Choosing Shutter over Sketchbook, an Artist Captures the Villages, Textures, and Folk Art of His Native India

Primarily known as a painter and printmaker, much of artist Jyoti Bhatt’s practice is an effort to honor and preserve the fast-fading artistic traditions of his home country, India. Beginning in the 1970s and continuing throughout the ’80s and ’90s, he traveled through rural regions photographing vernacular art and customs. “I have photographed everything, from intricately carved doors to floors, pots, pans, walls, houses that are part of our folk art in rural India,” he has stated. “My camera replaced my sketchbook.” His photos, printed in black-and-white, are documentary in essence, showing the denizens of villages and towns in their element, but, approaching the images as a series, he also focuses on the art and design of these places. 

In Rajasthan (1988), most of the frame is filled with an elaborate wall painting of trees, birds, and patterning. At the bottom corner of the photograph, a slightly blurred, shadowy woman appears with her eyes closed. In another 1989 image from Rajasthan, a figure stands before a different wall painting, adorning a white bull with spots in preparation for a festival. The photo, while seemingly simple, possesses several layers of texture and regional context—not only in the striking decoration of the wall and dappled animal, but also in the shingles on the roof and leaf pattern on the woman’s clothing. 

Layered textures also abound in Tattoo marks on a Rajwar woman, Madhya Pradesh (1983), which shows an intricately tattooed woman wrapped in a patterned sari, standing before a wall covered in markings. Bhatt also shot several images of individuals in the act of creating, like Women making a Samha Devi image, Haryana (1977) and A woman drawing a mandana design, Rajasthan (1980).

His photographs capture the deep, soulful connection between humans and art. He shows us artisans and the symbols, patterns, materials, and shapes they choose to create and live with. The aesthetic richness that Bhatt portrays clashes severely with the industrialized environs encroaching on the world, spaces that are too often plasticized and stripped of the brilliance and profundity of time and tradition.

—M.A. Wholey

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