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When Diva Gujral, a Ph.D scholar at University College London, met artist Jyoti Bhatt in Baroda last year, he revealed that he had once secretly submitted a photograph for the Lalit Kala Akademi’s annual exhibition. This was in 1974 and the Akademi, despite being India’s premier art institution, was rather hidebound about the definition of “fine arts”. According to them, photography did not qualify and it was only by rather ambiguously describing his work as “silver gelatin print” did Bhatt have it exhibited. Of course, the artist was outed, but only after a journalist, who was reviewing the exhibition, referred to his work as photograph.
This anecdote, which Gujral shares in her note on the exhibition “Photography at Play”, is illustrative of how art photography was relegated to the background for many years in India. Bhatt, who would go on to be recognised as much for his printmaking and painting as for his photography, himself frequently lamented this state of affairs and it’s not surprising why he should do so. After all, Baroda, where Bhatt was a teacher in the MS University’s Faculty of Fine Arts, had seen photography flourish and become an important part of the avant-garde artistic movement. As the home of one of India’s best pedagogical institutions for fine art, the otherwise provincial town in Gujarat had, by the late ’50s, already become an improbable centre for the development of a new, more self-consciously indigenous modern art movement. The foundations were laid by artists such as NS Bendre, KG Subramanyan and Sankho Chaudhuri, and developed further by the likes of Bhatt himself, Jeram Patel, GR Santosh, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh and Himmat Shah. In the ’60s and ’70s, many of the artists picked up photography, identifying its potential for unlocking yet another approach towards a modernist idiom.
“Photography at Play” zooms in on this particular phase in Indian art history to focus on the works produced by three artists – Bhatt, Nasreen Mohamedi and Bhupendra Karia. Mohamedi, whose father owned a camera shop in Bahrain, made deliberately sparse compositions not only through meticulous, fine-line drawings but also through photographs. Her photographs have a deeply contemplative quality, as do many of those shot by Karia. The latter had trained at the JJ School of Arts in painting, but took up photography while on a post-graduate fellowship in Tokyo. It was with him, in fact, that Bhatt travelled to Saurashtra and began making his well-known photographs documenting the folk arts of the region. Bhatt had previously arrived at photography when in Italy in the 1960s for a fellowship.
Gujral, who has curated the show, says, “Our knowledge of photography in independent India tends to be based around individual photographers in isolation, as mediated by the solo show and the biographical catalogue essay. People know the work of photographers such as Raghu Rai and Homai Vyarawalla intimately but seldom know who else was there. I wanted to curate an exhibition that could offer a slightly different look at things — at collaborations between contemporaries, at the friendships that are forged behind the lens.” To her, photography as it developed in Baroda in the ’60s and ’70s, offered an opportunity to investigate the relationships and institutional spaces that could influence the way photographic practices could develop. “The Faculty of Fine Arts proved to be a site where faculty members and art students could confer on the formal possibilities of the camera, trying their hand at multiple exposure, collage and other dark room techniques in their free time. And the work that emerges, some of which is in the exhibition, really speaks for itself. This is an episode in the history of post-colonial Indian photography about which little is written, and we thought it warranted a closer look,” she says.
In the photographs of all three artists there is, as Gujral says, “a stylistic consensus” that uses the camera to pare down, rather than build up. One can see in them a move towards abstraction by flattening the visual plane to achieve a play of line and shape. Gujral says, “They’re not focusing on one particular component of the photograph at the cost of blurring everything else out. So there’s a sort of democracy in their work in which the lines remain equally sharp, that allows us to receive their work as a network of lines. This is exactly what allows each of them to move into an abstracted vocabulary. To look at Mohamedi or Bhatt or Karia’s photographs is to survey form and geometry, line and shape, alongside the photographic subject.”
“Photography at Play: Bhatt, Karia and Mohamedi in Baroda, 1966-75” is at Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai, till April 22