Rural vignettes from a lensman's album

EXPERIENCED EYE

Some people objected to my photographing them, I was once physically attacked with an axe. Another time, I was stoned by a group of children.

And a number of times, I was grilled by some policemen and ‘desh premis’ because they suspected me to be a terrorist or spy,” recollects veteran printmaker Jyoti Bhatt, well known for his photographic documentation of rural Indian culture.

When his work was recently showcased in the City by Tasveer and Vadehra Art Gallery, the exhibition ‘Photographs from Rural India’ provided the visitors with a virtual tour of the rural life in Gujarat and Rajasthan, with glimpses of Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, West Bengal and Bihar.   
 
Though the lensman faced a number of challenges as he went about photographing villages and rural folk in the ‘70s and ‘80s, his intention to record the ‘old’ which was
being fastly replaced by the ‘new’ kept him on his toes.

Clothes, homes and occupations which were undergoing metamorphosis were captured with a keen eye for detail. An image of ‘A Brahmin boy selling Juwar in a temple compound’ shot at Porbandar in 1977 affirms not just Jyoti’s love for capturing occupations but also the artless, candid human emotions.

One such image is of a innocent toothless smile of an old woman captured in the photograph titled ‘A woman outside a village house’, shot near Konark. One notices not just the age of the woman but also the state of the house.

Although many of the rural houses shot by the photographer are in a pitiful condition, yet the women folk of villages are spotted painting them in various geometric patterns. In photographs titled ‘A woman drawing a Mandana design’ from Rajasthan and ‘Woman making a Samha Devi image’ in Haryana, the artistic abilities of these women and various tribes get authenticated along with the age-old traditions of these
rural belts.

The veteran lensman maintains that “It is quite possible that many of the art forms I could photograph until 1994 are not made anymore. Or, the number of people who practised them have reduced. Some traditions have continued, but have changed drastically. For instance, people now buy ‘Kolam’ – the Rangavalli designs – in the form of plastic stickers even in shops within South Indian temples that used to support thisart tradition.”

He also expresses his happiness over the fact that his “photographs played an initial role in making the Government recognise the achievements of Sonabai Rajwar and the art forms she created single-headedly to decorate her house.”

Not to miss, Jyoti lets the ‘calf’ play a major role while portraying the significance of different backdrops (read art designs). This is visible in the shot ‘Interior of a Rajawar tribal house’, shot in Madhya Pradesh in 1983. It depicts not just the relevance of domestic animals in the rural areas of India but also the habitat of the tribe.

Importantly, Jyoti mentions that in his photographs, “concentration was not merely on art forms, but on capturing the integrated relationship of art and people, how these were interwoven in their lives. Apart from such photographs, we may not see much of this today, and certainly won’t be able to in the future.”

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