Fruits of Labour

Revisiting Somnath Hore’s Tebhaga diaries

From Tebhaga: An Artist’s Diary and Sketchbook, courtesy Seagull Books
From Tebhaga: An Artist’s Diary and Sketchbook, courtesy Seagull Books
31 December, 2021

SEVENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, before he earned his renown as a painter and sculptor, Somnath Hore was dispatched by the Communist Party of India to document the Tebhaga Movement in the northern districts of Bengal. The movement took its name from the sharecroppers’ demand to hold on to two-thirds of their produce, rather than the customary half. The struggle first started in north-western Dinajpur, where the sharecroppers began moving the newly harvested paddy to their own threshing floors. Within a few weeks, Tebhaga had spread to 11 districts. Still only in his second year of art school, Hore received directives from party leaders. On 17 December 1946, he boarded the North Bengal Express from Calcutta, armed with just a diary and pen.

The opening act of Hore’s journey sets the scene for how the Tebhaga Movement would tug at the aesthetic and political imagination of the young artist. As the train rolls through golden paddy fields, Hore, seated in his stifling third-class compartment, encounters the first subject of his Tebhaga sketches: a Bhutia man wearing “a grimy shirt over a pair of tight pyjamas, a grimy jacket and an equally grimy cap.” The scene comes to life when Hore’s eye settles on the “inevitable kukri at his waist.” His companion Kamaniya explains, “They work as gatekeepers for the local Marwari jotedars”—wealthy peasants.

In the next paragraph, Hore notes the tension between nature and property once again. His eye wanders across the lush countryside, “the fields a mingling of reds and blues, the trees a vivid green and the houses white or reddish.” But these tranquil undulations are suddenly interrupted by the appearance of a rice mill. “They have been set up by Marwaris,” Hore writes, “all over north Bengal. The Marwari traders buy paddy cheap to sell the rice dear.” Hore’s observations return from painterly abstraction to capitalist structures. Two decades later, the author John Berger would distil this discovery in the now-famous maxim: “Sometimes a landscape seems to be less a setting for the life of its inhabitants than a curtain behind which their struggles … take place.”

Hore’s Tebhaga: An Artist’s Diary and Sketchbook, a collection of drawings and vignettes from his 12-day visit to the region, tears through this “curtain” and unveils the militant world of Tebhaga. It chronicles a young artist’s dramatic entry into a rural society where everyone, “from the children of four to old people of 70,” suddenly became involved in some capacity in the movement. But the enduring significance of this diary does not stem from this political context alone. The trip also led Hore to innovate new forms to capture the lives of people involved in the Tebhaga uprising and reveal how structures of power are embedded into everyday peasant life.