Jyoti Bhatt's photographs go back to a time when the dry and dusty scrublands of an unspoilt Gujarat had not been stamped out by the joint assault of globalization and rapid urbanization, and the tribals still roamed free. These illuminating black-and-white frames were displayed at an exhibition titled The Photographic Eye of Jyoti Bhatt (January 19-February 25), curated by Ram Rahman and organized by Galerie 88 in association with The Guild Art Gallery of Mumbai. The pleasure of viewing Bhatt's photographs derives from his unsentimental and objective documentation of these colourful tribals and some of their customs and rituals. Bhatt also presents the core group of artists and personalities who made up the "Baroda School" of Indian contemporary art in their salad days through a gallery of portraits. Bhatt takes us back to the Baroda University in its early days.

Ram Rahman, photographer and curator, writes in his note: "What drew me to his work was the essentially photographic vision in his photography, unusual for an artist." In an earlier exhibition of Bhatt's luminous photographs in Calcutta, his studies of Ramkinkar were displayed. In that tribute to the great sculptor of Santiniketan, Bhatt's tremendous control over light was in evidence. Here, the focus is more on images that have strong compositional values, and forms, both natural and human, that have the quality of sculpture. This is to be expected of an artist and printmaker who played around with cubism, folk and Pop art, and being among the first group of students to have joined MS University in Baroda, had been mentored by the likes of N.S. Bendre, Pradosh Dasgupta, Sankho Chaudhuri and K.G. Subramanyan. Bhatt was born in 1934 in Bhavnagar, Gujarat. Art and dance were taught at his school as it was inspired by Santiniketan. Bhatt was familiar with photography from an early age as the editor of a Gujarati magazine published from Ahmedabad was associated with his school.

Bhatt took up a camera for the first time in 1957. He asked a friend studying in Germany to get him one. His first was a Voigtländer. Bhatt took up photography in right earnest when he was asked at a seminar in Bombay to document the vanishing folk art of Gujarat in the 1960s. For this Bhatt had to develop "a relationship with the actual location." He was attracted to photography because it is "a fast medium for capturing images." "A detailed landscape takes a whole week, and this takes a fraction of a second," says Bhatt. But when he wants to see something carefully he does not carry a camera. Conditions in dark rooms were primitive then, and a knowledgeable sweeper was his assistant. According to Ram Rahman, two major all-but-forgotten photographic talents were close to Bhatt - Kishore Parekh and Bhupendra Karia - and they travelled together. Bhatt had photographed Karia shooting tribal votive objects.

Some of the most interesting shots are those of the Rathwa tribe and its bedizened men and women. Surprisingly, the men wear as much (or more) jewellery as the women, and the face painting of a Rathwa youth for Holi reminds one of the African tribes among whom such customs prevail. There are the charming photographs of the young women and children of Kutch in their heavily-embroidered dresses. Women cover the floor with floral designs very similar to the alpana of village women in Bengal. A little half-naked Rajasthani imp wears an outsized turban while his sister looks on. Women rest in the foreground of a frame, while a cart, of which only the wheels are visible, is parked diagonally opposite them. The fairground reflected in the sunglasses of the two Rathwa boys is pure delight. Bhatt is an unobtrusive photographer and these images are without the stamp of his personality. His ultimate aim is making "visual notes".

Bhatt's matter-of-fact attitude, notwithstanding, the lyricism of the graceful Kutchi women going to fetch water, and the elegance and dignity of the turbaned flute players (picture) and of the naked legs of three men in a market cannot be overlooked. This is the lost world of Gujarat that all its prosperity cannot recall.

The votive objects at a tribal shrine of Mogra Dev (picture) of south Gujarat - wooden crocodiles with sharp teeth and carvings on their bodies, and equine figures probably of terracotta - remind us of similar shrines in Odisha and Bengal, although instead of wood, clay is used to make the offerings there. Bhatt's self-effacing style is manifested in his "selfie" where he reduces himself to a shadow.

Published in The Telegraph, 2017
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