Originally published by Gujarat State Lalit Kala Academy
“I know not how thou singest my master! I ever listen in silent amazement...we are like a stray line in a poem, which ever feels that it rhymes with another line and must find it, or miss its own fulfilment. The quest of the unattained is the great impulse in man, which brings forth all his best creations,” perhaps this is how the young Ravishankar Raval must have felt when he first read Rabindranath Tagore’s, Gitanjali.
Ravishankar Raval was born in Bhavnagar, Gujarat. As a young man with limited resources, he was fired with the desire of becoming an artist and took short art courses in Mumbai and Vadodara’s Kala Bhavan. In his illustrated biography Atma-Kathanak, Ravishankar Raval writes about his passion for painting, when as a young boy, he cut the hair of his top-knot to make a paint brush!
Leaving Bhavnagar, Ravishankar Raval travelled to Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Mumbai, Pune, Ajanta and Kolkata. He was inspired by the Tagores, the Bengal revivalist movement, Santiniketan, Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings and the frescoes of Ajanta. He spent few months in Ajanta, sketching and studying the yaksha and yakshinis, which he later used to great effect in his paintings, titled Srimati, Jeevan Sangeet, Adivasi Couple at Minaxi temple and Yam-Nachiketa.
Slowly, as Ravishankar Raval grew in stature, he was to energize the art scene in Gujarat, rising to great heights as a painter and earning the title of Kalaguru. He is best known for his sketches, portraits, painting of poets Akho, Premanand, Mirabai, Narsinh Mehta, work based on litterateur K. M. Munshi’s novels like the character of Munjal and the historical painting of Mahatma Gandhi’s trial of 1922.
Besides the Tagores, Ravishankar Raval was also influenced by Raja Ravi Varma’s religious oleographs, which were then seen in most Gujarati homes. Bengal and Gujarat have always had an artistic connection. It started with Rabindranath Tagore, who first came to Ahmedabad in 1878 and continued to visit the city from 1920 to 1930. These visits left a strong imprint on the cultural life of Gujarat.
Although known as an industrial textile center, Gujarat has always had a rich cultural heritage of step-wells, havelis, wood carvings, embroidery and folk arts. Interestingly, as early as 1451, a western Indian style of painting already flourished in Gujarat. And, even before the arts gained momentum in Gujarat, Tagorean architect Suren Kar was working at Retreat, the Sarabhai mansion in Ahmedabad and Pulinkumar Dutt taught painting at the Gharshala.
Rabindranath Tagore often came to Gujarat and it is a matter of pride for Gujarat that in 1878 when Tagore was seventeen years old, he wrote a short story “Hungry Stones” in Ahmedabad, while staying at Shah Jehan’s summer palace, now known as the Sardar Smarak Bhavan.
The connection between Mahatma Gandhi and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore is also well known, so much so, that when Gandhi met Tagore in 1940, he is known to have said, “Vishwa Bharati is like a vessel, carrying life’s great treasures....”
So, in a way, it was Mahatma Gandhi who initiated the development of the arts in Gujarat, his home state. His friendship with Tagore played an important role, interlinking Gujarat with other art centres of India. He made this possible by reinforcing links between Santiniketan and Ravishankar Raval’s Gujarat Chitra Kala Sangh. Mahatma Gandhi had already met Nandalal Bose at Santiniketan and in 1938, invited him to make posters for the rural crafts show at Haripura Congress convention in South Gujarat.
On Mahatma Gandhi’s insistence Nandalal Bose and Ravishankar Raval worked together on this project. Nandalal Bose was enchanted by the surroundings and made innumerable pen, ink and water colour sketches of the rural artisans. The historical meeting of both artists, became the turning point of Gujarat’s artistic journey. Around this time, Ravishankar Raval had read E. B. Havell’s critiques on Indian art and was convinced that India needed to break free of British academic art education and emerge with a truly Indian idiom. He was also fascinated with Santiniketan’s ideology of the art school as an ashram, with informal open studios. The Tagorean dream had touched Ravishankar Raval’s heart, when he started the Gujarat Chitra Kala Sangh in his own house, giving young aspiring artists, a space to study painting.
Here Ravishankar Raval introduced water colour and wash techniques, similar to the Bengal revivalist movement, with Japanese brushwork, techniques used by the Kalighat painters, composed in a Gujarati landscape with forms inspired from Ajanta. Ravishankar Raval visited Japan and often travelled to Ajanta, Kolkata and Santiniketan.
He was deeply touched when invited for the Varsha-Utsav at Vishwa Bharati University with other well known artists of India. On one such visit, he met Abanindranath Tagore and decided that his students would finish their art education either at Santiniketan or at Mumbai’s Sir J. J. School of Art. Some well known students of Gujarat Chitra kala Sangh were Rasikbhai Parikh who was to later head the C. N. College of fine arts in Ahmedabad. Somalal Shah excelled in water colours, Kanu Desai was known for the set designs he make for film maker V. Shantaram, Jagan Mehta for his photographs of Mahatma Gandhi, cartoonist Bansilal Varma Chakor, muralist Shanti Shah, portrait artist Hiralal Khatri and the maverick Chaganlal Jadav who started painting in the impressionist style.
In 1924, Ravishankar Raval’s friendship with Bachubhai Raval led to the publication of the multi-cultural art magazine Kumar, which has subjects like art, architecture, photography, poetry, literature, illustrations, colour plates of famous paintings and works of upcoming artists. Kumar was a household name for a long time and influenced the tastes of his readers.
As seen through these paintings, Kalaguru Ravishankar Raval created a new platform for future generations of Gujarat artists, almost like this verse from Gitanjali, “.....then thy words will take wings in songs from every one of bird’s nest, and thy melodies will break forth in flowers in all my forest groves....”