JYOTI BHATT is a celebrated and awarded artist, best known for his work in painting and printmaking, as well as his photographic accounts of rural Indian culture and folk art. He and his colleagues founded the “Baroda School” of Indian art. He was awarded the Padma Shri in 2019 and has been honoured with 5 Lifetime Achievement Awards. In August 2021 he had a conversation with ANANYA PATEL, musing about his life and his art. Excerpts from that conversation are presented in this 2-part series, along with some of his work.
AN ART ESSAY
My wife Jyotsna inspired me from the beginning. I have been told that I have depicted her in all the female figures in my paintings and prints. This may not be 100% right, but there’s something to it. I was in New York on a Fulbright scholarship when I got a three-month grant to travel in the US. She came with me and we got married. It was in 1966. We had no idea how to run a family or anything. We learned to help each other. I would listen to what she had to say, and she would listen to me, but without any special or forced effort. It was a collaboration. The only thing was that work should continue.
We then returned to Baroda, where I had a teaching job and she completed her post graduate diploma and started teaching. Very few of our brilliant female students got the opportunity to continue with their art, and I didn’t want her to worry about running the house.
We have to throw away something,
so it’s best to select something
that is best, or something that is important
enough to tell us about the past.
When I was photographing I would go away for long periods, so she took all the responsibility of managing the home and looking after our daughter. I’m sure when I was away there were problems, but she never mentioned any of them to me. Often we think that not coming in the way of each other itself is a great help.
If I say I am not worried about my work not lasting, then I am lying to myself. Naturally, if my work lasts it’s fine, but is it really necessary? If people go on creating more and more work, then it will grow and nature will be unable to bear our mistakes. We have to throw away something, so it’s best to select something that is best, or something that is important enough to tell us about the past.
In Indian philosophy, we have three gods: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Brahma’s duty is to create. Vishnu’s job is to look after the world created by Brahma, and Shiva has to destroy. Only then can the cycle continue. Many of our traditions, like Rangoli, have this same cycle. You make it every day, and in the evening you remove it. The next day you make a new one. The art object doesn’t last, but art lasts. I’ll be happy if my work inspires somebody to make art, instead of just preserving it. If it is preserved, subconsciously, I may like it, although I may not like to admit that.
I have used written words in my work along with painted images. This is something I had seen in the embroidery in Saurashtra when I was young. They make two types of embroidery – one is decorative and the other is narrative. Ram, Lakshman, and Sita are depicted, but all the figures look alike, so they would write the names next to them. What they were unable to show visually, they would write. The same thing was done in miniature paintings in Rajasthan. Sometimes the script was even more important than the image. The same thing happened in Europe in Byzantine art and the Christian tradition.
The art object doesn’t last, but art lasts.
I’ll be happy if my work inspires somebody
to make art, instead of just
I started doing the same thing; I would write names. Later, I realized that letters also have very interesting forms in calligraphy. So I started adding them as a visual element. If you are unable to read, you can still see, and it becomes part of the painting.
Then there is the influence of television and advertising. We might see news about an avalanche in the Himalayas showing up next to an ad for a restaurant – two odd things. The images that we see nowadays are mostly combinations of shapes and written text. So I also started adding that to my work. Whenever I was travelling, I would notice what was written on the back of rickshaws and trucks. It’s so fun!
If I add a line like that to my own painting it may make you laugh a little, it may confuse you, or excite you to find out the meaning. On a rickshaw I once saw “Diwali” written in English and then in Hindi: “mai hai Ali.” Below it was “Ramzan” written again in English and then in Hindi: “mai hai Ram.”
People give so many lectures about this, but this simple rickshaw driver had a better sense, that is very relevant to our present day problems. And I have used that line in many of my works, with no direct connection. If there was a nice space somewhere I would put it in.
If some idea comes, I try to see if it works instead of debating beforehand whether it will work. Do it and see. Instead of why, I ask why not?
Art by JYOTI BHATT
Interviewed by ANAYA PATEL
Jyoti is a celebrated artist, best known for his work in painting, printmaking, and his photographic documentation of rural Indian culture and folk art. He studied art in North America and Europe before returning to India and founding the “Baroda School” of Indian art. His etchings, intaglios, and screen prints combine the traditional and the... Read more