, and the luminous stillness of the mother-and-child series is broken. Hore’s obsession with the twinned oneness of the mother and her child is remarkable. In a series of delicate drawings, he depicts a mother holding her child, each inseparable from the other, fused to resemble an all new creature of love (picture: below, left). Pale shades of orange liven up their faces, while a waning grey hovers like the harbinger of imminent decay.

This paradoxical co-existence of burgeoning life-force and ebbing vitality is most eloquently captured in the bronzes. Hore’s sculptures have shed the trappings of flesh as they stand erect in their rarefied, bony elegance. These hollow men, women and children — drinking thirstily (picture: below, right), lying at ease, seated pensively, at play with one another, or standing shockingly lean in their visceral emptiness — bring to mind Giacometti’s stick people. Yet, if the Italian master’s greatness comes from making what is abstract intensely expressive, Hore’s characters remain unforgettable for the shimmering clarity of their structures. In Hore’s aesthetics, Giacometti’s mystery meets Brancusi’s lucidity to create a mystically ambivalent form.

At times, one feels baffled, even disturbed, by the utterly unpredictable effects of Hore’s art. The charged figures in metal sway the viewer from one emotion to the other, often merging different layers of feelings. Looking at the powerful scene of Shakuni disrobing Draupadi, one is initially startled by the literalism of the composition in which a vulture tears away a haggard woman’s sari (picture: above). Yet even as we take in the ruthless hunger of this carrion-eater, the wasted contours of the woman’s body, and the signs of affliction written all over her face, we also gaze on her parted lips and closed eyes, and are reminded, momentarily, of Bernini’s St Teresa.

As violence gets riddled by eroticism and physical decline becomes intertwined with sensuous longing, moments of pain and pleasure are darkly conflated. The figures, sleeping their troubled sleep, or caught in the throes of a wet dream, take on a menacing edge. Sleep suddenly begins to look like death’s brother.

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