Popularly known for his modern and contemporary work in painting, printmaking and photography, Jyoti Bhatt is an Indian artist who studied painting and printmaking at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda. His work shows a vivid portrayal of his memories and experiences combined with a sensibility towards traditional Indian folk design and the rustic life of Indian countryside. Bhatt began his artistic career as a painter and a printmaker in the 1950s. Through his lenses, one can experience the raw essence of rural life in Gujarat and Maharashtra. He is known for his interest in rangoli patterns, which also take form in his vibrant paintings and prints and the desire to photograph and document India’s vanishing culture.
“Making colourful rangoli is an important part of celebrations in our country. It is absolutely disheartening to see that even some extremely orthodox temples of south India have started selling rangolis printed in plastic. If one can’t expect purity even in temples it is needless to say about adulteration seen in our culture at other places.”
He was lured by everything that was natural, innocent and unadulterated in its soul from the folk art in the lives of rural India, to the rich heritage of natural dyes of bandhani, lehriya and other traditional crafts. From the traditionally tattooed bodies of the village maiden to the embroidered attires of maids in the countryside, nothing escaped his lenses. His photographs have helped in preserving and documenting our traditions and sensitize us towards the traditional cultures. Bhatt doesn’t believe in exaggeration or beautification of the lives of people living in small hamlets, he has shown their lives as it exists. “I have always believed in the end result over form or medium" At the same time, he incorporates a variety of changes in expressions derived by the use of different mediums.
AA: I had the opportunity to see some of your paintings at DAG, Delhi and DAG, Mumbai in 2019. I have seen a variety in your work. You have adapted to change in technology and have experimented in different forms like linocuts, etching and also digital prints. What attracted you to experiment in these styles?
JB: Everything new has always attracted me towards it, just like a toddler (says with childlike laughter). I don’t think calling it as an experiment would be art, because in an experiment we don’t know what is going to happen ultimately, we know that something would happen for sure but we are not very sure about the end product. Even in the field of art, we call many things as an experiment but in most of the cases, up to a very far extent, we are aware of what we are expecting or would happen at the end. Similarly, things which are known to us, acquired by us or what we learn from the experiences of others becomes our own and we derive pleasure out of it. At times we do many things to break the monotony of our regular work. Sometimes many artists are forced to do certain types of work in order to keep up the fuel in the kitchen. I had taken up teaching with the same intention, in fact, that is what I answered in my interview. If I took up art as a source of income then I would have been forced to do what people demanded from me but if I had a steady and fixed source of income I had the freedom to work as per my wish. So I brought changes in my work based on whatever was available to me or whatever I saw happening around me. I remember in my early days I wanted to do photo engraving or include gravure printing in my works but it was not available at that time in India. But I realised that I am able to derive similar results using a computer and I strongly believe in the end result rather than the process followed in achieving the result. The process or the medium was never my priority, it is not really important to appreciate art. I believe that deriving satisfaction and happiness is the ultimate aim while I am doing art. I get an indirect pleasure while I do my work independently in different mediums. Every medium has a different contribution towards the work, a print done by engraving wood gives a very different feel and character than a print. The material itself contributes a different form, a novel effect and a unique experience. I always look for how the material or medium becomes a part of my expression.
AA: As you had once said that sometimes the material used by artists depends upon the demand and preferences of the audience or the buyers and it at times also affects the demand and the price of the artwork. Also, it is a general perception about print that it is inferior to drawing or painting. Did this opinion of the art lovers ever affect your work?
JB: No, I have never changed my style based on demand. But if products of superior quality are easily available, for me then I don’t restrict myself from using those. Products like archival papers were not very easily available before but now after a change in import policies I get it easily, so I don’t see any harm in using it. Even artists feel good seeing their work intact for a longer period. I have been very honest in providing good quality work to my buyers; I have never tried to be dishonest. It all depends on what kind of product receive from the vendors outside but sometimes indirectly we also become a part of the whole system. But I have never given priority to such things. 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 have seen many artists deliberately putting up disclaimers on their works that say- etching made with imported inks on archival paper, but I have never prioritised the medium. In a book published by Delhi Art Gallery by Rubina Karode titled ‘Parallels that meet,’ she has talked about all these things. It says that in my photographs, prints and paintings these things go parallel but they still meet each other at some point. I have never regretted taking photography as an art form. Photo-documentation work is equally creative. A photograph becomes a work of art depending upon what you have created through it.
AA: Your photographs evoke nostalgia and are vivid portrayals of the rich rural life of India. How did the love or appreciation for folk culture start?
JB: So, let me draw your attention to the fact that I was born before eighty years, eighty six to be precise. The things that I had seen or experienced then, the life that I had lived then, are not very easily available now and perhaps this could be one of the reasons for the effect of nostalgia that you have sensed. Our country was under the reign of the British for a very long time. That was the beginning of rapid changes in Indian culture one could notice that very evidently in the cities like Kolkata. Eighty-five per cent of people still live in villages and if one has to see the real India or understand the real India one has to visit these hamlets. Gandhiji brought this point up and as a result, many writers and artists started respecting the village life during that period. In 1947 around 50 per cent of villages were still culturally intact but post-independence and post globalisation, communication and trade rapidly started between villages and cities. I believe in advancement and modernisation but whatever is left with us now in terms of pure culture after technological advancements and changes influencing the rural life must be protected and documented. In my photographs I concentrated more on the art, art was weaved in our life. I concentrated on documenting these fast disappearing living traditions of arts which were being practised by women – mainly in the tribal and rural villages of our country. My emotional experience related to ‘folk art forms’ and increased respect for the simple and innocent essence of their lives. Making colourful rangoli is an important part of celebrations in our country. It is absolutely disheartening to see that even some extremely orthodox temples of south India have started selling rangolis printed in plastic. If one can’t expect purity even in temples it is needless to say about adulteration seen in our culture at other places. I saw an urgent need for preserving it in the form of photographs before it gets extinct.
AA: We have known you as a printer, a printmaker and a photographer. Which form/style of art are you most comfortable with? Did you keep on switching between these three styles or did one at once?
JB: I feel that our choices and preferences keep on changing by a change in age and experiences. I felt that it was imperative for me to use the digital medium in my work primarily because of my diminishing eyesight. And the second reason is the luxury and privilege of availability of technology in my times. I am fortunate to have the mediums which even the legendary artists like Leonardo Da Vinci and Picasso did not have. A PC helps me in different ways by enabling me to magnify the images and editing them in many ways. The P.C. has permitted or rather encouraged me to modify the images freely. Working on the P.C. (helped by a friendly technician) also provided me with opportunities to create new images. I use it only to foster my artistic abilities and overcome physical limitations. Yes! I am really very happy that the new technology has kept the artist in me still alive.
AA: In 2019 you have donated some of your collection to an upcoming museum of art and photography. What was the thought behind doing that?
JB: Most of the exhibitions have made it a rule not to include photographs or any work done using photographic techniques; I fought for it and questioned them and I sent my photographs for all the exhibitions, the photographs that I treat as art. Photograph also is an artistic creation of photographers. It is not something that exists or is readily available, but what we express using this technique becomes our creation, photography is just a method. Artists are at times easily targeted and exploited (laughs) by many organisations. Sometimes organisers of charity events ask for our work without any remuneration in return and we readily agree to serve for the cause but the reality is unknown to most of us. But I am happy that now even artists have learnt to put their foot down. Sometimes donating becomes a compulsion.
AA: Jyotsana Ji is famously known as a ceramist and sculptor and her work is completely three dimensional. Does her work influence you in any way in form, style, colour or texture or does she get influenced by your work at any point of time?
JB: We both support and influence each other in many ways. Sometimes she makes plates and pots and I work on it whereas other times she uses the prints of my linocuts and beautifies it with her ceramics. Based on the availability of shared experiences we work together. We make deliberate attempts to influencing each other but still, the collective experiences that we have inspired both of us. Also, we have a common background as we have studied together, from the same professors and have received similar stimulus so unknowingly we have supported each other’s cognitive and artistic abilities.
Photographs and artwork of Jyoti Bhatt are like a reincarnation of rural life which is at a rapid rate of extinction. From the tribal life in primitive style to the black and white sketches expressing nostalgia, his works are not only a retrospective of the past but also a reflection of contemporary society. Bhatt finds it difficult to work with diminishing eyesight but he continues to research and create artwork through digital technology. One can sense the same artistic fervour in his digital photographs as well.
“Photograph also is an artistic creation of photographers. It is not something that exists or is readily available, but what we express using this technique becomes our creation, photography is just a method.”