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How artist Reba Hore's broken leg inspired her unique journal

A new show at Experimenter gallery in Kolkata revisits artist Reba Hore’s gentle genius through her work—and extraordinary journal

Detail from Reba Hore’s ‘Untitled’, 2007, pastel on paper.
Detail from Reba Hore’s ‘Untitled’, 2007, pastel on paper. ( Courtesy Experimenter Gallery)

In 2004, four years before she died at the age of 82, artist Reba Hore, who had a relatively reclusive career in spite of her exceptionally fine sensibility, broke her leg for the third time. The accident, which she later described as a flow of intense colours and pain, left her bedridden for almost a year. It was during those days of convalescence, with her mobility limited and body wracked with suffering, that she started keeping a journal in a nondescript “planning diary”.

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Hore christened it, with a touch of self-deprecating humour, as “The Broken Foot Journal”, filling it with sketches and drawings of scenes she witnessed from her home or remembered from times past, interspersed with brief poems and observations in Bengali and English. In 2006, Kolkata-based Seagull Books published a limited-edition facsimile edition of this unique document. Currently, the public has a chance to see it, alongside a selection of Hore’s works in oil and terracotta sculptures, at the city’s Experimenter gallery.

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The title of the show, The Broken Foot Journal And Other Stories (on till 4 October), has a deservedly literary ring to it. Evidently, the works on display are a record of a difficult period of Hore’s life, when she remained confined to her home in Santiniketan in West Bengal, along with her (also ailing) husband and fellow artist Somnath, and their daughter Chandana, who is an artist as well. But the zigzag of bright hues—out of which humans, animals and the natural world seem to emerge slowly—also reflect the inner turmoil of a forever agile mind.

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In one of her poems, for instance, Hore speaks, with bemused exasperation, of the struggle to grasp the elusive truth of art. “So very close yet it slips away,” she writes. “The heart flutters, I fight for air.” Her drawings remain charged with a narrative energy, holding in the welts and strokes of colour the story of an artist’s—and a woman’s—consciousness.

The rhythms of the ageing and infirm body, disfigured by trauma, are palpable in Hore’s writing, especially in her shaky hand, which tends to let go of some of the letters, making them trail off the page. In the drawings made with felt-tip pens and pastel, though, there is a firmly wrought riot of colours, a tautness that seems bent on internalising the living, breathing world around her into the two-dimensionality of the page. Similar bursts of energy are palpable in the oils, in their thickly laid textures and angular strokes that seem to slash through the canvases. In contrast to these signs of violence, the terracotta sculptures of human faces and torsos have a melancholic tenderness to them.

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Installation view of the show.
Installation view of the show. (Experimenter Gallery)

In her iconic essay, On Being Ill, writer Virginia Woolf spoke of illness as often taking on “the disguise of love”. The ill regard the world with eyes that are transformed by their ailment, she wrote, with a simultaneous softness and sharpness of insight that’s not readily available to the healthy, who are far more susceptible to taking life for granted. In Hore’s doodling and drawing, too, we encounter an awareness of the coexistence of beauty and mortality in the midst of ordinary life.

Although Hore claimed she lived an unexceptional life among the company of exceptional figures (referring to her legendary artistic contemporaries in Santiniketan), she left behind an incredibly rich testament to her genius in her last years. People in Kolkata are fortunate to be able to experience it at this show.

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For more information, visit Experimenter.in.

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  • LAST UPDATED
    22.08.2021 | 09:41 AM IST

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