Negotiating the Post-Colonial Identity in Jyoti Bhatt’s works

Leo Tolstoy while talking about art says, “What translates infectiously from the artistic expression to the viewer is feeling”. It is this infectiousness of the artistic expression is what attracts the viewer to a work of art.

It was this aspect of Jyoti Bhatt’s work that drew me when I was only six years old. The work I had come across was “Flies/Makshika” done in 1972. Then, I did not quite understand what grabbed my attention nor did I quite understand why in a fraction of seconds I was mesmerized. The next time I came across his work was much later at 16 when I saw his work titled “Beginning of the Journey” 1986. Almost immediately, it brought back the memory of “Flies/Makshika”. This time however, I knew what drew me. It was the signs and symbols, the text in Hindi and Gujarati that helped me “read” the work. The visual bank that I had built consciously or subconsciously was sensitized looking at the work. Coming from a similar background from Saurashtra I too had seen the signs, symbols, and connected almost immediately.

Flies-1972

Coming to Baroda for my degree program in Art History put me in a space where I came across his work more frequently. Every time from there on when I saw his work slowly but steadily, a story began to unfold. The Art Historical knowledge that I was building up during my program gave me a newer and deeper insight to his work. Recently, while reading post-colonial scholars I truly understood what fascinated/drew/mesmerized me in his work (loaded with symbolism, satire, sarcasm much much more) even when I was a 6 year old having little or no understanding of the world around me.

Jyoti Bhatt’s work gives the viewer the space to engage at multiple levels. One can interact with it only on the surface or can even go deeper based on the taxonomical capacity of the viewer. His work draws from the popular and deconstructs the ideological framework of society, culture, religion, tradition, etc. I often use the phrase, “His work is like a massy art house film”. It engages the layman and the intellectually seasoned at the same time and leaves them both content and satisfied.  The imagery drawn from the popular and from the tribal and folk juxtaposes with an artistic intervention developed over the years through his interaction with the pioneers of the ‘Gujarati Cultural Movement’ during his childhood days in Bhavnagar.

Jyoti Bhatt was born in 1934 in Bhavnagar in an unorthodox family. His father was the head of ‘Grahashala’ (home school) which was based on Gandhian and Tagorian ideals. There he learnt dance, music, painting and theatre. There he was first trained under Somalal Shah and later under Jagubhai Shah who was a pass out of J.J School of Art and had studied at Madras under Debi Prosad Roy Chaudhary. Bhatt studied under the direct tutelage of N.S. Bendre, Sankho Chaudhary and K.G. Subramanyan from 1950-1959 at the Faculty of Fine Arts M.S. University within a composite and eclectic pedagogical ambience of western academism and the traditional Guru Shishya parampara. Radical approach of manida in guru shishya param para.

Subramanyan’s pluralistic vision was shaped by divergent ideologies-Gandhian, Marxist and Theosophical-, which informed the Indian freedom struggle. The influence of Tagore, oriental arguments of Havell and Coomaraswamy, and the progressive ideals of Nandalal Bose, Binode Bihari and Ramkinker became the foundations for the democratization of his art practice; Bhatt acknowledges an allegiance to Subramanyan as a cultural philosopher with whom he agrees both on ideological and aesthetic terms. Moreover, his time at Academia de Belli Arti, Naples(1961-1962) and the Pratt Institute New York (1964-1966) brought him in direct contact with the western modern artists like Antoni Tapies and Alberto Burri’s experimental investigations and the trend of the ‘Happenings’. Here he also learnt the possibilities of tactility of surface manipulation along with an exposure to the various print mediums and graphic arts. His works of this period are a drastic departure from the figurative idiom at Baroda.

On his return from New York, during the summer of 1967 the Bhartiya Vidhya Bhavan organized a seminar in Bombay on the Folk Arts of Gujarat along with an exhibition. Here he had captured the artifacts in their proper context and environment. This point onwards began Bhatt’s journey of documentation of the dying tribal then and folk arts of Gujarat and later India. His fascination with the medium of photography had begun during his New York days.


“Using the camera instead of a sketchbook, I realized that it was not merely a fast means of documentation, but also one that maintained a higher degree of objective fidelity.”

Image Courtesy Tasveer
women-of-the-mutha-community-kutch-gujarat-1975

Through his photographs along with the help and guidance of his artist-photographer friend Bhupendra Karia, Jyoti Bhatt provides an insight into the histories of the objects and people he captured. He soon realized the importance of the camera not just as a means of quick documentation but also as a tool for sociological investigation and his artistic responsibility and intervention. However, one cannot ignore the presence of a ‘gaze’ in his photographs. Photographs like “Three Harijan girls”, Kutch, Gujarat, 1979, “Women making a Samha Devi image”, Haryana, 1977, “Rajasthan”, 1988, “Rural courtyard”, Banasthali, Rajasthan, 1972, “Woman drawing a mandana design”, Rajasthan, 1972 to name a few stand as testaments to this aspect. In his attempt to document the cultures through his lens, he unintentionally objectifies them.

Image Courtesy Tasveer
three-harijan-girls-kutch-gujarat-1979

His photograph “Woman drawing a mandana design”, Rajasthan, 1972 carries an even stronger gaze. The woman covered completely while being captured in the act of making the mandana itself distances the viewer where they assume a position of an outsider. In other work like “Three Harijan Girls”, Kutch, Gujarat 1979, he captures the girls set against a mud wall (probably of a rural home) he captures the dust and ‘dirt’ on their body. One begins observing the distance and otherisation from the title itself.  The ruffled hair, shoddy clothes along with the ornaments reminds one of the ‘Company Paintings’ of the British Raj. The paintings, like the photographs too depicts the subjects in their native costumes performing native rituals. This served the purpose of ethnographic study the credibility being based on first hand encounters. One cannot ignore this distance between him and his subjects. This objectification in Bhatt’s photographs is perhaps due to the dilemmas that the post-independence artists were going through-of that between tradition and modernity. His artistic practice began during the fifties, a time during which the nation was trying to define itself. It was in this ambivalence that Bhatt was trying to find ground and ‘Identify’ himself along with his artistic practice.

Image Courtesy Tasveer
rural-courtyard-banasthali-rajasthan-1972

The objectification of the life and the culture of the tribal and folk in Bhatt’s work is not due to ignorance nor is it a deliberation. Rather, as he puts it while talking about his work and experience during the seminar and exhibition at Bombay,


“The photographs I produced and exhibited depicted artifacts in their proper context and environment: memorial stone carvings, shrines of gods and goddesses on the outskirts of a village or deep jungle, the decoration of houses and animals on ceremonial occasions, wall-paintings in temples and havelis, embroidery and bead work, tattoos and marks on bodies, and so on.”

During his interaction with the communities whose traditions and culture he was documenting, he saw the gradual decline and at times a complete vanishing of certain traditions and their indigenous crafts. The clothes people wore, their homes and occupations, were gradually undergoing a metamorphosis, along with their attendant values and norms. Bhatt was aware of and sensitive to this change.

Contrary to largely accepted readings of his work operating in the liminal space of tradition and modernity or his work trying to question the binary oppositions of High Art vs. Low Art, it rather operates in a third space. Where he is questioning the notions of modernity and tradition as for him, what is problematic is deliberate Indian-ness and equally deliberate modernity injected into the work. Bhatt’s work is a prime example of how the colonized in the process of appropriating themselves as their colonizer enters a state of ambivalence once the colonizer has left. This newfound freedom puts them in a place where they are no longer the same as before in terms of tradition, culture, lifestyle and ideology.

These experiences of change and transformation find a place in his paintings and prints. His works done in these medium become his comment on this process of transformation and alienation of traditions. The imagery, which he borrows heavily from the patterns, signs and symbols of the tribal and folk exploration of his photographs, is re-contextualized in his paintings and prints. These symbols of religious, social and cultural importance become a tool to comment on the change and transformation. The sarcasm and satire of his work aide his commentary. His works act are an exploration tool to finding an ‘Identity’. The hybridization in the identity of a colonized people is being explored, reconciled and debated in his works. Works like “Lost Pundit”, “Two Faces”, “Self Portrait in Disguise of an Angel” stand as testaments to this.

Image Courtesy AAA
Lost Pundit 1966

“Lost Pundit” is one of the prime examples where Bhatt comments on the acceptance of ‘Constructed Traditions’ and their delusive nature. Bhatt here re-examines his position within a culture and society, which is constantly in flux. Through it, he forces the viewers to reposition themselves within the ambivalence of the time. This need to reposition oneself comes from his interaction with the fading cultures and practices of the tribal and folk where as he saw blind acceptance of the new while distancing the self from the ‘old’. This idea of the ‘Self’ becomes quintessential to him in the process of understanding this new post-colonized identity. The Self for him is a reflection of the dilemmas of the East vs. West and Tradition vs. Modernity. The Self also becomes a tool to identify ‘One’ with the ‘Other’ ultimately entering this ‘Third-Space’, which is the new ‘Hybrid’ that is born out of the interaction occurring in the liminal space.

His association with group 1890 and his role in the narrative style of Baroda school were cemented in defining the ‘National Identity’. As I mentioned earlier that post-independence, artists were trying to define themselves within the ambivalence of the time. Jyoti Bhatt too being one such artist manages to address this need to define not only himself but also the larger sentiment of the nation through his art practice. A large part of his works explore the temperaments of a society in a state of ambivalence and to a certain degree manages to express a possible interpretation of the ‘Indian’ identity post-partition.

Satyajit Dave

Bibliography

  • Parallels that Meet: Paintings, Prints, Photographs, Roobina Karode, Delhi Art Gallery, 2007
  • The Location of Culture, Homi K. Bhabha, Routledge; 2 edition (September 29, 2004)
  • The Post-Colonial studies reader, Edited by, Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, Helen Tiffin, Routledge; 1999
  • http://www.aaa.org.hk/Collection/CollectionOnline/SpecialCollectionRootFolder/26
  • http://www.tasveerarts.com/photographers/jyoti-bhatt/view-all-images/




This article was published in the Departmental Journal ‘Insignia’ edition II 2016 of the Department of Art History and Aesthetics, Faculty of Fine Arts, M.S. University Vadodara. 

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