Jyoti Bhatt



In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Jyoti Bhatt born 1934
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Image: 305 × 325 mm
Presented by Tasveer Foundation 2014


This is one of a group of black and white photographs in Tate’s collection by the Indian printmaker, painter and photographer Jyoti Bhatt (see Tate P14296P14300 and P81231P81235). They trace Bhatt’s photographic practice from an early stage and represent the development of a style which combined keen observation with inventive formal experimentation. From 1950 to 1959 Bhatt trained as a painter and muralist at the Faculty of Fine Arts at Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU) in Baroda (now Vadodara) in Gujarat – a major centre for modern and contemporary artistic practice in India. In 1956 he saw the seminal exhibition of photography Family of Man, toured by the Museum of Modern Art, New York and curated by photographer Edward Steichen (1879–1973), in Ahmedabad and began to experiment with photography himself the next year. Throughout his career, and alongside an extensive practice as a printmaker and painter, Bhatt sustained his engagement with both the formal and material aspects of photography, which he learned through experimenting with technique and compositional elements. His early images, such as Feroz Katpitia as Salvador Dalí, Baroda c.1959 (Tate P81232), relate to the modernist Bauhaus experiments of László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946) and led to the development of his mature style which featured double exposures and diptychs involving portraiture, nature and abstract subjects.

Ms. Rani Bendre, Baroda c.1959 (Tate P81231) is an enlarged and cropped portrait of the daughter of N.S. Bendre (1910–1992), head of the painting department at MSU. This image of a female face gazing pensively away from the camera, framed by foliage, is a study in light and texture. Bhatt’s strong graphic sensibility and his practice as a printmaker are apparent in his early photographic experiments. Another work from this period, Feroz Katpitia as Salvador Dalí, Baroda c.1959, is a playful portrait of a Parsi colleague, parodying the surrealist portraits of the photographer Philippe Halsman (1906–1979) that Bhatt saw in Time/Life magazine. Holding a lizard, his friend has mimicked Dalí’s iconic moustachioed pose, which Bhatt has then overlaid in the darkroom with a waving hand in the bottom right corner. Exercises such as this may have allowed him to explore darkroom techniques learned from Ramachandra Kadam, a colleague in the college at MSU who had previously worked in a photographic studio.

Initially self-taught, early on in his career Bhatt worked with the photographer Bhupendra Karia (1936–1994) on a documentary project and then with fellow artist Raghav Kaneria (born 1936) to record folk traditions in rural India. He also documented the life and works of fellow artists including Bhupen Khakhar (1934–2003) and Mrinalini Mukherjee (born 1949). Bhatt travelled abroad to study and attended the Pratt Institute of Art and Design in New York on a Fulbright fellowship (1964–6). Unable to afford photography classes, he focused on gaining technical expertise in graphics and printmaking, concentrating on etching. Nevertheless, while in New York, he was able to access both exhibitions and publications of contemporary photography which influenced his own practice.

Bhatt’s photographs were included in the exhibition Painters with a Camera that took place in 1969 in Bombay and which, artist Nilima Sheikh has explained, ‘was a significant contribution to the acceptance of black and white photography as an expressive medium in India. Thereafter, Jyoti Bhatt moved seriously into photography to satisfy his creative needs.’ (Sheikh 1997, p.98.) Baroda c.1969 (Tate P81234), a solarised double exposure of a photograph of a peacock pecking at a basil plant in Bhatt’s garden, with a paper cut-out circle overlaid to form a luminous orb in the centre of the mirrored image, was shown in the Bombay exhibition. Bhatt later used the photograph as the basis for a screen print.

Venice 1966 (Tate P81233) was taken when Bhatt and his wife Jyotsna, a ceramicist, stopped to visit the Venice Biennale on their way back from the United States. Both the artist’s figure and his wife’s are partially reflected in this mirrored composition – her head, then his torso, then her feet. Bhatt later titled the work Ardhanareshwar, the Sanskrit for the dual incarnation of the male god Shiva and his consort Parvati. Baroda c.1970 (Tate P14296) is also a playful portrait of Jyotsna, her faced repeated six times with varying degrees of circular distortion. The photograph was taken through a plastic tray, the overall effect reminiscent of Bauhaus experiments with photography.
Baroda 1983 (Tate P14297) is the result of more deliberate technical virtuosity and shows a double portrait of a woman. The image has been double exposed with a textured canvas and is juxtaposed with a sculpture overlaid with a skeleton used to teach movement and anatomy in the fine arts department. This double print on a single sheet is a format Bhatt continued to use in a series of abstract images investigating pattern and repetition in natural forms.

Bhatt’s commitment to innovation and openness and curiosity about new and experimental techniques is apparent in all aspects of his practice, a spirit that was shared within the fine arts department in Baroda where he took up a teaching position in 1966. Established in 1949, following Indian independence, under the aegis of Hansa Mehta, N.S. Bendre, Hermann Goetz and later K.G. Subramanyan, the faculty and its students were actively involved in developing a role for the arts in the life of a new nation. The atmosphere, according to artist and educator Nilima Sheikh, was one where:

the future artist was made conscious of his or her own place in history. This could include a position from which the arts of the land could be reclaimed and freshly discerned; from which, with the birth of the modern nation, the adventure of modernism as initiated in the west could be experienced; and from which the artist could claim access to the art history of the world.
(Sheikh 1997, p.55.)

The liveliness of the department itself and its centrality to Bhatt’s life and work informed much of his work. Baroda c.1970 (Tate P81235) is a portrait of a student, double exposed with the grid pattern of the studio floor. As the lines of the floor recede away from the foreground, the subject, also wearing a geometric pattern, gazes upwards and away. The double print Baroda 1983 (Tate P14298) is an architectural study of light and shade, shot in the hallway outside Bhatt’s offices. A single figure appears framed against the highly contrasting triangular forms of a staircase in the distance. Double Self Portrait 1969–83 (Tate P14299) is another double print, showing two angles of an enigmatic visage pushing through a chequered fabric. The images were initially shot in 1969 and reprinted in 1983. They depict the impression left on a discarded piece of fabric in a sculpture studio, used to cover a freshly varnished bust. This ability to seek out the uncanny in his immediate surroundings is also seen in Bhatt’s image of a battered pair of seemingly ordinary Indian slippers, Baroda 1992 (Tate P14300). The photograph in fact shows a student’s piece of sculptural ceramic work, which Bhatt of the painterly emotiveness of Vincent van Gogh’s (1853–1890) iconic Pair of Shoes 1886 (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam), where the shoes are a metaphor for the absent sitter.

Further reading
Nilima Sheikh, ‘A Post-Independence Initiative in Art’¸in Gulamohammed Shiekh (ed.), Contemporary Art in Baroda, Tulika 1997, pp.45–144.
‘Jyoti Bhatt Archive’, Asia Art Archive, https://aaa.org.hk/en/collection/search/archive/jyoti-bhatt-archive, accessed 10 August 2018.

Nada Raza
March 2014, updated August 2018

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