Dressed in a collared shirt and trousers — unlike the kurta that he now adorns — KG Subramanyan is seated in the midst of paper and paints. He seems indifferent to the clutter. The pieces of paper cuttings are possibly primal material that transformed into celebrated artwork. “He was an excellent teacher. This photograph was taken at his Baroda studio, visited by several of his students,” says artist Jyoti Bhatt. The photograph, taken in the late 50s or 60s, is cherished by Bhatt for being his portrait of the revered teacher at MS University in Baroda.
The exhibition hall at Korean Cultural Centre in Delhi has several such frames that hold fond memories for Bhatt and provide a glimpse into the camaraderie shared with well-known artists. With Manisha Gera Baswani photographing her contemporaries, Bhatt charts a journey of Indian art through its artists in the exhibition “Subtextual Documentalists”. For the documentalists, the camera became an interjectory tool quite by accident, but they were quick to adapt to it. “I began with documenting artwork for other artists, who were friends, and then began clicking them – they were extended family and it was like taking photographs at home,” says Bhatt, 81, whose engagement with photography began when he asked a friend to buy a “cheap” camera for him in Germany in the late ’50s.
The Baroda-based artist photographed his immediate surroundings, the folk art and fellow artists. Portraiture was not his primary aim, the intention being to capture the artists of his time in their comfortable “skin” and locations. In the exhibition, we find a tired Bhupen Khakhar sleeping in the lawns of Kamati Baug in Baroda, MF Husain and Ram Kumar in conversation and Paritosh Sen and Shanko Chaudhary in a room full of books. Nasreen Mohammedi and Bhupen Khakhar are a part of a group protesting against the Lalit Kala Akademi, and Ramkinkar Baij interacting with visitors in Santiniketan.
Baswani’s frames are much more confident, as are the artists. Unlike Bhatt, she is aware of documenting history. Also, unlike him, she is photographing artists who have already gained global recognition. While Riyas Komu and Natraj Sharma are seen installing their works, Atul Dodiya seems to be sharing a joke in a frame that has his art in the backdrop. Baswani enters personal spaces, too — Amit Ambalal is walking into his studio in Ahmedabad with his back to the camera, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, with his grandson, and Vivan Sundaram at his Delhi home. As Baswani observes, “The current generation is much more individualistic, there is more of the artist in his space. The previous generation was more about the community at large. Even in the individual portraits, there was that interplay.”
“Jyoti Bhatt’s black-and-white photographs presented in this exhibition evoke an era where the climate of cultural change within India was charged with passionate discourse, and where the implementation of newly formed governing modules for national platforms of art activities were being strategised. Manisha Gera Baswani’s coloured photographs, on the other hand, take you into a more assured stance of contemporary Indian art history, where the artist and their practice has acquired a more autonomous space of existence,” writes Rekha Rodwittiya in her curatorial text.
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