The book and accompanying retrospective opening next year is about Bhatt’s personal evolution, but also India’s first art school launched after the country gained Independence
With a prolific career spanning over half a century, Jyoti Bhatt is perhaps best known for his work as a modernist painter and printmaker. Photography, meanwhile, was a quieter and slower aspect of his practice. First used as a tool for documenting, over time Bhatt’s engagements with the camera became increasingly creative. Eventually he began to understand photography as an artistic medium in its own right. Titled Time & Time Again, a new monograph tracing Bhatt’s photographic journey is released on 09 December 2022.
Born in 1934, Bhatt grew up in Bhavnagar, a town in the state of Gujarat. He was surrounded by a community rich in creative practices, he says. “The town had a number of personalities who were connected to education, painting, music, theatre, literature and the freedom movement, and I feel so lucky that I was able to have that environment,” he recalls. After finishing school, Bhatt went on to study painting and printmaking at Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, India, before attending the Accademia di Belle Arti in Naples, Italy, and the Pratt Institute in New York in the early 1960s.
“I started using a camera in 1957 or so, mainly to make visual records of mine and my friends’ paintings during my study period in Baroda. I also photographed my family members and those around me,” Bhatt says. “Then, in 1967, along with my artist friends Bhupen Khakhar and Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, I had the opportunity to travel through the rural and tribal regions of Gujarat, collecting art objects to be exhibited at a seminar about folklore at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan educational trust in Mumbai.”
While on this trip, Bhatt says he began taking photographs to display the relationships between the objects and their environments. “For instance,” he explains, “we exhibited small terracotta votive images alongside an enlarged photograph of the hill shrine where they were offered.” These pictures became Bhatt’s first cohesive photographic project; one capturing the disappearing craft traditions of rural Indian life. His appreciation for the embroideries and bead works, wood blocks and pottery that he encountered while making the work went on to shape the subjects he sought out with his camera in the decades to come.
Time & Time Again is published by MAP Museum of Art & Photography – a brand-new institution for South Asian arts and culture in Bangalore, India, where a major retrospective exhibition of the work is due to open in February next year. Comprising over 160 photographs alongside a constellation of archival materials and contact sheets, the show will be organised into three key sections: portraits, rural studies, and the more experimental and lesser-known works Bhatt made as he began to play with photography’s potential for abstraction. “His portraits are of other modern artists, many of whom were his teachers and fellow students in Baroda, and who also went on to become significant post-Independence artists in the country,” says Nathaniel Gaskell, the curator of the show and editor of the monograph. The latter section includes photographs of regional traditions, such as body tattoos, painted temples and rangoli artworks. The experimental part of the show surveys Bhatt’s work with multiple exposures and mirror images, featuring “his work in photo-collage, and in remixing works from his archive into new pieces,” adds Gaskell.
Shooting mostly in black-and-white, Bhatt has a timeless and sensitive eye, and his approach often draws on the graphic sensibilities of painting and printmaking. “For me, paintings, prints and photographs are all primarily two-dimensional images, and I often notice that my works are interrelated,” Bhatt explains. “I have made etchings based on photographs, and I have deliberately printed my photographs with obliterated surface details and tonal contrasts in order to make them look like graphic prints.” He has painted on the surface of his photographs too.
The book’s title is inspired by an essay by the scholar Diva Gujral, which is published inside the monograph. “Across Bhatt’s work you see familiar motifs, ideas, shapes and patterns appear and reappear,” says Gaskell. The silhouette of the face, for example, appears in a number of his photographs, prints and paintings. The peacock is also commonly seen; real peacocks but also painted murals of the majestic bird on the walls of village homes. “One might see them occurring again in his sketchbooks, or as stencilled forms within other shapes across his practice,” says Gaskell. “Quotation and repetition is an important part of his work, and the title lends itself to this idea.” The book also contextualises the shifting political and cultural landscapes that formed the backdrop to Bhatt’s career, and includes essays by seminal figures in Indian art, including the dancer Geeta Kapur and art historian Jyotindra Jain, as well as reprinted texts by modernist icons such as László Moholy-Nagy. It also incorporates writings by Bhatt himself.
Time & Time Again ultimately seeks to tell two stories at once. “One is the story of India’s first art school, set up after Independence [in 1947], and its mission in creating artists who looked progressively outwards in the spirit of modernism while also looking to the traditional art forms in the country, to form a new style of art-making,” he says. The other key story is, of course, that of Bhatt’s personal evolution as an artist. Beyond this, Gaskell says, there are “hundreds of micro narratives” to be discovered, told through Bhatt’s vast depiction of Indian folk traditions, rural life, artists and craft practices across a spellbinding half-century of photography.
Jyoti Bhatt’s monograph, published by MAP, is out on 09 December 2022.
The exhibition Time & Time Again runs from 18 February to 23 July 2023.
Joanna L. Cresswell is a writer and editor based in Brighton. She has written on photography and culture for over 40 international magazines and journals, and held positions as editor for organisations including The Photographers' Gallery, Unseen Amsterdam and Self Publish, Be Happy. She recently completed an MA in comparative literature and criticism at Goldsmiths College, University of London