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Interpreter of memory

  • A new exhibition celebrates Jyoti Bhatt’s practice, inspired by memories of vanishing folk traditions
  • 82 intaglios and serigraphs will soon be on display at Patna’s Bihar Museum as part of the show Manushya Aur Prakriti

Remains Of The Old Bungalow’ (1965).
Remains Of The Old Bungalow’ (1965). (Photo: Jyoti Bhatt Studio)

One of Jyoti Bhatt’s most iconic works is the Kalpavruksha intaglio, which combines folk symbology with modernist flourishes. He went on to do several versions of this, the first one going back to 1972. It was inspired by the lyrical comparison of a woman’s eyebrows to a dhanush or bow.

“While making a plate I traced the same contour five times and tried to connect images that came to my mind with that form. Since all these forms were arranged in vertical dimension, it reminded me of a tree and I named it Kalpavruksha," Bhatt told Uma Nair in an interview, printed in the catalogue. And now this signature work is one of 82 intaglios and serigraphs that will soon be on display at Patna’s Bihar Museum as part of the show Manushya Aur Prakriti, curated by Nair.

The original prints for this particular show have been drawn from four private collections: Rakesh Agrawal’s Uttarayan Art Foundation in Vadodara, Mamta Singhania’s Anant Art Gallery, Delhi , Nupur Dalmia’s The Ark at Vadodara and Manan Relia’s Archer Art Gallery, Ahmedabad. “I have handpicked works that are unique to his language. They have been chosen to evoke the essence of the artist, whose language has been inspired by India’s indigenous art and rural rhythms," says Nair.

Bhatt started documenting folk and tribal material culture at the behest of K.G. Subramanyan, who wanted art students to pursue a contextual study of the crafts. So, starting 1967, Bhatt travelled far and wide, photographing the visual culture of Gujarat, Odisha, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh to help students expand their vocabulary. His own practice of printmaking began to be influenced too by this rich stimulus, with some of Bhatt’s works born out of the simple rangoli tradition, or by the visual connections between seemingly disparate objects in the forest. He sketched these works on paper and then transferred them on to wood, using self-designed tools to engrave them.

A self-portrait of Jyoti Bhatt (1966-67).
A self-portrait of Jyoti Bhatt (1966-67). (Photo: Jyoti Bhatt Studio)

According to Nair, Bhatt works almost like an animator in the Kalpavruksha series, weaving in legends and everyday idioms through fine detailing. “When you study his prints, you see the compositional control. There are also deep interconnections between man and nature. The human face has become a leitmotif in his work, the abstracted and highly simplified rendering of which is combined with folk art motifs," she says.

The show also celebrates Bhatt’s style of intaglio, which he learnt at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, in the 1960s. In the interview to Nair, he has said he “found intaglio exciting, and the thought that so many prints could be made was a sense of commonality I believed in, because I didn’t like the idea of elitist art."

The fact that Bhatt’s work has not been celebrated widely highlights the gaps in art history writing in India, says Nair. “One needs to go beyond the Progressives. A man spent 60 years celebrating India’s heritage and he got the Padma Shri only in 2019? These are questions that one needs to ask."

Manushya Aur Prakriti will be on view at the Bihar Museum, Patna, from 31 August-30 September

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