The Importance of Being Kumar
Vadodara, November 26, 2022
With Deepawali having just turned the corner, most middle-class homes across India would be sporting Special Festival issues of their favourite magazines – Desh, Anandamela, in Bengali, Stree, Gruhshobha, Lokasatta, Manini, Awaaz and Jatra (with its risqué cartoons!) in Marathi, Madhyamam in Malayalam, Taranga and Sudha in Kannada, Kumar and Navneet in Gujarati, to name just a few – on their drawing room tables.
There are probably several such magazines in other Indian languages as well, in print and digital versions. These thick, special issues are as much a part of the celebration of Diwali/Pujo/Onam as are the religious rituals, new clothes, rich foods and getting together with family and friends that make festivals so special!
In Gujarat and across Gujarati families spread all over India and abroad, the just-about-a-century old Kumar has a special place on the coffee table or the bedside, depending on the reading habits of the residents.
Kumar was founded in 1924 in Ahmedabad by artist-educator Ravishankar Raval (1892-1977) and writer and design enthusiast Bachubhai Ravat (1898-1980) and its first issue was out in January 1924. The cover of the first issue was drawn and designed by Ravishankar Raval who had studied at the JJ School of Art, Mumbai. It was an illustration of a young boy (on the brink of becoming a man) on horseback.
Raval explained this image by stating that "the youthful horse stood for the readers’ unparalleled enthusiasm, while the gesture of holding the horse’s rein symbolized a sense of control over this enthusiasm, through rational thought. The spear in the boy’s hand stood for his well-thought-out target, while the young man himself was symbolic of youth – the reader – who was moving towards tomorrow."
On page 3 of the first issue, in the Editor’s Note, Raval clarified that the periodical was not just meant for Kumars (males) but young girls (Kumari) and women as well, and that the word kumar was to be understood as youth in general!
Both Raval and Ravat were ardent followers of Gandhian ideology, and its critique of English-centric education and encouragement of alternative educational structures. Therefore, they plotted appropriate strategies for the periodical that would offer "significant guidance for art, aesthetics or newness, adventure, or social progress".
So the content ranged from poetry, stories, articles, puzzles, jokes, games, how-to’s, letters to editor, artist profiles, book reviews, interviews – almost everything under the Sun. And the subject matter covered philosophy, history, science, arts, politics, technology, literature and the arts.
It included features on personalities such as President Roosevelt, Samuel Johnson, Marie Curie, Karl Marx to columns on beetles and wild boars, in-depth research into design and typography, and articles talking of how one must "Always Have the Camera on your Shoulder while Travelling" (Camera ne khabhe bhervine j faro) to "The Art of Running Away" (Bhaagi jaavani kala), and even "Is the Government occupying its Seat in Delhi just to swat Flies?" (Sarkar jakh marva Dilli ni gaadiye bethi chhe?).
The periodical gave special emphasis to "new" writings about Gujarat, its history, architecture, literature, artists and current events as this was seen as an opportunity to inculcate a Gujarati cultural consciousness amongst their readers.
Along with such engaging content, Kumar was studded with images as well – photographs, drawings, sketches, maps, diagrams, illustrations – placed skilfully on every page so as to marry the text meaningfully, using space economically without sacrificing on aesthetics. While Ravat’s humungous experience in the Gujarati print industry was a huge plus, both editors invested considerably in a number of periodicals from Europe and the US, usually bought from the A H Wheeler stall at the Ahmedabad Railway Station! This was in addition to the publication’s continuously growing text resource library as well as image bank.
Kumar also provided their readers with easy access to several seminal written work in other languages, in translation in Gujarati. These included articles such as a translation of Nandalal Bose’s Bengali essay on "The Artist’s Religion" (Kalakar no Dharm), and writings by art teachers such as E B Havell and art historians like Karl Khandalavala.
The 3-part essay, "Contribution of Gujarat in the History of Indian Art", by Hermann Goetz (the German art historian and museologist who put together the Picture Gallery at the Baroda Museum) appeared as Hind ni Kala na Itihaas ma Gujarat no Falo in Kumar. Such articles offered a way for local readers to access important cultural discourses nationally and globally.
In addition to the periodical, Raval and Ravat also published calendars and artist-portfolios of Gujarati artists which became extremely popular.
The artist-portfolio idea was visionary in its conception as in the absence of a commercial gallery network in those days, it offered artists a small remuneration while making sure their artworks were up on the office and home walls of the buyers, thus creating invaluable exposure. In fact, Kumar continues to be known for printing a full colour artwork of a known artist in every issue that readers can cut out and frame.
Raval closely followed the establishment and working of the Faculty of Fine Arts at the newly formed MS University of Baroda in 1949-50, and published its admission and application procedures in Kumar to facilitate interested students from every nook and corner of Gujarat to join. In fact it was on his recommendation that eminent artist Padma Bhushan Gulammohammad Sheikh, based in hometown Surendranagar, joined the Faculty as one of its early students.
In 1942, financial difficulties almost closed Kumar down. But a few well-wishers came forward and converted Kumar Karyalaya into a company, Kumar Karyalaya Limited. With the passing of Raval and Rawat within a few years of one another, the sub-editor, Biharilal Taunk took over in August 1980. Financial issues again raised their head in 1987 and the publication was halted for three years. In 1990, the board of directors decided to re-launch Kumar with Dhiru Parikh, a writer and a poet, at its helm.
Parikh went on to archive and digitize all past issues of Kumar. As of now a packet of CDs of issues from 1924 to 2004 are available at a nominal price, a major documentation of tremendous historical and cultural significance, especially in the history of journalism in India.
When Parikh also passed in May 2021, Praful Raval, teacher-poet-writer took over and is the current editor. Kumar continues to be published from the same office premises in Ahmedabad.
So where, you might wonder, did I get access to all this information? All thanks to an intrepid and persistent young researcher, Dr. Vasvi Oza. Oza studied Painting at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda, and went on to do doctoral studies at the EFL University, Hyderabad. Her interest as a researcher was in the regional print cultures of Gujarat. Her research led to the consolidation of a part of it into a book, published by Reliable Copy, Bangalore.
The book titled, Modernism/Murderism: The Modern Art Debate in Kumar, examines a lively debate on the relevance and meaning of Modern Art that ensued in the pages of Kumar from 1959 to 1964 between Pherozeshah Rustomji Mehta, Jyoti Bhatt and the readers of Kumar. The book was first released in India, in Baroda in September 2022.
All photographs courtesy the book, Modernism/Murderism: The Modern Art Debate in Kumar. Published by Reliable Copy 2022.
Sandhya Bordewekar writes on contemporary art, architecture, heritage, food and life in general.