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Sunday, September 26, 2021

‘Not a Writer’

Somnath Hore was a chronicler of Marx,Mao and machher jhol.

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | New Delhi |
May 5, 2013 5:29:59 am

The last word on Sunil Janah,by the photographer himself,is out from Oxford University Press. A pictorial autobiography published posthumously,Photographing India,follows the career of the young communist who had wanted to be a revolutionary journalist but was sent out to chronicle the 1943 Bengal famine by the Communist Party of India,and became the definitive photographer of hunger and want. His critics dismiss him as a man with the right camera in the right place at the right time. Not exactly a crime,and Janah wasn’t alone at the spot marked X. He shared it with an artist who had taken up the pen. Somnath Hore had come to the attention of the CPI for his drawings,but he also wrote a book chronicling Tebhaga,a peasant movement in North Bengal just before Independence.

An influential stylist and part of the Santiniketan circle of Ramkinkar Baij,KG Subramanyan,Dinkar Kaushik and Mukul De,Hore got into art college with the help of the CPI. He lived in a commune and worked for the party’s newspaper,People’s War. Like Janah,he witnessed the Great Calcutta Killings and the Bengal Famine which,decades later,influenced Wounds,a series of white-on-white prints. Before that,Tebhaga Diary and An Account of the Tea Gardens,records of field trips in 1946 and 1947,were compiled in a book by the Subarnarekha Press. Seagull Books published an English translation of Tebhaga Diary by Somnath Zutshi in 1990.

Hore begins his Bengali preface with an apology: “I am not a writer. My words are disorganised,my language weak,to publish a book in my name is ironical.” But on the first page of Tebhaga Diary,the artist is revealed to be a powerful writer. Having left “oppressive Kolkata” by the North Bengal Express,he wakes up to see the dramatically vast fields of Birbhum sweeping past the window,dew-wet paddy golden in the light of dawn,the landscape dotted with little hamlets where men stoke the first hookah of the day.

That was the response of a young enthusiast on his way to Rangpur (now in Bangladesh) to see a revolution that had already tasted success. Tebhaga,literally ‘three parts’,was a movement to secure two-thirds of the harvest for sharecroppers,who had been rooked for generations by landowners and zamindars. The CPI gave them the courage to wrest control of the harvest and institute a transparent,audited process of sharing,and Hore bears witness to the wave of hope sweeping the region.

Months later in 1947,Hore travelled to the tea gardens in the Himalayan foothills,a bleaker place. His first sentence reads: “By the dark of the night,I reached the kingdom of darkness.” His destination was the ‘coolie lines’,whose story was not exactly the touristy fiction of people happily plucking two leaves and a bud. It was a place ruled by the brown sahib,who was worse than the white sahib who had preceded him. Hore depicts communities in need of political organisation for mere survival,so economically fragile that the slightest distortion can tip them over. One such was the 1943 famine,in which two million perished. The Bengali term for that famine is not the routine akaal but manvantara — the ancient measure of the ages of Manu,used here to denote a cataclysmic fracture in the order of nature.

Both farmers and estate workers welcomed the comrades because they needed to organise,to prevent another cataclysm. Tebhaga laid the ground for Operation Barga,the Left’s showpiece land reform initiative,which has registered 1.5 million sharecroppers. But ironically,that was the beginning of a culture of labour impunity that would swell to unnatural proportions across the state and cause a flight of capital — a tragedy that the artist lived to see.

Marx,Mao,machher jhol,it’s all in North Bengal,the eternal epicentre of the permanent revolution. Hore travelled to Rangpur actuated by enthusiasms that,25 years later,would again find utterance in Naxalbari,triggering a cycle of unprecedented violence and cruelty. Like him,the young men and women of Kolkata who turned extremist yearned for the company of the rural poor “like a drug”. Hore’s pages are peopled by his portraits of forgotten actors in this drama of revolt in the Independence era. These men and women,usually identified only by their given names,had sought something more substantial than Independence: freedom. And their descendants probably seek it still. As Hore writes,“Finally,only the pictures remain. The rest is maya.”

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