This workshop, ‘Peasant movements through the Eyes of Somnath Hore’, was a collaboration between Arthshila Ahmedabad and History for Peace—an initiative of the Seagull Foundation for the Arts. With this being the third time we were doing this workshop, there was a sense of some known terrain but also vastly unknown, given the difference in space and setting in which I was facilitating the workshop this time.
To begin with, the city of Ahmedabad is situated at significant distance, geographically and culturally, from the space that Somnath Hore occupied in practicing his art—that is, primarily Bengal. The last two times we did this workshop at History for Peace, they were held at Arthshila in Santiniketan and Emami in Kolkata, both of which by virtue of their location shared closer linkages with the artist and his body of work. This then organically brought a sense of familiarity about the artist’s work and his politics among the participants.
This time, therefore, our starting point for the workshop had to be different, with much emphasis on locating the artist in the history of the subcontinent and then specifically in Bengal. Without having given any context, the workshop started with a walkthrough of the show, where the participants were given about 20 minutes to browse through the entire exhibition and come back with anything that stood out as distinctive among the works. This was done intentionally to get a sense of their immediate responses to the works without giving them the socio-political context. There was this common observation that emerged from their responses where they thought that his works could be divided into clear chronological divisions based on his use of medium. Here, we intervened to direct them towards realizing that none of these watertight divisions could be applied to his work because there are constant overlaps in terms of his use of medium and most often , simultaneous works are being conceived in varied mediums around the same period. Some of the responses that they came back with were the urgency of the moment in which Hore was conceiving these works. There were others who thought his works—particularly the sculptures—left an impression of not having the finest surfaces. Picking up the conversation from there, I linked it to his larger idea of ‘wounds’ as that which remained ever present in all his work. This led to the larger conversation around who Somnath Hore was, the larger historical context within which he conceives his art, and the politics of his aesthetics.
The participants were then given about 15 minutes to look through a selection of sketches and texts from the two movements—Tebhaga peasants’ movement and the Darjeeling Tea Garden workers’ movement—the notebooks and sketches from both of which have been published by Seagull Books in English translation. Thereafter, we did a brief overview of the historical context in which both these movements were playing out. The participants were then divided into groups to work on a comparative analysis between the two movements around a particular sub-theme, which included: Background & context; Grievances that brought about this agitation; Leadership and mobilization in the movements; Role of women; How did both these movements conclude: their impact. Their responses went into realizing the trajectory where while the specifics of the two movements were distinctive, the larger nature of the mobilization, its demands, the culture of protest, and impact saw immense similarities. Therefore, thinking about the nature of resistance itself between an empire and a newly emerging nation state and whose voices get pushed to the margins despite the larger structural shifts in these major moments of historical change, as it were, on the surface.
After a short break, we returned to a conversation around Somnath Hore’s larger trajectory of work. His thoughts on how his lifelong exposure to the Second World War, Vietnam War, Bengal riots, Bengal famine, Partition went into shaping his art—emphasizing on him saying that even when he actively tried to move away from the subject of wounds, the subject kept returning to him in his use of the medium. This discussion concluded with thinking about the place of art in addressing such severe societal issues from one’s present moment: What is it that art brings in articulating resistance where it is realized as a distinctive medium in recording the moment?
Linking this with instances from Tebhaga and the Darjeeling Tea Garden movements, there was a conversation around the importance of creating a distinctive indigenous protest language in mobilizing and sustaining these movements. Drawing from this, in the final section, the participants were divided into groups where they were to pick one movement outside the ones discussed to think about its distinctive protest culture and find examples of what emerged as part of protest culture during these moments. We concluded with emphasizing on understanding the question of how we represent what we see around us and the place of our perspectives and politics therein, and how this translates in the body of work of an artist like Somnath Hore across his use of varied mediums.