Chhaganlal Jadhav, Dalit artist who sketched history of Gandhi’s times

A coffee table book of unpublished and hitherto unseen sketches made by artist Chhaganlal Jadhav is due for release next week. It was Mahatma Gandhi who had taken the artist under his wing

Chhaganlal Jadhav, Dalit artist who sketched history of Gandhi’s times
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Nachiketa Desai

While a battery of journalists, photographers and documentary film makers had descended on Ahmedabad from across the country and abroad to cover the starting of the historic ‘Salt March’ of Mahatma Gandhi on March 12, 1930, a Dalit artist armed with a sketch book and pencil legged along the 242-mile route to Dandi, on the coast of the Arabian sea in South Gujarat, capturing the landmark Satyagraha movement that shook the British empire.

Unknown to the world, artist Chhaganlal Jadav’s sketchbook is a live pictorial documentary of the Salt Satyagraha movement from its beginning to its finale. The unknown artist’s sketchbook was recently discovered by Rizwan Kadri, a scholar who teaches history in an Ahmedabad college. Prof Kadri plans to publish a coffee table book of this Dalit artist’s historic work on the 150th birth anniversary of Gandhiji on October 2.

While journalists and documentary film makers covered the Salt march when it was flagged off, Chhaganlal, the artist, joined the band of volunteers known as ‘Arunoday Tukdi’, which marched ahead of the Satyagrahis as an advance party to make necessary arrangements. Chhaganlal drew sketches of Gandhiji and other marchers.

In his sketchbook are also found drawings of other national leaders as well on which the artist obtained their autographs. On the historic day of 6th April, 1930, Gandhiji broke the law of salt tax and a great wave of Satyagraha swept across the nation. In ‘Karadi Shibir’ Chhaganlal spent time with Gandhiji and drew some sketches.

Chhaganlal passed away on 12th April, 1987 at the age of 84. But his drawing book is a memoir, a glimpse into the Gandhian Era, an original document in pictures

Gandhiji was arrested on May 5, 1930 and so was Chhaganlal, who was sentenced to three months in prison. During these months, he drew paintings and drawings of daily life in Nasik jail, state of the prisoners, different parts of the jail, security arrangements and the building of the jail.

Some enterprising youths organised a Bicycle Yatra to participate in the 46th Session of the Indian National Congress to meet in Karachi, where Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel was to be its president. Chhaganlal drew a sketch of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the Frontier Gandhi, returning from that session in a steamer from Karachi to Mumbai. Sardar Patel, Jamnalal Bajaj, Sarojini Naidu, Mithuben Petit, Jawaharlal Nehru and others are also depicted in the drawing. Chhaganlal was again incarcerated with Gandhiji in 1932 at the Yerwada Jail in Pune. This enabled him to make a drawing of Gandhiji on December 2, 1932.

Two other historical events are also included in this drawing book. On July 22, 1933 Gandhiji had declared, never to return to Satyagraha Ashram, Sabarmati till he achieves Independence for India. On July 31, 1933 as he bid adieu to the Ashram for the last time and after a Prarthana Sabha (prayer), Bapu left the Ashram with immense pain in his heart. Chhaganlal captured this poignant moment in his sketchbook and Gandhiji put his signature on the drawing.

Chhaganlal passed away on April 12, 1987 at the age of 84. But his drawing book is a memoir, a glimpse into the Gandhian Era, an original document in pictures.

The coffee table book would also be a post-humus thanks-giving tribute of the Dalit artist to Gandhiji who had spotted the talent in the 12-year-old Chhaganlal when the lad started attending the night school founded by Gandhiji in the Satyagraha ashram at Kochrab in Ahmedabad after his return to India from South Africa in 1915.

Chhaganlal, the son of a weaver, used to attend the night school walking 5-6 km from his home in Vadaj to the Kochrab ashram. He learned the three ‘Rs’ from Parikshitlal Majmudar and started working in a textiles mill as a labourer.

At Gandhiji’s insistence, Chhaganlal gave up his employment in the textiles mills and joined the Gujarat Vidyapith, founded in 1920, as a peon and later as a teacher in the night school.

Today a number of Chhaganlal’s paintings decorate the walls of museums, art galleries and private collections. However, there was one set of drawings which no one had seen. This was the sketchbook in which Chhaganlal had chronicled the Salt Satyagraha

Gandhiji, a fisher of men of calibre and talent, encouraged the young Chhaganlal to make art his main pursuit. As the chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapith, Gandhiji gave a scholarship to Chhaganlal to learn painting from well-known artist Kanu Desai. Gandhi also introduced Chhaganlal to eminent artist Ravishankar Raval who helped him get a scholarship from Sir Girjaprasad, the great-grandson of Ranchhodlal Chhotalal (who started the first cotton mill in Ahmedabad) and Sheth Shantilal Mangaldas.

The scholarship enabled Chhaganlal to join the Art Schools in Indore and Lucknow. At Indore, he worked under the tutelage of famous painter Narayan Shridhar Bendre, and learned how to draw landscapes. In Lucknow, Chhaganlal honed his skill in using colours.

From 1935, painting became Chhaganlal’s primary avocation. At the Haripura Congress of 1938, Chhaganlal met Subhash Chandra Bose, the president of the Congress and assisted Ravishankar Raval in decorating the pavilion of the session. During the ‘Quit India’ movement, Chhaganlal went underground to evade arrest. He travelled extensively in Kashmir, making Kullu his base camp. Inspired by Russian painter Nicholas Roerich, Chhaganlal drew paintings of the Himalayas. On returning to Gujarat he started painting rural scenes of Gujarat, Kutch and Saurashtra. Independent exhibitions of many such paintings spread his fame far and wide.

His tour of the Himalayas ignited a desire to see God. In 1947 he turned a disciple of Sri Aurobindo. This spiritual turning point helped him forge a deep bond with him and the Aurobindo Ashram in Puducherry for the rest of his life.

The news of the assassination of Gandhiji on January 30, 1948 came as a huge blow. For nearly 2-3 days he remained confined to his room. He kept recalling his relation with Bapu and became depressed. His paintings that pay tribute to Gandhiji reflect his depressed state. Chhaganlal’s name and fame had spread beyond the boundaries of the country.

The case of Chhaganlal is a study of how while serving at the Satyagraha Ashram Chhaganlal is exposed to national activities, ideas about social reforms and the concept of equality and how they were all intertwined. Mahatma Gandhi (a Bania) recommends to Kanu Desai (a Brahmakshatriya) the aspiring Chhaganlal for artistic training. Again Gandhiji asks Ravishankar Raval (a Brahmin) to take Chhaganlal as his disciple. The other disciples of Kalaguru had put up a great protest against Chhaganlal, a Dalit, joining their school. But Raval, a firm follower of Gandhiji, did not give in to these pressures. Instead, the other students finally gave up and accepted Chhaganlal. Raval has described this in his autobiography.

The founder of textile mills in Ahmedabad, Ranchhodlal Chhotalal had founded a women’s hospital, first of its kind in Gujarat, and where women were treated without discrimination based on caste. His great grandson, Sir Girjaprasad (a Brahmin) had no qualms in providing a scholarship to Chhaganlal which enabled him to attend art schools at Indore and Lucknow. In 1939, Ravishankar Raval had organized an art exhibition for the Bombay art society, in which Chhaganlal’s water colour paintings, ‘Zupdi ni Lakshmi’ won the Governor’s prize of ₹100. Chhaganlal’s paintings were published in ‘Kumar’, an illustrated Gujarati periodical founded by Ravishankar Raval.

Today a number of Chhaganlal’s paintings—Shokdhara, Prakash, Prati, Gunahita, Vishvaswarup, Nirnay ni Kshano, Mangal Prabhat, to name some—decorate the walls of museums, art galleries and private collections.

However, there was one set of drawings which no one had seen. This was the sketchbook in which Chhaganlal had chronicled the Salt Satyagraha. The sketchbook was discovered by chance by Rizwan Kadri, the history college teacher while he was on his routine visit to the ‘Gujari Bazaar’ of Ahmedabad, the 607 year old flee market on the bank of Sabarmati river.

This article first appeared on National Herald on Sunday

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