It’s because of the camera that the art of painting has further developed,” says veteran artist Jyoti Bhatt, on the sidelines of his ongoing show at Mumbai’s Rukhshaan Art Gallery, entitled My Land, My Village.

Best known today as a painter and printmaker, Bhatt has always derived creative energy from the art of photography, just as painters across generations have relied on the camera to enhance their own vision. “Painters were able to develop many new forms of painting as they realised that they should bring forward that which the camera can’t capture,” he says. 

Bhatt cites the statement artist Paul Delaroche made after looking at a daguerreotype for the first time. “From today,” Delaroche had said, “painting is dead.” For his part, Bhatt counters this view. “Painting never died,” says Bhatt, who, for his recent series of images, has attempted to capture the essence of India’s rural and tribal cultures. 

His interest in photography is far removed from the ideas of the point-and-shoot school. “There is a difference between a CCTV and a handheld camera,” he says. “A photographer is just like an artist who has certain emotions. It is not just about you clicking what appears before you.”

The artist believes that a camera has the power to portray the vanished truth. According to him, a good photograph can capture all the elements of a scene that were previously not visible to the ordinary human eye. 

“I had once photographed a structure of Durga made of hay, which was to be made into a sculpture later by the workers. After I developed the film, I saw that the background of the structure looks like the map of India, and so Durga for me turned into Mother India,” says Bhatt.

But what about the darker aspects of photography, having to do with the breach of privacy and, perhaps even voyeurism? Has he ever given these a thought? 

“I have encountered both friendly and non-friendly situations in my work, and such things happen regularly,” says Bhatt. “Once, when I was photographing an outer wall of a house in Saurashtra, which was done in beautiful designs, I had a very interesting experience. I was asked by the woman, who was probably living in the house, why I was clicking photos. I said these are beautiful drawings and people should see it. In my naivety I also asked: Are there more such in the house which I can click? She said, ‘I don’t mind allowing you to photograph but I have to stay here all my life and I have neighbours.’” 

Girl and Mandana, Rajasthan, 1989, by Jyoti Bhatt.

This remark left the photographer dumbstruck and made him rethink some of his ideas about photography. “You see her remark was very poignant,” says Bhatt. “And even I was not a professional. I didn’t have to deliver goods to anyone. I was documenting traditions just for the love of it. Since then I have photographed only if the people around didn’t raise any kind of objection to my work.”

Bhatt also could never bring himself to photograph a setting where, say, somebody had died in the family, or if the people around looked unhappy. “I was not photographing for any news agency or a magazine that I had to ‘get that shot’.”  The artist has faced many difficulties while photographing in tribal areas. “Stones have been thrown at me, I missed being the subject of an axe, my jeep was attacked by the tribals,” says Bhatt. “People don’t like anyone intruding in their private life, and one should completely respect that.”

Bhatt has been a contemporary of the acclaimed Indian photographers Kishore Parekh and Raghu Rai, and has been greatly influenced by those two stalwarts. He has had opportunities to travel with them, too, and of following at close quarters their creative approach. “They infected me, like viruses, but in a good way,” chuckles Bhatt. “When I say I was influenced by Kishore and Raghu, I also mean that I picked up something in photography from so many others who influenced them. Suppose when Raghu Rai imbibed a particular skill by Henri Cartier-Bresson; or when Parekh was influenced by Eugene Smith, I inadvertently got to learn from them. For me these two people are like the River Ganga, where so many other rivers meet.”

Jyoti Bhatt.

The artist with his contemporaries was part of a photography show in the late 1960s, an event that confirmed Bhatt’s lifelong passion for photography. “The best part of the exhibition, named Painters with Camera, was that all the participants were painters. Me, along with Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, Jeram Patel and others presented black-and-white toned photographs through lithographic printing process, which was quite new at that time, and we were happy with ourselves that we did something new,” says Bhatt.

According to the artist, photography as a form is sometimes considered inferior to painting or sculpture. He says, “I once submitted a photograph to an art exhibition conducted by the Lalit Kala Akademi where photographs were not being accepted. In the ‘medium used’ section I just wrote silver gelatin prints—one of the mediums of photography and the photograph was selected.”

See a photo feature on Jyoti Bhatt’s images here:


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *