Jyoti bhatt’s art straddles a wide array of mediums. His canvases have captured the arid landscapes of Saurashtra and Kutch. On his multi intaglio prints on paper, New York’s skyline has attained new heights. His photographs have drawn inspiration from the rangoli designs that adorn households across India—from Kerala to Rajasthan. And that is only a fraction of his output.
The medium and the subject have always varied, but the purpose has remained constant. For 73-year-old Bhatt, art has always been a means to document his surroundings. “Rapid changes in the world around led me to illustrate those aspects that left a lasting impression on my mind. I wasn’t sure the next generation would be able to see things that I did. Commerce was hardly a motivation, and I set my priorities according to my own creative needs,” says the veteran artist.
That principle lay at the root of his decision to stay away from the spotlight and settle in Baroda unlike most of his colleagues who headed to Europe or Delhi and Mumbai. “Nostalgia of home was simply too strong for me. I was not wary of limelight, but it wasn’t attractive enough for me to want to distance myself from my roots,” smiles the master.
Preparing for one of his biggest shows, a retrospective that will open at the Delhi Art Gallery next week, Bhatt is calm as he goes about selecting creations that will be part of the exhibition. Short-listing just a handful of works spanning more than 50 years is arduous, but Bhatt has his strategy well laid out. “I want to present different phases of my art. Seen in isolation, each creation narrates a tale and together they chronicle my art,” he states.
As an adolescent, Bhatt would spend hours sketching scenes from the streets of Bhavnagar. He drew birds to illustrate rare species. At the age of 12, he painted a canvas titled Chheta R’ejo to depict the plight of Harijans who had to shout to warn upper caste folk of their presence, lest the latter were ‘polluted’ by their shadow. Says he, “The sketchbook gave me a platform to express my beliefs.” The relationship he shared with his surroundings only strengthened with time.
Son of Manbhai Bhatt, a nationalist who managed an educational institute, Shishu-Vihar, Bhatt was enrolled in Gharshala, a day-care centre. That’s where he met his earliest mentors, Somalal Shah and Jagubhai Shah. “They opened a new world before me. I was asked to copy patterns from Ajanta Ellora on my school walls. Those days were fun.”
The greater art world awaited him at the Faculty of Fine Arts, MS University, Baroda. Part of the first batch that passed out from the university with a diploma in painting with graphic arts, Bhatt had N.S. Bendre teaching him western art and K.G. Subramanyan emphasising the need to incorporate indigenous traditions in contemporary creations. The bright student quickly found a calling that was a fine balance of both. “Being surrounded by great artists gave me a high. The independent space in the midst of diverse ideologies nudged one to develop an individual style.”
The cubist shades on his canvases swiftly paved the way for photography and printmaking. While the camera enabled him to permanently capture real images, printmaking allowed him to churn out multiple copies. “The fact that my art could reach more people with these mediums took me away from painting. When time constraints compelled me to make a choice, I opted to give up painting for a short duration,” says the artist, who did not paint from 1966 to 1995.
A scholarship to study at Academia di Bella Arti in Naples in 1961 transported Bhatt to the epicentre of the global art movement. The tactile surfaces of Neapolitan edifices were to influence his work as much as abstracts by masters like Antonio Tapies and Alberto Burri. “The importance given to pictorial surfaces and the use of non-artist material didn’t resemble anything I’d seen in India,” notes Bhatt, who went on to experiment with collages. He used everything he could lay his hands on—from pasting sand and iron on jute to creating his first monochrome etchings.
American pop art and graphic design impacted his style when he received the Rockefeller grant and spent two years at the Pratt Institute in New York. He walked into galleries and museums and closely observed creations by veterans.
Back in India, he became a teacher of fine arts at MS University. “That gave me the opportunity to interact with students. The discussions and debates forced me to think about issues and constantly reinvent myself,” he avers. He continued to travel in order to search for images that represented the real India, venturing into the rural hinterland of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh.
Noted sculptor and photographer Raghav Kaneria became his companion and together they embarked on several projects, including the celebrated one in which they studied the art of beadwork and embroidery passed on through generations in Saurashtra. “It is most unfortunate that these artists are being compelled to work as labourers and are made to sell their exquisite handiwork at a meagre price,” rues the artist.
Bhatt is also saddened by the raging controversies that are now commonplace in the art frat, like the recent row at the MS University. Does he regret not settling in Europe during troubling times like these? “I want to stay here and bring about change,” is his instant reply. He adds, “Persistence can do a lot. One should stand up for one’s beliefs.”