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Jyoti Bhatt’s black and white frames are slices of rural life

Legendary printmaker Jyoti Bhatt is equally famous for his photographs of rural life. One can see how the mediums overlapped in his mind from what he says in the essay, ‘Walls and Floors’, in the book Parallels That Meet: Paintings-Prints-Photographs: “Using the camera instead of a sketch book, I realised that it was not merely a fast means of documentation, but also one that maintained a higher degree of objective fidelity.”

His teacher, K.G. Subramanyan, had instilled in him a love and deep appreciation of folk culture. So, from 1967 onwards, carrying a tool that he considered fairly objective, Bhatt began to travel in rural India recording the nuances of folk life and the vanishing crafts of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Odisha, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and more.

Gift of giving

Now, the Vadodara-based artist, who received the Padma Shri for his contribution to art this year, has donated his collection of photographs titled ‘Living Traditions of India’ to the upcoming Museum of Art and Photography (MAP) in Bengaluru. Explaining what prompted him to make the move, Bhatt says, “I am already 85: due to my weakening eyesight and almost unavailable darkroom materials, my negatives were of not much use to me. But I realise they are valuable — I thought they should be preserved and preferably in India. MAP seemed to me the best institution for this.”

Over 15,000 objects including rolls of 35mm, 120mm negatives, transparencies, contact sheets, travel and field notebooks, CDs and index sheets arrived in two lots late last year and are currently being restored, archived and studied by experts at MAP, which though not officially open as yet, is hosting events, conducting educational outreach programmes, and loaning works to other museums. Bhatt’s images present a slice of simple and visually rich rural life.

Documentarian in nature, the photographs present life almost as it is: there’s a village pond, a woman painting the exterior walls of a mud house, a painted cow against a hand-painted backdrop, preparations for a village fair, women selling vegetables, a graffiti from the election season, and different kinds of decorative patterns drawn on walls and floors. Bhatt knew the import of the collection he was building.

Jyoti Bhatt’s black and white frames are slices of rural life

As he says in his Tedx Talk: “My journey started because of my interest in experimenting with creative photography. But when I realised that our traditions of visual culture were vanishing, I decided to concentrate on documenting that with still photography. This was possible for me to do individually. Other, better methods like video and cinematography were not possible for me to pursue.”

Concept of diptychs

Although Bhatt was aiming at being objective, his basic grounding in painting comes through. He applied the concept of diptychs to his photographs.

For instance, the work, ‘Double Self Portrait’, in the collection of Tate Britain, shows two angles of a face on a piece of a fabric. Bhatt says, “For me painting, printmaking and photography have one common feature, which is image-making. Thus all my work are centred around image making. However, I also tried to ensure that each of the images maintained the characteristics of the medium and materials used in it.”

Before the collection was gifted to MAP, the museum had been collecting Bhatt’s work, and now all of it comes together in the Jyoti Bhatt Collection. Nathaniel Gaskell, co-curator and associate director of MAP, is overwhelmed by the distinct approaches and styles that mark the artist’s oeuvre.

“There is documentary photography and there is some really amazing experimental work where he is flattening out tones, using double exposure, applying a different vocabulary. He is doing such avant-garde art in India in the 70s. The Tate Modern, MoMA, and other museums have his experimental works in their collections,” says Gaskell.

Bhatt is among the 100 photographers Gaskell and his co-author Diva Gujral have included in their comprehensive book, Photography in India: A Visual History from the 1850s to the Present, which was released this year.

Bhatt’s exhaustive work was supplemented with meticulous archiving and when it arrived at the museum, it surprised everyone. “For a photographer to archive his work like this is rare. It shows that he understood the importance of his documentation and the need for posterity,” says Gaskell.

Bhatt developed codes for areas and communities. For instance, Rajasthan is referred to as R and Kamant Bhil (probably a sub-tribe of Bhils) is denoted as KB; Baroda and North Gujarat became BNG; and South India is SI.

A young archivist at the museum working on the Jyoti Bhatt archives says that his diaries, once translated from Gujarati, also proved to be a mine of information, with the minutest details, such as the time of day, nature of light, etc.

The captions at the back of the images are as meticulous. A photograph of a shop says: “A shop in Kutch village, 1976, displaying political posters as decoration for ceiling of the shop during the Emergency years. Jyoti Bhatt.” This is followed by his name and address stamped in ink that still looks fresh.

The writer is a journalist with interest in art and culture.

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