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Beyond documentation: The Photographs of Dr. Jyoti Bhatt

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on December 14, 2013 at 02:16 PM

The ability to capture and infuse an ‘expressive, personalized quality’ in an image captured with a camera manifests itself in Dr. Jyoti Bhatt’s extraordinary documentation of rural and tribal people, their life, work and art and craft forms. Tasveer Art Gallery, a Bangalore-based gallery dedicated to showing fine art photography (info@tasveerarts.com), is exhibiting Dr. Bhatt’s photographs in Ahmedabad, New Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Kolkata from September 2013 to January 2014.
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Dr. Jyotindra Bhatt (mostly referred to as ‘Jyotibhai’) is a veteran Indian artist best known for his modernist work in painting and printmaking and also his photographic documentation of rural Indian culture. He studied painting under N. S. Bendre and K.G. Subramanyan at the Faculty of Fine Arts,Maharaja Sayajirao University (M.S.U.), Baroda. Later he studied fresco and mural painting at Banasthali Vidyapith in Rajasthan, and in the early 1960s went on to study at the Academia di Belle Arti in Naples, Italy, as well the Pratt Institute in New York. In 1966 Bhatt returned to M.S.U. Baroda with a thorough knowledge of the intaglio process that he had gained at the Tamarind Workshop in New York. It was partially Bhatt’s enthusiasm for intaglio that caused other artists such as Jeram Patel, Bhupen Khakhar and Gulammohammed Sheikh, to take up the same process. Bhatt, and his compatriots at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Baroda, soon came to be known as “The Baroda School” of Indian art.

Late in the 1960s Bhatt was asked to take photographs of Gujarati folk art. Initially this work was done for a seminar, but it soon became one of the artist’s passions to document traditional Indian craft and design work. The disappearing arts of rural Gujarat became a focus. Though Bhatt’s investigations into village and tribal designs certainly influenced the motifs he used in his printmaking, Bhatt’s documentary photographs are of value as an art form in themselves. His work is in numerous international collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., and The British Museum, London.

Dr. Bhatt’s photographs have a certain quality of empathetic detachment about them that give his modest subjects a sense of tremendous dignity and pride. His is not an eye that is intrusive, searching or scavenging, nor is it one of a disinterested or over-diligent researcher. He is somehow able to communicate a certain amount of quiet comfort to his subjects and therefore, I often feel, that they express the same in their attitude when they look into the camera and respond. And it is this response that adds a special dimension to his work, taking his photographs way beyond ordinary documentation.

This genuinely sensitive interest in folk, rural and tribal forms of public visual expression can be traced not only to the Shantiniketan influence brought in by Jyotibhai’s teachers at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda, such as Sankho Chaudhuri and K G Subramanyan, but also to his school, Dakshinamurti in Bhavnagar, an ‘unorthodox’ institution for education based and run on Tagorean and Gandhian ideals.

But what is more interesting to observe here is the inherent desire of human beings to ‘beautify’ the surroundings they live in, no matter how simple and modest they might be. And how that desire fuels innovation (creating a ‘stencil’ effect with commonplace implements, including the human hand and arm, around which to spray thin white rice paste), locally available cheap materials such as mirror slivers and rounds to create figurative and abstract patterns, cow-dung, clay and colours pressed from juices of fruits and vegetables.

A mud wall becomes a blank canvas for the artists amongst our tribal and rural communities to express themselves. As does a smoothly worked mud-and-cowdung floor offer itself to the creation of brilliant rangoli-s, mandala-s and alpana-s. In fact in many close-knit tribal and rural communities, these skills have been fine-tuned over centuries to create highly sophisticated art and craft forms such as the Madhubani paintings by women of the rural areas of Mithila in Bihar, the clay plates featuring local gods and goddesses made by potters in Molela, Rajasthan, the mirror-work embellished wall murals by the tribal women of Kutch in their circular Bhunga homes, and so on. Sometimes, these are often accompanied by elaborate rituals as with the elaborate Pithora wall paintings of the Panchmahali Bhils of central Gujarat.

These wall decorations, or beautifications, whatever one might want to call them, emerge from a deeply-grained native sense of aesthetics and sensitivity to design that is closely twined with a robust understanding of the environment, what one can take from it, how not to waste or splurge and what one’s own limitations are.

So, often, when I look at the horrifying colours, poor workmanship, and pathetic copying of designs from ‘palatial’ or ‘Western’ sources, I cringe and wonder: how did we manage to lose that sense of balance, of the beautiful arch, the graceful dome, the simple verandah, and the welcome stated in the housewife’s handmade ‘toran’ adorning the door?

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