‘I AM A CAMERA with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair,’ says the narrator of the English-American writer Christopher Isherwood’s novel, Goodbye to Berlin (1939). ‘Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.’
I remembered these lines last month when the Government of India conferred the Padma Shri on the artist, Jyotindra Manshankar Bhatt, better known as Jyoti Bhatt, on Republic Day. Painter, printmaker and, perhaps most memorably, photographer, Bhatt picked up the camera in the late 1950s, moved by a desire similar to that of the narrator of Isherwood’s story. The device, to Bhatt, was a wondrous substitute for the sketchbook, one that could freeze the sights and scenes he beheld during his peregrinations across India, some of which would become the raw material for his paintings and prints.
But passive observation wasn’t in Bhatt’s nature. Even the most candid shots he took—of pilgrims waiting outside a temple; Ram Leela actors in performance; or a smiling boy in the foreground, his eyes shyly averting the camera, framed by a toddler and a girl—were touched by a special aura of distinction. In Bhatt’s expert hands, documentary photography, the most reliable conduit for social realism, transcended its role of only preserving the here and now. Photography became, for him, an extension of his practice as painter and printmaker, a tool to critically look at post- colonial India and explore what it means to be ‘modern’ and ‘independent’ in such a society.
Born in 1934 in Bhavnagar, Gujarat, Bhatt was among the earliest students who enrolled at the faculty of fine arts, Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda. He trained in painting under teachers like NS Bendre and KG Subramanyan, studied fresco and mural painting at Banasthali Vidyapith in Rajasthan, spent time at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Naples, Italy, and the Pratt Institute in New York, in the US. Like many masters of modern Indian art, his education was eclectic, in the best cosmopolitan sense of the word, and a catholicity of influences marinated to form his mature style.
Bhatt’s early education in drawing and painting began under his father. He was a keen observer of birds and much of his juvenilia pertain to academic imitations of various avian species. Soon he was copying other scenes that unfolded around him with equal keenness. In Parallels that Meet, a book about his life and legacy, there is an image of one of Bhatt’s earliest paintings, a watercolour made at the age of 12, depicting a Harijan man walking down a street. Titled Chheta R’ejo, it refers to the call, ‘Chheta R’ejo Mai Baap’, that all lower caste members of his village were required to utter loudly to warn people of higher castes of their presence. This composition of a man carrying a bucket on his head and a broom in his hand may seem unexceptional in its execution, but it’s the young boy’s gaze, cast on those who live on the margins, that catches our attention.
An elderly woman is the focus of this photograph, destitute and filled with pathos, sitting before a mural painting of Sita, imprisoned by Ravana in the Ashok Vatika in Lanka
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All his adult life—whether in front of a canvas, as a printmaker, or with a camera in hand—Bhatt remained interested in the wretched and the ordinary. The Family of Man, an exhibition put together by Edward Steichen in New York in 1955 to capture ‘the gamut of life from birth to death’, impressed him profoundly. But he could be witty and goofy too. Some of his early photographs feature him, along with his friends, in self- ironising moments of levity. For instance, in a classic shot taken by his friend Bhupendra Karia in 1968, Bhatt stands garlanded with multiple cameras, two pairs of sunglasses perched on his forehead. Beyond the obvious comedy of the situation, the image conveys a sense of urgency: a portrait of the photographer with a capacious appetite for every detail that passes him by.
In 1969, Bhatt helped organise an exhibition called Painters with a Camera in Bombay, along with friends and colleagues like Jeram Patel, Gulammohammed Sheikh and others. The title of the show was polemical—it would be decades before photography in India became acknowledged as ‘art’ by galleries and museums. Yet, fifty years ago, a group of artists had already owned the camera as a painterly tool. For Bhatt, this was more than an idea. He used the camera, as he would the brush or intaglio plate, as a vehicle for his sensibility to flourish. Without his early investment in photography behind them, a generation of Indian photojournalists may not have given their work that extra push, which turned reportage into something rich and strange.
At the headquarters of the Museum of Art and Photography (MAP) in Bengaluru, Nathaniel Gaskell, associate director of the organisation, acknowledges Bhatt’s key presence in the history of modern Indian photography. “MAP was the recent recipient of a generous donation of an exhaustive collection of photographs, negatives, contact sheets and diary notes from Bhatt,” he says. “We are dedicated to ensuring that such a critical body of work is looked after for future generations, as well as made accessible to academics and the public to study, learn from, and enjoy.”
Taking him up on the offer, I recently spent a morning at MAP, going through the contents of one box of Bhatt’s photographs from the massive archive, including mostly images taken during his travels through Gujarat, West Bengal, Rajasthan, Punjab, among other places. Even from studying those 100-odd prints, one can discern a gradual shift in the photographic gaze, a steady accretion of complexity of themes and approaches, taking off from the documentary impulse that had set him down this path. There are plenty of examples of his work as the chronicler of ‘living traditions’ (the term was coined by Subramanyan) of rural India. These photographs bear testimony to vanishing customs of painting murals, weaving, or making other handicraft. The encroachment of modernity on these ancient traditions became his abiding theme.
Some of the captions, inscribed by Bhatt on the back of the prints, are illuminating. Behind an image showing three girls in frocks—two of them carrying pots on their heads—taken in Kutch in 1976, is the comment: ‘Dresses are changing fast but living conditions are not changing much.’ In another photograph of a tribal festival in Bastar in 1984, Bhatt sharply focuses on the face of a lone woman sitting under a tree, while the rest of the gathering has its back turned to the camera. Interspersed with these striking observations are classic portraits, studies of the human face in close- up, enlivened by the hint of a smile or clouded by a pensive stare. The face of a tribal woman in Gujarat in this set, hand-coloured by Bhatt, reinforces the cross-pollination between painting and photography in his work most poignantly.
Then there are haunting visuals of natural landscapes that look like abstract sculptures, dotted with rocks and boulders, flora and fauna, the ruins of decrepit monuments and places of habitation alive with the warmth of human bodies. These continuities between the present and past—the persistence of ‘living traditions’ in modern and contemporary India—are visible either archly or suggested through artful juxtapositions, as in Sita (see picture).
An elderly woman is the focus of this photograph, destitute and filled with pathos, sitting before a mural painting of Sita, the legendary queen of the Ramayana, imprisoned by Ravana in the Ashok Vatika in Lanka. In a feat of ingenuity here, Bhatt not only draws a line between India’s epic past and its poverty-stricken present, but also among the different strands of his practice—a painter (the mural in the backdrop is by him), photographer and, above all, a restless wanderer among people.