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Reliving India's art traditions

An exhibition of works by Jyoti Bhatt titled 'The Living Traditions of Village India' was recently held at Piramal Art gallery, Mumbai. A prominent figure in the Indian contemporary art scene, he is known for his paintings, prints and photographs. He has a great interest in the living traditions of folk and tribal arts in India and has been documenting them photographically since 1966. His photographs form a significant body of work on folk and tribal art.

Born in 1934, Jyoti Bhatt completed Diploma in Painting with Graphic Arts and Post Diploma Specialisation in creative painting from M.S. University of Baroda. He taught painting at M.S.University, Baroda through 1959 to 1992.

He actually began as a painter and a printmaker 25 years ago. He worked as a painter from 1954 to 1969. But by then, the desire to photograph and document India's vanishing culture had already lured him. "I have photographed everything, from intricately carved doors to floors, pots, pans, walls, houses that is part of our folk art in rural India. My camera replaced my sketchbook."

He says, "Since the 70s, I have concentrated on documenting living art in rural homes that have been rapidly disappearing because of modern, consumerist lifestyles. Somebody has to document these lifestyles before they get lost forever." Deeply impressed by Anand Coomaraswamy's book 'Mediaeval Sinhalese Art', Bhatt realised that folk art has many strands, which reinforce one another.

His mission as a painter and a graphic artist is to preserve and to seek inspiration from the fast-disappearing folk art traditions of rural India. "The photo-documentation work is equally creative. Also, my work has brought into spotlight those umpteen tribal artists who were deprived of any recognition or reward," he states. According to him, tribal art is a living thing. It will keep on evolving. These are the art forms that the tribal community creates to live with. Each work of art provides an avenue of creativity, and refines human sensibilities and responses. Bhatt revealed that these humble art forms are an integral part of their life. The art works go beyond the act of fulfilling their creative urge. It means much more to them. It is something sacred, close to their hearts.

Jyoti Bhatt spends a lot of time recording the village arts with great understanding and aesthetic sensibility. He is also touchy about the issue of transformation of tribal art forms under the influence of urbanization. According to him, it is essential to preserve the originality of the art forms. His research also encompasses analyzing the changes are coming about and coming to term with their consequences. "Living within a creative network, an individual artist attains a special stature and refinement. The disappearance of the network, with the breakdown of traditional cultures, is bound to cause cultural impoverishment," he says.

His best know work is the documentation of the rangoli tradition in Gujarat and Maharashtra. He has visually recorded the whole heritage of this exquisite art. Bhatt has also studied extensively 'Wall and Floor Decorations' that are brilliant for their usage of bright colors, narrative format, vivid depiction of their surroundings and divine imagery. Tribal women paint the house walls to make the house look beautiful. Bhatt describes how paintings are a must for every occasion - be it the time for celebration or a moment of calamity.

He stated that women artists of tribal hamlets are invited to draw paintings on house walls even if someone from the family falls ill. He is happy over the fact that tribal women are slowly getting the recognition they deserve. Yet, a majority of them have no exposure in the world of tribal art.

He explained why women artists dominate the tribal art scene. He said, "While the men were out for most part of the day earning the family's livelihood, women remained inside the house. After their daily chores were over, they used the spare time to create wall paintings, rangoli (floor decorations with powdered marble in various hues), pottery, terracotta votive images and embroidery work."

How religion came to be involved in the paintings is a mystery to Bhatt. He traced the link to hundreds of religious rituals women perform, involving some drawing or image. Artists draw inspiration from mythological tales and the paintings are believed to protect tribal families from evil forces, Bhatt said, adding that for the tribal folk, God is not an abstract concept; they see Him in these paintings. Paintings are a part of their every ritual.

He sums up to say: "We are still strangers to our vast country and its diverse traditions. The idea behind the documentation presentation is to make the city people aware of our rich cultural heritage. Each one of us can play a role in preserving it."

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