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The Peasant Movements through the Eyes of Somnath Hore: Workshop Report


—Rajosmita Roy

The workshop, ‘The Peasant Movements through the Eyes of Somnath Hore’, was held as a collaboration between Arthshila and History for Peace at the Arthshila arts space in Santiniketan on 24 April 2022 as part of their exhibition of Somnath Hore’s works marking his birth centenary. It was based out of the teaching resource that we had developed by the same name that had emerged out of two Somnath Hore works published by Seagull Books in English translation, Tebhaga Diary and The Tea Garden Journal.

The workshop began with the group of 18 high school students being taken on a guided walkthrough of the exhibition by Arpita Akhanda—a student at Kala Bhavan and an artist herself. This set the tone for the session with her having broken down the methods and aesthetics of his art in ways to introduce a sense of his politics in his aesthetics through that and how his use of different mediums becomes gradually enmeshed with his choice of subject. The workshop also received some very significant inputs from the presence of Soumyadeep Roy who is an artist himself, and Nabottama Pal who teaches Political Science at high school. The first segment began with getting a sense of the socio-political context in the 1930s and 1940s in India, particularly Bengal, from the participants. The students were well aware of the historical moment. Upon posing the question of who got freedom in 1947, they started with discussing about the two nations of India and Pakistan which then moved into them bringing some of the more marginalized narratives of people’s disillusionment with the larger freedom struggle and what freedom meant for different sections of the population. They were then given a brief period to view the selected sketches from both these texts to get an initial sense of the two movements, to then draw their immediate reactions to these works. There were quite a few participants who were particularly drawn to this one sketch of two women in conversation with children on their backs from Tebhaga Diary. This moved into discussing the place of gender in framing the discourse of people’s movements. Thereupon, on further discussion about a significant moment that had occurred between the 1930 Darjeeling tea garden workers’ movement and the Tebhaga peasant movement in 1946, they mentioned the 1943 Bengal Famine. That became our entry point into the discussion of both these movements in some detail in terms of its background, context, its major players, their demands, the language of their struggle, the culture of resistance, their daily life with particular emphasis on the experience and memory of the famine being fundamental in how the Tebhaga movement was shaped. Before we took a short break, Nabottama brought to life the spirit of the Tebhaga movement, singing for us Salil Chowdhury’s ‘Hey Samalho’.

The students were then divided into smaller groups to look through Somnath Hore’s sketches from both these movements along with short excerpts from his written documentation of the same to then work on a comparative analysis between Tebhaga and Darjeeling tea garden workers’ movement along sub-categories of: background and context; who was agitating; grievances that brought about the agitation; leadership and mobilization in the movements; their impact. This brought out some interesting observations that led to a conversation around the similarities and points of departure between the two with particular emphasis on the language, nature and historical moment of these two movements, while noting the continuities in Somnath Hore’s sketches of his subject. We then turned to talking about his depiction of everyday life in the face of extreme hostilities in building a people’s movement and what it means to sustain a people’s movements historically as also in the present, which brought us to the question of why one would use art to address such severe societal issues. Their response to this was largely the journalistic value of such records, leading to them then thinking about the distinctive ability of art to capture the larger politics of a time in its deepest nuances with much sensitivity, particularly when it is in the hands of a Somnath Hore.

The next section was around who Somnath Hore was. This led us to a conversation around what Hore’s art meant for him and his politics being central to his work throughout his life which evolved as he moved from being a member of the Communist Party of India to then having to leave it at a later stage, and his work across a range of mediums from sketches to lithographs, sculptures and woodcuts but his subject of ‘Wounds’ never quite leaving him. This was embedded in the person interacting intensively with the moment in history in which he found himself—amid several communal riots in the country, Partitions, the Bengal famine, the Vietnam War. We then asked the participants about their impressions of society from viewing Hore’s works at large across the exhibition and also the specific ones from these two movements. There was much emphasis on his portrayal of suffering across the transition of India from a colony to becoming an independent nation and the questions around whose aspirations get left out in larger narratives of nation-building. We then tried to direct them towards thinking beyond the larger idea of suffering when responding to his works on the dailiness of places where he found himself, even if these were amid circumstances of oppression. Here, a participant responded to some of his sketches from the movements by saying that the children were engrossed in their worlds, untouched by the harsh realities of building and sustaining a people’s movement. In response to that, we brought up some excerpts from his texts where he describes how young children were making their place in sustaining the two movements. Thus, realizing the shape of everyday life even in the face of deep suffering. Another student then brought in his question on why so many of his works depict goats and dogs which took different animated directions among his peers, one of whom speculated that the social practice of animal sacrifice (in this case of the goat particularly) could be relevant to Hore’s choice of subject matter in these works. Our response to this exchange was to get them to simply think about the influence of the physical surroundings in which an artist is working, in this case Somnath Hore working in Santiniketan where these animals are found in some abundance.

In the final section, the participants were divided into groups where each group was given a short excerpt from the two texts which they were supposed to read closely and make a visual depiction in the form of newspaper reels that would include an illustration from their specific excerpt, a headline and a detailed caption. This led to some interesting conversations about what each group was trying to portray and how from what they were reading. This concluded with thinking about history writing at some length in terms of what makes it into history textbooks, the kind of narratives that get neglected in the cusp of larger meta-narratives that frame these crucial moments in history. Another discussion that emerged here, spurred by the students’ bilinguality, was the gap between ideas of ‘desh’ (in Bangla also meaning homeland) on the one hand and ‘nation’ on the other. Finally, we linked this to news reportage in the present day and how incidents get narrativized or left out by media houses, thus the emphasis on reading multiple sources in reading history as also present lived realities.

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