Jyoti Bhatt: Embracing rural rhythms

In the monochrome matrix of documentation, Bhatt was searching not for the bare bones of cognition but the hidden truth of the rural psyche. These images invent a new visual language of lines and shade to evoke the deepest urges and traditions, writes Uma Nair

Jyoti Bhatt brings to Rukshaan Art in Mumbai a show that captures his journeys across Gujarat, Rajasthan, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, West Bengal and Bihar from the 1960's to the 1990's. Walking into India's villages and capturing women and children and huts and walls, this series of photographs is more than a documentation. It is an archive of the living traditions of India's rustic villages – the arts and crafts of the folk idiom that were not just forms, but living relics of the rituals that were integrated into the lives of humble dwellers embodying narratives that hark back to centuries ago.
Jyoti Bhatt the printmaker with his love for intaglio discovered the tribal arts of Indian villages with his camera. "I was asked to do a documentation of some of these villages," says he, "The idea was to capture the visual expressions in their original setting along with people who inhabited these spaces. While I was focussing on daily traditions, like wall paintings and rangolis, I realised after I looked the works that there was a strong thread of transience. Suddenly it seemed as if I had captured vanishing walls in the lives of so many village dwellers."
Calf in reverie
Look at images such as Calf-Madhya Pradesh 1983 and Govardhan Rajasthan 1987 – in both works, there is a connectivity between the art, the wall, the people, and the bull and the calf. There is an inter-relationship between their art and their lifestyle. The bull stands in tranquil comfort as the lady paints on his body, for the Govardhan festival -- what entices is the drawing on the wall.
In the second case, the expression in the calf's open eye paints a reflection of absolute reverie while you see the art on the two makeshift walls on two sides. There are two apertures here, one in the makeshift wall and the other in the calf's eye – a tender reflection of the beauty of animals and life enlivened. The two makeshift walls covered with a coat of clay and cow dung over which the women apply chhuimitti (white clay) soaked in water are artistic in themselves. The parallel, lateral strokes are created while the clay is still wet and it is this that adds the evocative elegance – a counterpoint between animate and inanimate. Bhatt signifies the truth that art for them is more than a centuries-old tradition, it is a part of the society they belong to. "I noticed most often that what was on their walls was what they missed, sometimes it was the dying peacocks or the tigers, but it was fascinating to see that they were painting their inherited memories. I felt that as contemporary artists how far behind we are, we are not even truthful to our own journeys."
Bhatt says he has focused on two basic art forms in series, art forms on walls and floors. "It's because I studied painting that I could appreciate certain forms easily without bias. Most of this art is alive because the women were doing it all and they didn't change as much the men."
Moments into memories
The only objective behind the series for Bhatt was to record the medium since it was the only way he could save it. Ladies drawing mandana become tools if historical testimonies.While one work looks at a seated lady drawing an intricate mandana the second work has an old woman in a rural courtyard in Banasthali 1979 who draws while we espie a peacock on the roof of the thatched hut.Form and space become vital parameters in the study of these images. Bhatt's formal education is reflected as much as the commentary on indigenous art forms even as he offers interpretations of space that flits back and forth through time. Look at the images of the three Harijan girls Kutch Gujarat 1979 standing in coy consciousness, the two boys in naïve innocence, the ethnic looking girl and child with the stunning kitchen tools in a surreal backdrop – Bhatt covers fascinatingly diverse subjects to offer us an authentic and indelible vision of an India that is at once teeming with rural rhythms of lifestyles and art practices that are both tactile and triumphant.
Bhatt's Bengal image of a lantern with an abstract Durga drawing transports us to the timelessness of the surreal and the stark that he stumbles upon. Interior of a Rathwa tribal house in Madhya Pradesh 1979 is a magnificent mapping of the richness of the lived idiom in the midst of their own abject poverty.If that has a sense of soul so does Daedapdia Gujarat 1967 of the young mother with her child.
Tradition, Time, and mortality
The show traverses tradition through the tapestry of time and buttonholes mortality. Bhatt captures inherited artistic conventions-unique and powerful-presents a lens that celebrates artistic expression which is shaped by the hands of the Rajwar women who kept their rituals and customs alive.
"I thought ritualistic and secular art forms, usually created by women, using transient materials such a clay, dung, flowers and rice flour needed to be given priority. It was most crucial because such forms were not considered important as 'National Cultural Treasures' or 'Archaeological Heritage' and their deteriorating condition did not seem to be bothering the government," said Bhatt in an interview. His most profound images are of women and children, they lead the human eye into a black and white labyrinth, where reality must be relearned from the inside out. That radical search for the hidden structure of the indigenous arts in India is at the heart of Bhatt's quest for documentation.
Visual Notes
To look at Jyoti Bhatt's black and whites is to be drawn into the perennial debate of the power of monochromes. "I found that these folk artists in India's heartlands, were more contemporary than us, because they understand the presence and the rootedness of their work, they live with their art and they are always recreating." It tells us about how these drawings were part of rituals, how they marked the beginning of seasons such as winter, planting and harvesting seasons and before summer, apart from special and auspicious occasions like weddings, festivals and communal religious workshops.
Bhatt began documenting the folk and tribal culture of rural India in the summer of 1967. He travelled widely, visiting villages and tribal regions, and his journey has turned into an archival encyclopaedia that posits the past as a relic in the leaves of history. "The concentration in my work is not just on the art forms, but also on capturing the integrated relationship between art and people — how the two are interwoven in the act of daily living," he explains.
In the monochrome matrix of documentation, Bhatt was searching not for the bare bones of cognition but the hidden truth of the rural psyche. These images invent a new visual language of lines and shade to evoke the deepest urges and traditions. This same monochrome mythology spills into multiple commentaries to dig into the truth behind pictures. Pictures, in colours, are to be looked at, Bhatt does not want us to passively look, but to imagine moments from within. While colours let us off lightly; black and white forces us to think.
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