Biggest challenge was state of mind, says Indian behind world’s largest drawing

Ravi Soni, a 42-year-old from Udaipur, ended 2020 in despair, without a job. A year later, he set a Guinness record with just a canvas and marker pens. Along the way, he got fitter, faced his fears. And learnt, he says, if you can control your thoughts, it all starts there.
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Updated on Jan 21, 2022 08:50 PM IST
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Preparing to create the world’s largest drawing is a bit like preparing to scale a mountain, says Ravi Soni. It takes considerable fitness, practice, stamina, and the willingness to admit that you need the mountain more than it needs you.

For Soni, his giant drawing was a life-raft. Amid the now-familiar combination of increased work pressure and stagnant or reduced pay and perks in the pandemic, Soni, a graduate of the National Institute of Fashion Technology, quit a 19-year career as a retail experience designer.

He left Mumbai and returned home to Udaipur, disillusioned and searching. In Udaipur, he tried his hand at an apparel business, then at retail design. Neither took off amid the lockdowns. His rocky fresh start, at 42, caused him to go into a downward spiral. As June turned to December, he says he remembers feeling “as if I was just being swallowed by this darkness”.

He realised he had to do something to force himself back to the surface. So he started by asking himself a question that millions of white-collar employees have been asking themselves in the pandemic (see our centrespread on The Great Reshuffle for more on this): What was he really good at? What did he really want to do?

Soni had always been great with drawing on canvas. He decided to start there. Some introspection led to the admission that it was no longer, for him, only about earning a living; whatever he did now needed to have meaning. It had to be significant, perhaps outrageous, he says. It had to be something that thrilled and excited him, and hopefully it would have the same effect on others.

Soni’s drawing, Tree of Life, spread out across a basketball court. It set a new Guinness world record last month.
Soni’s drawing, Tree of Life, spread out across a basketball court. It set a new Guinness world record last month.

“I needed to challenge myself and get over this fear that I couldn’t measure up to my own expectations. How? By breaking a world record,” he says, laughing. “That is how I thought I would defeat this monster within me. I think it could have been anything, but I knew it had to have an underlying message and I thought a platform like Guinness’s might help me do that. I simply didn’t see the opportunity for meaningful achievement in more conventional ways.”

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On December 22, 2021, Soni was declared creator of the world’s largest drawing by an individual.

The drawing is titled Tree of Life and is inspired by the baobab, a species that can grow in severely arid regions, and can store tens of thousands of litres of water in pockets in its trunk, which means it can be tapped for nutritious sap and fruit.

Soni’s sketch of the baobab was his third submission to the Guinness World Records committee; the previous two were not approved (there are rules, for instance, about such drawings needing to be a continuous, recognisable image.)

While working on ideas for this third sketch, before submission, the devastating April-May second wave of the pandemic broke, in 2021. “The country was witnessing an oxygen crisis. There was chaos everywhere,” Soni says. “I wanted to base my drawing around life, around oxygen and survival. What could symbolise all of that better than trees? We realise the significance of something or someone in our lives only in their absence. The dreadful virus made us realise the importance of oxygen, life, relation, and our overall existence.”

His work would explore two central themes: life and survival.

Inspired by the Tree of Souls in James Cameron’s 2009 film Avatar, Soni wanted to draw a tree that looked fit to worship. His canvas, accordingly, is dreamlike, with clouds, mountains, and a small doorway tucked into the base of his baobab. “The door is the tree inviting you to be a part of its world,” he says. “To me it was a doorway to something fabulous… life and happiness.”

In keeping with his style of flamboyant strokes and surreal imagery, the baobab’s spreading branches resemble roots reaching up into the air, as if the tree were somehow flourishing upside-down.

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The project began as a simple monochrome drawing on an A4 sheet of paper. It finished with a final canvas in the ratio of roughly 1:10,000. To put this in context, the canvas would cover an entire basketball court. It was made in one.

The giant background, the 629.98-sq-metre “canvas”, was created by sticking multiple PVC flex rolls together on the court at the Maharana Bhupal Stadium in Udaipur. The drawing was created with black marker pens.

It took Soni 24 hours and 33 minutes, spread over five days, to complete the work, but eight months to develop the core muscles he knew he would need to execute it. He used a combination of swimming, walking and climbing nearby hills.

“I was scared before the record attempt,” he says. “I knew I would have to sit and get up and be able to move across this canvas and kneel for hours. During the attempt I secured medical cushioning and was on painkillers, but even with all this, by the fourth day my wrist gave way.”

Some unexpected hurdles emerged closer to the date. First, there were unseasonal showers in Rajasthan. Then, on one of his visits to the site, he realised the canvas would be blazing in the sun if he drew through the day as he had planned, so he shifted his daily start time from 10 am to 4.30 pm, which meant he would now be working all the way to 11.30 at night, in freezing cold.

But his biggest challenge, he says, was state of mind. Fear sometimes loomed. Soni worried that he had no way to see the entire drawing while it was being made, and that he hadn’t practised the whole canvas at full scale.

When D-Day dawned, “I just looked at my iPad and started drawing,” he says. “The entire canvas was divided into 1 metre-by-1 metre grids. If even one of those grids went awry, the whole drawing could have looked poor. But I realised, if you can control your thoughts, you can start believing in yourself. And it all just starts from there.”

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Friday, May 20, 2022