“I drew to forget the pain.” That is how Reba Hore, born in 1926, sums up the genesis of her Bhanga Payer Diary (Seagull, 2006). This extraordinary “Diary of the Broken Leg” is composed of 87 drawings in pastel and felt-pen, interspersed with 54 pithy, rhyming poems, mostly in Bengali, but switching, with startling effect towards the end, into equally pithy and rhyming English.
In 2004, Reba had broken her leg for the third time. The injury had bled profusely, releasing what she recalls now as a flow of colour and pain, and subjecting her to an almost year-long, difficult convalescence. For most of this time, she was confined to a room in her house in Santiniketan, unable to walk. She shared this room with her husband and artist, the late Somnath Hore, also gravely ill then, while their daughter Chandana, a painter as well, lived and worked with them intermittently. Reba’s journal was kept for six months or so in an old diary during this period of shared living, working and being ill. Its ruled and dated pages keep a sort of ghostly time, giving this bodily, reflective and creative durée of her life a curiously unreal day-to-day structure.
One of the opening pages of this ‘Management & Planning Diary’ — printing all kinds of data about ‘India’s Ranking in the World’ — has been converted by the artist into her own title-page. In a shaky yet firm hand, she writes over the printed data a mischievously improvised epigraph to her journal, alluding to Rabindranath’s song, “Amar bhanga pather ranga dhulay”. “On a ‘bloodied piece’ of my broken leg/ foot,” she writes in Bengali, “has fallen the mark of his/her [taar] foot.” Through this lyrical self-mockery, the lightness of which never deserts her record of compulsive creativity in the midst of pain, Reba’s work (both the poems and the drawings) wryly positions itself in relation to some of its, and her life’s, shaping forces. These are everything that Santiniketan, where she has spent most of her life, stands for personally and culturally. That would include not only her domestic and creative life, but also the Tagorean (and post-Tagorean) Great Tradition in the visual arts and literature. “He chose a place, and I chose him,” she said to me about coming to live in Santiniketan with Somnath, whom she had met when she was twenty-two. “In my life,” she went on to say, “I have seen a great deal of extraordinariness, but have never been extraordinary myself. I have only tried to be myself.”
These footprints on blood and broken bone, in her epigraph, speak of indeterminate, half-recognized visitations. They suggest presences that are also absences, arrivals becoming valedictions (“Fallings from us, vanishings…”), the past suddenly come upon, yet never properly grasped, in the present. They leave their mark on the images of her art and poetry. But they also press upon, and through, her body, keeping alive its mortal struggle, driving on its compulsion to create, but inevitably leaving it ravaged and depleted.
The maker of these footprints, a person of unspecified sex, is referred to in the singular. But the journal is richly peopled by the living and the dead. There are faces and figures in the drawings (portraits or, very often, three people closely bound together); people tenderly remembered, gently rebuked or directly addressed in the poems; and human influences implicitly or allusively invoked (Rabindranath, Somnath and, in her preoccupation with not being able to see properly, Benode Behari Mukhopadhyay).
In spite of its ministering and consoling presences, illness is a solitary experience of being left inwardly alone with one’s body and one’s mind, with their essential inseparability and their tragic incongruity. Yet this solitude, this vitally divided unity of body and mind, is always already broken (bhanga), and broken into. And what breaks, and breaks in, is Art itself, the artist’s indomitable will to make. This is an exacting, incessantly destructive process, which must be continually transformed into what Reba describes as “another kind of making” — “arek rokom gora”: “I paint every day, for that is what I must do and can’t help doing. But I’ve also seen, from very close, how Art can take everything away.” “Everything,” she repeats, with a clear, quiet emphasis.
The Hores have known — at the most literal, bodily level — what it is to be preyed upon by the material processes and substances of Art. Fumes from the nitric and sulphuric acid used in print-making had irreversibly damaged Somnath’s lungs. Toxic pigments (ultramarine blue, for instance) had begun to affect Reba’s vision and skin, forcing her to use terracotta, crayons and encaustic wax. In her journal, therefore, the story of continuing to work in spite of the dimming of the eyes and the dwindling of the body, is inextricable from the enactment — the actual living out — of her creativity. This is an inexorable movement towards minimalism, mastering the vanishing game of letting oneself be reduced to “nothing” (“naught to touch and naught to say”): “I turn and twist and shove and pinch./ And strain my muscles every inch./ Yet all amount to nothingness/ Till life itself grows less and less!”
Yet this poem about fading and falling also ends with the resolve to fight: “For everything is never lost.” As the poem works its way to the bottom of the page, the hand becomes shakier and the ink flows less and less well, for she is writing lying down. Throughout the diary, lying down and standing or walking upright correspond to the horizontal and vertical planes of writing and drawing respectively. The poems can be read up-closer from a horizontally positioned page, while the drawings can be properly understood only when held vertically and viewed from a distance. And this is how the space of her creativity, and thus her relations with other people, animals, objects and the reader or viewer, become axially differentiated in terms of closeness and distance, curiosity and indifference, empathy and withdrawal.
In her hectically coloured drawings, the ruled page, instead of paper-white, shows through the bits that are deliberately left uncoloured. These uncoloured spaces are usually rectangular shapes. They are doors, windows, mirrors or canvases propped-up against the wall, which begin to look like blank pages, or openings in the prison-house of colour through which the artist might look outwards at the possibility of writing.
Fantastical faces and figures steal out from between the words and lines in some of Rabindranath’s late manuscripts of poems, often cancelling out the writing itself with a sort of mad cross-hatching. In Reba’s drawings, the opposite happens. Spaces are cleared out in the chaos of colours and lines, as if for writing to happen. Yet they remain blank, and the writing is only negatively invoked, creating a kind of visual silence within pictorial space, a resonant absence of language that many of the poems also gesture at.
Owing to the very high quality of reproduction in this facsimile edition, one looks at the disturbing vividness, even violence, of the densely coloured portraits, and then, on turning the page, the lines of the face and figure, drawn with a black felt-pen but hidden underneath the colouring, show through clearly on the other side of the page. The effect is pro- foundly disconcerting. It is like being able to see through the flesh and look at the skeleton within, a gaunt scaffolding of black lines. From a tender acknowledgment of somebody’s presence, the portrait turns into a coldly disassembled form, an unsparing memento mori.
The withindoors world of the broken-legged artist is enlivened by paying attention — closely and sometimes dispassionately — to the presence of other people and things. Yet the familiarity of faces, the solidness of objects and the stability of spaces are all threatened by dissolution. In Reba Hore, this is a condition of the failing eye, relentlessly confronted, as well as a vision of the opacity and elusiveness of things, and of the relations among things. Spaces — rooms and cityscapes — come apart into a profusion of trilling, curly lines like skeins of unravelled wool, faces become grimly featureless and muzzled, mirrors mist over or dazzle and blind, and pieces of furniture dismantle themselves into straying patterns, losing their distinctness from one another.
The most remarkable achievement of this journal is to work through — quietly and doggedly, with body and mind — to a visual and verbal language for grasping, yet letting go of, this radically unstable world. But what is never lost in the process is the will to make sense of, and play with, its fugitive and unconsoling truths: “An aged woman totters on/ Shuffling slowly stick in hand/ She stumbles fumbles, moves along/ Peering closely at each stand./ She only knows she has to go/ Where and why she does not know.”