JYOTI BHATT: Weaving Symbols of Indian Culture
In his 68 years of practice, Jyoti Bhatt has created a magical confluence of painting, printmaking and photography with profound creations that are powered by his insight into India’s vivacious traditions, writes Uma Nair.
India 's most celebrated printmaker, the documentarian, the diarist, the avant-garde artist who combined classical and contemporary symbolism into his prints, while he created an archive of India's living walls and rural rhythms, now has a show that opened at Gallery Ark in Vadodara, celebrating 68 years of work. Bhatt has been actively engaged with photography since the mid-1960s, and his photographs constitute an important chapter in the history of photography in India, demonstrating great artistic sensibility, creativity and a deep understanding of ancient ritual cultures. While this show has his photographs, it also has seminal prints and paintings—reincarnated by Bhatt on his PC.
Bhatt began documenting the folk and tribal culture of rural India in the summer of 1967 as an assignment. His travels, visiting villages and tribal regions, photographing folk arts and craft traditions in their original environments along with the people who inhabited these spaces, brought him close to India's indigenous art forms, the photographs unconsciously synthesised human figures with static backgrounds that show painted, or drawn, images on walls or floors. Bhatt's photographs became social commentaries, continually sensitive to the psychological and material changes within the inhabitants of these societies, as they responded to urbanisation and change.
Reincarnations on a PC
"I noticed that the earlier form of photography has been taken over by digitalization and also, due to my acutely deteriorating eyesight I had to close my dark room. So, I adopted a PC. While trying to remove scratches and dust specks from my photographic images, I also started 'editing' them. The PC has permitted, or rather, encouraged me to modify the images freely. Thus my photographic images have forgone their 'silver gelatin' look. They are now printed with the high tech inkjet method and appear more like 'photogravure' prints. Working on the PC (helped by a friendly technician), also provided me with opportunities to create non-photographic images directly on it. Yes! I am really very happy that the new technology has kept the artist in me still alive. However, it is rather sad and disheartening that most of our art collectors still can't appreciate the art forms that involve photographic or digital technology. Unfortunately, the surface on which an artist has created the images is valued higher than the work itself! I hope, I will not have to declare under oath or write on my prints something like – 'an etching made with imported inks and acid-free archival paper of 100 per cent cotton'," says Bhatt.
Jyotibhai, as Jyoti Bhatt is fondly called, is one of the founder members of the Centre of Photography, Baroda. Before he turned to photography, however, Bhatt began his artistic career as a painter and a printmaker in the 1950s. He worked as a painter from 1954 to 1969 and also taught at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Baroda. He says, "I was never interested in studies. You may say that since I was not good for anything else in life, I became a painter. I studied painting and printmaking at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda, under stalwarts like NS Bendre, Sankho Chaudhari and KG Subramanyan. In the 70s, I learnt the intaglio method of printing and screen painting."
Prints and Intaglios
The piece de resistance of this epic culling shows us the strength and vitality of Bhatt's prints. Bhatt says that he was deeply impressed by Anand Coomaraswamy's book 'Mediaeval Sinhalese Art'. "I realised that folk art has many strands which reinforce one another. Each work of art provides an avenue of creativity and refines human sensibilities and responses. Living within a creative network, an individual artist attains a special stature and refinement. The disappearance of the network, with the breakdown of traditional cultures, is bound to cause cultural impoverishment."
His best-known work is the documentation of the rangoli tradition in Gujarat and Maharashtra. "It was probably introduced in Gujarat through Maharashtra during the rule of Gaekwads," he says.
Of his printmaking days that ensued from sketches in his diary and sketchbooks, Bhatt notes: "When an image on one surface (matrix) is transferred on another one, the new image is called a PRINT. A thumbprint is the most common in India, needed for the 'Aadhar Card' too !! Another form of printmaking is 'INTAGLIO' (Each Indian- except the infants- has Intaglio prints in the form of currency notes!!) Artists have been using several—simple to complex—techniques for making prints.
"Thus, prints are "Printed Pictures". I love to make prints because: It allows me to create images that I am unable to make by any other device, such as drawing or painting. It allows me to make a large number of improvised images — 'avatars', without destroying the original 'matrix'– plate, wood block, screen, stone – litho - slab. It allows – as if it is imperative – me to make several copies (in the form of editions) of the same image. Thus, unlike my paintings or drawings, prints are not "Unique" works and, can be owned by a larger number of art loving people including those who "have more test than money"."
Classical to Contemporary
There is enormous pleasure in these prints, sketched on paper then transferred to a bit of wood, which Bhatt then engraved, using little tools he mostly made himself. He imagined image after image. He makes a wonderful animator in works such as Nag Kolam, Kalpavriksha and Lotus Pundit.
The harder you look at these prints, the more are the details to be studied along with the succinct weaving in of the symbols of Indian culture. Even the rough ovoid shape of the owl and its fine detailing seems to coalesce out of blankness and drifts into suggestions of tradition at its edges. The imagination fills in the gaps, the colours and the textures.
Bhatt has a deep love – birds, the peacock, the parrot – they are juxtaposed with a naturality that affirms that he was as inventive as he was observant, as sensitive and kind as he was exacting and faithful to the things he saw around him.
Self Portraits and Faces
The face-images in many avatars are like ballads or snatches of a folk song; but, at their best, they offer much more. In an entire scene of inky prints, carefully created, he gives us a visual equivalent to the truth of materials and metaphors telling us that a human face in any form is marvellous, timeless, and magical. His Self Portraits created many moons ago, tell us of his ingenuity and inventiveness – his brilliance as a pan-Indian ambassador of the classical traditions in India that need to be preserved. This show talks about 68 years of a living heritage created by the hands of Jyoti Bhatt the doyenne.