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It's time to give due recognition to Somnath Hore for his masterpieces

The ongoing retrospective of the seminal artist at the KNMA, New Delhi, has the potential to get the market interested in his art

Its time to give due recognition to Somnath Hore for his masterpieces

The 13th edition of the India Art Fair that concluded at the beginning of the month, gave birth to several major exhibitions at various venues across New Delhi, launched by galleries and museums to make the art fair experience comprehensive for all its visitors, both from India and abroad. Most of those shows continue in the city, making this period unusually enriching, especially after the two-year-hiatus enforced by the pandemic.

Many of these exhibitions are seminal, indeed, but here, I would like to bring focus on a particular one, titled 'Somnath Hore | Birth of a White Rose', currently on view at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) in Saket, New Delhi. What makes this show the most important of the entire year, perhaps, is its potential to catapult the oeuvre of this seminal Indian modernist - currently not as well-known outside the art circles as he should be - to the heights he truly deserves. Hore (1921-2006) is celebrated well within the artistic-academic circles, but in light of his outstanding contributions to Indian modern art, he deserves to be feted equally well by the market; and with as much fanfare as has been accorded to his contemporaries such as S. H. Raza, M. F. Husain, F. N. Souza, V. S. Gaitonde, to name a few.

The importance of a retrospective

What can an exhibition do to an artist's career, a layman may rightfully ask. Several factors go into the making of the complex rigmarole that makes and builds an artist's career, helping him succeed and rise above the ordinary. One important factor amongst these is the role played by a museum/ gallery in building the right interest in an artist's work, an interest that his/ her art truly deserves (and not due to any media frenzy). Curated by Roobina Karode, the Somnath Hore retrospective needs only one comprehensive visit to prove to the viewer the excellent and rigorous scholarship that has gone behind this vast show on the artist-pedagogue, whose practice coursed the routes of social realism as well as humanistic modernism, mentoring generations of students and artists.

Named after Hore's eponymous work that won him the prestigious National Award of the Lalit Kala Akademi in 1962, the exhibition covers a huge arc of the artist's career, from his earliest years to the last, presenting a humungous range of works - from prints and printing plates to paintings and bronze sculptures.

It has been seen that when an exhibition backed by such scholarship brings focus on an important artist such as Hore, and removes cobwebs from the understanding of his work by common admirers of art, a domino effect of appreciation is put in motion, which eventually leads to a nod by the global market too.

The most recent case of renewed appreciation of an artist's worth by a market has been that of V. S. Gaitonde (1924-2001), one of whose works currently holds the record of the most expensive Indian painting - it is an Untitled oil on canvas by Gaitonde, made in 1969, which was sold for Rs 42 crore in February this year at an auction by Pundole's in Mumbai.

An important artist from Bombay who was highly regarded in the artistic and academic circles for charting an individual course of abstractionism, and who was also associated with the seminal Progressive Artists' Group, Gaitonde did not enjoy the spotlight in his lifetime like his art is doing now. Admired and collected by true connoisseurs, he didn't enjoy superstardom in his lifetime like his contemporaries Raza and Husain. He came under global focus most prominently after his landmark retrospective was hosted by the prestigious Guggenheim Museum in New York from October 2014 to February 2015.

The show, titled 'V. S. Gaitonde: Painting as Process, Painting as Life', was not only backed by one of the most important names of modern art, but also by scholarship that did justice to the understanding of his oeuvre. Soon, Gaitonde was pushed into the very centre of the spotlight, where he continues to shine.

Nasreen Mohamedi (1937-1990) is another artist the understanding and appreciation of whose art has benefitted due to an important retrospective hosted by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, from March to June 2016, in association with Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, and the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi.

As an admirer of art and someone perceptive to the intellectual perspicacity of an artist to his environment, and the effort required to translate all that he sees around him in his works, this writer sincerely hopes that the current KNMA show will prove for Somnath Hore what the Guggenheim show did for Gaitonde.

The significance of Somnath Hore

Somnath Hore, who would have been 100 last year, was born in Chittagong in present-day Bangladesh. Exploration of the human suffering through his art remained his lifelong leitmotif. His coming into his own as an artist coincided with some epochal events in the Indian subcontinent - the Bengal Famine of 1943, the Tebhaga peasant uprising of 1946, the Partition and the consequent violence - which deeply affected his art, leaving an impression for a lifetime. Like many young men of his times, including the artist Chittaprosad, Hore too joined the Communist Party for a while, and his early sketches of human suffering appeared in the party's journals. Though he dabbled in a variety of media, he is best remembered for his prints, a genre of art that he contributed to immensely, setting up the printmaking department at Delhi Polytechnic and later heading the same at Kala Bhavana, Santiniketan.

A novel style that he essayed was visible in his Wounds series of works, where he foregrounded the suffering of the deprived through slashes and lacerations on paper.

Somnath Hore's art (along with that of Chittaprosad's) is a grim reminder of the mammoth human tragedies - engineered by men in power - that humanity has a way of forgetting before long. His art also emphasises the need for art to portray all that exists, beyond the beautiful and the aesthetic, and be the voice of the people when they find none. His art is like an important document that only gets more valuable with each passing era.

A quick scan of the top auctions reveals that not many Somnath Hore works have been offered at sales, but those that have been offered, have almost always been sold for way beyond the highest estimate. Some of his top works sold at auctions include an Untitled bronze (1988) of a slain animal at Sotheby's in 2007 for $60,000 (approx. Rs 46 lakh at current conversion rates), and Draupadi and Shakuni, another bronze (1992), sold by Christie's in 2017 $118,750 (approx. Rs 92 lakh at current prices). There's no reason why Somnath Hore cannot achieve greater prices at the market.

(The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist, editor and arts consultant)

Archana Khare-Ghose
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