Three little girls, dressed in the bright prints of the desert, their arms laden with bangles lean against a smooth mud wall and stare at something to the left of the photographer, their eyes almost as round as the ventilation holes above their heads; a group of children poses in front of a wall decorated with peacocks and hypnotic geometric designs; a woman prepares the family bullock to look its best for the Gordhan festival; another makes a pattern on the courtyard while a peacock perches on the roof of her home.
Some of these images have a surreal dream-like quality, others present alternative ways of doing the mundanely interesting things that obsess everyone, the villager and the urbanite alike — ideas for beautifying the home and one’s own person. One, of a group of men enjoying themselves as they decorate a wall together, could even inspire a savvy event planner to promote ‘new’ wall painting parties.
All of these spectacular vignettes of tribal life (48 in all) shot by artist and print maker Jyoti Bhatt between 1967 and 1995 are part of the exhibition, Jyoti Bhatt — Photographs from Rural India, at the Vadehra Art Gallery. Eighty-year-old Bhatt who lives and works in Vadodara and studied painting at the city’s Faculty of Fine Arts under NS Bendre, KG Subramanyan and Sankho Choudhuri began documenting tribal culture in 1967 after participating in a Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan seminar on the folk arts of Gujarat. His deep interest in tribal people and scenes from their lives prompted him to travel through the state and beyond, visiting areas he had never ventured to before. In the process, he created a remarkable body of work.
His pictures leave the viewer at once elated and saddened, wonder-struck and despondent. Elated because they are a window into a world that has disappeared, saddened because some of the children in the pictures have spindly legs, bloated bellies, and hair streaked by malnutrition. Like all the best pictures, these black and whites, coax the viewer to think about a wide range of subjects; everything from the value of decoration, the culture of poverty and the idea of high and low art, to the fragility of traditional ways of living and also, conversely, the need for modernity. They make her question the idea of progress while also being grateful for the things that the middle class city-bred take for granted — running water and access to good healthcare.
The intervening decades since Bhatt travelled through Gujrat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, West Bengal, Bihar and Haryana documenting tribal communities have perhaps made some of these folk prosperous enough to build homes with concrete walls, or displaced them and destroyed their idyllic lives entirely. Maybe their cattle now roam down highways untended and those little girls, if they didn’t die in childbirth, are women old before their time after years of labouring on a construction site.
Bhatt’s pictures function at various levels: they archive indigenous domestic and decorative arts; they dazzle with their perfect framing and symmetry of composition; they are surcharged with the mood of the subject — by turns contemplative, wondering, celebratory and coy; they invite the viewer to contemplate all that and to ruminate also on larger issues, on the abstract and the philosophical, on things that cannot be framed, on the ephemeral nature of Life.
Jyoti Bhatt — Photographs from Rural India, has been organised by Tasveer in collaboration with Vacheron Constant