Artists: Notes on Art Making

Jyotsna Bhatt’s book, Celebrating Earth, was released last August in a warm ceremony at the Ceramic Centre in Baroda - a printed album of all her most important and innovative ceramic works - that spoke eloquently about her passion for her work, her personality, her life, so that very little narration was required. Conceptualised by artist-teacher husband Prof. Jyoti Bhatt as a ‘gift of love’ to the several admirers of Jyotsnaben’s ceramics, it is also his acknowledgement of the ‘labor of love’ that his talented and hard-working wife poured into her work. A short note on her personal/professional life fits into one flap of the book’s cover. Her own note in the book is barely 200 words. And there are equally succinct notes by two artists she admired the most - Prof. K G Subramanyan and Ira Chaudhuri, and one by Madhavi Subrahmanian. The brevity of the volume accurately summarises what Jyotsna Bhatt, artist and person, were in real life - precise, devoid of all extraneous nonsense, focused on the work in hand. Her sharp eyes took in all experiences, noticed everything, and did not mince words when asked for an opinion.

Jyotsna Shroff Bhatt (1940-2020) took to clay like fish to water. She studied Sculpture at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda, under Prof. Sanko Chaudhuri (1958-62), and Pottery under the extraordinarily talented and technically skilled Basab Barua who then managed the Pottery section in the Sculpture department. She went abroad, enrolled at the Brooklyn Museum Art School, where she honed her pottery skills further under Prof. Jolyon Hofstead (1965-66). She joined the Faculty of Fine Arts, teaching Pottery in 1972, and was in charge of the Pottery Section from 1992 till she retired in 2002. Post-retirement, she had studio space and access to facilities at the Ceramic Centre, Baroda, where she continued working regularly until the COVID-19 pandemic forced it to close under the lockdown rules.

Over a steadily evolving career across five and a half decades, Jyotsna Bhatt created a vast oeuvre of ceramic artworks, largely functional and some sculptural, and exhibited regularly across the country. She taught and mentored hundreds of students, some of whom have grown into committed studio potters and/or ceramic sculptors - P R Daroz and his nephew Vinod Daroz, S. Gopinath, Vallari Harshwal, Rakhee Kane, Yogesh Mahida, Anju Pawar, Sukhdev Rathod, Falguni Bhatt, to name a few. She conducted numerous workshops on the various techniques related to working with clay, with glazes and slips, and sometimes firing alternatives. She continued to be a learner working with nonagenarian Ira Chaudhuri at the Ceramic Centre in Baroda in recent years.

Clay was the first medium of art ever created by man. But the invaluable functionality of clay worked against it when it began to be used in sculpture. Clay came to be regarded as a material worthy only to make moulds and maquettes for sculpture. In view of its functional possibilities, it was conferred the ‘second class’ denomination of studio pottery. The low valuation accorded to clay, unfortunately, rubbed off on artists using clay as the primary medium for their artworks, their work likewise designated as functional or sculptural. This ‘second class’ treatment extended to the low pricing of their artworks (‘it can break!’) as well as to any critical assessment of their practice by mainstream art writers. It is the reason why many ceramic artists, especially in India, have remained undervalued. I was thus particularly surprised to see detailed obituaries that were printed across national newspapers, at a time when newspapers have severely cut down on pages and therefore column centimeters, and re-posted on social media platforms when Jyotsna Bhatt passed away of a stroke suddenly on July 11. Not many artists are offered this privilege; most get a small single column mention. In her passing, she elevated the medium she was so committed to.

For Jyotsna Bhatt, clay was gold. A story recounted to me by Vinod Daroz, one of her most innovative students, now a globe-trotting ceramicist, talks of his first day in the pottery studio when the young students were fooling around with the clay and Jyotsnaben walked in, completely lost her temper and gave them the verbal hiding of their lives that none forget to this day! “Clay is gold,” she said, “In this studio and always, you will treat it with respect.” Vinod credits his training, technical mastery over the medium, ability to think out-of-the-box, and his very identity as a ceramicist to ‘Jyotsna ma’m’. “She taught me as much as I could learn and more. She was perhaps the best ‘thrower’ on the wheel, and I have seen some of the most experienced in the world.” It is no wonder that most of her vases are perfect examples of round-bottomed cylindrical, balloon, ovoid forms that stand firm and strong. Her most preferred mediums were terracotta and stoneware and she had mastered both. She worked with the textural qualities of clay and the temperamental qualities of the firing kiln that she could exploit to get the results she wanted.

Jyotsna’s sense of design was highly evolved. She knew exactly how much surface ornamentation and of what kind was required to raise a simple form to one that was singular in its presentation and impact. It was an unusual combination of simplicity and boldness, highlighted by a judicious use of slip and glazes for just the right effect. Her understanding of glazes was impeccable and she used each one carefully and sparsely, highlighting a curve here, a twist there. Her glaze palette was also restricted to earthy browns and ochres, natural greens and the lightest of blues, only sometimes stepping into the flamboyance of the turquoise or sapphire or cobalt blue.

It was no wonder therefore that she developed a strong, personal style that stood out as typical Jyotsna Bhatt. It could be especially seen in her smaller works, like the impeccable clay whistles she made for the Fine Arts Fair, that were a coming together of innovation, skill, technique, function, design and beauty. Her vast range of birds, animals, fish and frogs were delightfully expressive, tinged as they were with a quiet humour as they straddled the natural and the imaginative. The cats, especially, were her signature sculptures and to many who wanted to possess one, she would smile and say, “Aap kataar mein khade hain…!”, the old recorded message on Indian telephones! As she grew older, she was faced with health issues. Though she was always slender and frail-looking, she was tough with lots of inner strength. But as age crept in, it became difficult for her to throw and she found an alternative in creating the wonderfully intricate lattice-work/jalis to embellish the bottle-stops and platters that she created in recent years.

But at the end of it all, it was clay that always lit her eyes up. I remember a summer clay camp that I once attendedwithmyyoungchildrenandwhich she visited. She stood nearby watching me knead the clay again and again, slip a thread to cut a slab through to check for bubbles. Every time I cut the slab there would be more bubbles than the last time, whereas there should be less, finally none. As I got exasperated, she smiled and told me that I was kneading it as I would a ball of flour for rotis. “When you knead flour you must get in more air bubbles so when the roti is on the tawa, the bubbles help it to puff up thus making softer rotis. The opposite technique must be applied to clay. A single bubble in your clay piece can be disastrous in the kiln as it will expand in the heat and certainly damage that piece, but will also harm those next to it, in case it explodes.”

I hope she is happy in her clay heaven, pottering about the clouds, muttering, ‘kaink, kaink, karu chu …’ [1]

Sandhya Bordewekar

[1] ‘Kaink, kaink karu chu …’ a Gujarati phrase indicating, I am looking for something to do, or I have found something to do. A favourite with Jyotsnaben, I am told.

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