The Forgotten Pioneer: Rasiklal Parikh
by Jyoti Bhatt
One of the problems faced by scholars and students of art in India is that there are hardly any good archives where one can find, or have an easy access to, a fairly large and reliable (if not complete) collection of works of the artists. It is very difficult to find reliable information about how, where and when they have done certain volumes of their works. Ideally, such an archive should have a proper visual record of artists' works and the clippings or photocopies of the articles and reviews about them from various publications, and also their own writings such as personal diaries and letters. Building such archives should not be difficult now, due to the increasing availability of computers and the devices for digitalization. In absence of such facilities, while writing about the artists and their work, one usually prefers to repeat or quote the details published by other researchers. Having full faith regarding their veracity, one usually never thinks it necessary to re-check details. While writing this, I myself am also adopting the same practice.
Art Historians who have written on printmaking in India have often introduced Yagneshwar Shukla (a Gujarati artist, born 1907), as one of the pioneer printmakers. One would agree with such an attribution, for there seems to be enough proofs that he studied etching in Italy during the late thirties and also made etching prints after returning to India in 1939. But how can one agree with an exaggerated statement like, “He introduced Graphic Art to the Nation”? This was the headline for an article about Yagneshwar Shukla published in the Ahmedabad edition of Times of India.
It is unfortunate that hardly any of our scholars and art historians remembers Rasiklal Parikh or knows about his monochrome and multi-colour woodcuts. He had made such prints between 1929 and 1931, when he was studying at The Government School of Arts and Crafts, Madras, under Debi Prosad Roy Chowdhury. This was two years before he went to Mumbai and joined Sir J J School of arts to study Indian Painting, under Jagannath Ahivasi. Probably, Yagneshwar Shukla was also a student there at the same time. If this was so, then what can one make from the following statement by Ananda Das Gupta? In his article Printmaking in India published in the exhibition catalogue Indian Printmaking Today, 1985, and organized by Jehangir Art Gallery, Das Gupta has written that, “Yagneshwar Shukla joined Sir J J School of Art in 1945 (as a teacher). It was only in 1952 that he succeeded in introducing Graphic Art as a part-time course, holding classes twice a week in the evenings with two students Rasiklal Parikh and Vasant Parab”. But, Rasikbhai could not have been one of these two students, as the following will prove.
Rasiklal Parikh (1910 – 1982) was an important artist from Gujarat. He was quite popular between the 30s and 50s. In 1941, Kumar, the very influential Gujarati magazine had published Chitra Sadhana, the monograph on Rasikbhai in which his paintings, sculptures, drawings and woodcuts were reproduced. Ravishankar Rawal remarked in its preface, “Rasikbhai can get the full credit for being the first artist in Gujarat to master the art of woodcut which he has developed to a high level. Kanaiyalal Vakil, the art critic for the Bombay Chronicle had, in 1930, admired Rasiklal's prints.”
As a homage to Rasikbhai, his artist daughter Urmi Parikh has published a commemorative book, Kalaguru Rasiklal Parikh, in Gujarati. According to its biography section, Rasikbhai had already returned to Ahmedabad by 1934 and had joined C N Vidyavihar as an art teacher. By 1951 he had become the principal of its "Art Teachers Training Course". Urmi Parikh's book also includes a letter from Prof. K G Subramanyan, stating, “When I met Rasikbhai, he was already an accomplished artist working in wash method, a sensible sculptor and a sensitive printmaker.”
Apart from the main text, the book has reproductions of Rasikbhai's work...including his woodcut prints and several letters that he had written from Madras to his first and most revered guru, Ravishankar Rawal. Rawal's residence at Ahmedabad was a kind of an ashram or gurukula, where Rasikbhai and a number of artists from Gujarat had their initiation in art. Ravibhai, as he was known, advised Rasikbhai to go to Madras for further study. He also arranged for him financial assistance (Rs 25 per month) from Sir Chinubhai Baronet.
The following are the excerpts from Rasiklal Parikh's telling letters written in Gujarati, between July 1929 and (probably March) 1932. All these letters began with “Poojya Ravibhai” and ended with “Rasik's Pranam”. He gave report of the art scene where he worked and also expressed his feelings and reactions towards it. However, the following excerpts contain only the parts from his letters that are directly relevant to his printmaking experiences. Hoping to maintain the flavour of his verbal expression, I have tried to translate the letters as literally as possible. The words in parentheses are my own words added for clarification.
"I had commenced working on a woodcut during Diwali. Then, four - five other folks also developed liking for it. Mr Chowdhury has said that he would provide us wood from the school and arrange for me to work in the engraving department. I just want to know how it is made. ...Mr Chitra knows something about it so I will start working."
".....I am sending with this my 3rd woodcut. Only yesterday I completed its blocks. So just to get a look, I made one or two prints with oil colours. Tomorrow, after going to the school I will make a few proper prints, provided that I get the inks there. Then, I will certainly send you a print. This is a laborious job, but as the work is new I also enjoy it a bit...I have prepared a design for making another five-coloured one. But, as the school has to get the wood, I will make it when that arrives. I have asked Mr Chowdhury about etching and probably I will go to the engraving class from tomorrow. I will get all the equipment there!"
"Yesterday, I have sent one print to Bachubhai, which I made with printing inks. As I have written to Bachubhai, no one knows this work here. It is the same with etching too, but even then, I am going to start it... Yesterday I went to Mr Raja and showed him my five-coloured woodcut. I will be going there again tomorrow. As he has offered me the colours, I will make twenty-five additional prints of these woodcuts." Here, after describing technical detail of block making facilities at the processing department of The Hindu which he had visited, Rasikbhai adds "I feel that before returning to Gujarat, I should work under Mr Raja for about a month and get conversant with the block making process."
"I completely forgot to write about woodcut to you. Two woodcuts with five or six colours have come from outside (abroad?), and are displayed in the exhibition. They are very beautiful. I don't know how they are printed, but know which colours should be used...Here, each of the prints is priced Rs 35."
(Writing about an exhibition) "My woodcuts were also displayed along with my three-four paintings; and, there were some print fans also. One fellow has printed 15 copies of my "Sun Set" for me. Eight other prints are also gone (sold), because they are priced quite low. Among the buyers, one was Mrs Gene. During the last Fine Arts Exhibition, I had shown her my "Parab"... but at rather an incomplete stage. She is very fond of woodcut, and makes small size woodcuts and linocuts herself. I had met her at the school before few days. She again wanted to have two copies each of my "Parab" and other woodcuts. Having noticed my interest in this subject, she has invited me to her bungalow and offered to show me the English and Japanese prints. So, as settled, I went there on the last Wednesday and took with me the extra copies of the prints that she wanted to have. I also had taken with me black and white prints (proofs) of the blocks for my five-colour print."
"She has collected a good number of woodcuts and etchings. She liked my last woodcut print and also kept (bought) it. Then I explained to her the difficulty I was facing about finding the right inks for printing my five-colour woodcut blocks. So, from her own stock of colour inks she gave me the tubes that I needed. She showed me the wood and paper that she has been using and also gave me two sheets of that paper.”
From the available records it seems probable that, after returning from Chennai, Rasikbhai did not pursue printmaking of any kind. But the few woodcuts that he made during his stay at Chennai were of quite a high standard, revealing his sensitivity towards the medium and the skill that he mastered. We shouldn't forget that he had done these in the beginning of thirties, long before any other artists from Gujarat had even tried their hands at printmaking.