An interplay of grey

Every once in a while a show comes along that pushes aside the curtain of a past, to expose lesser known artists who, otherwise remain shrouded in cloaks of invisibility, lost to vague oblivion. Closely connected and yet concealed to non-seekers, the photographic work of three such artists, Jyotindra Bhatt or Jyoti Bhatt (as he was fondly called), Bhupendra Karia and Nasreen Mohamedi, is what Photography at Play currently ongoing at Jhaveri Contemporary brings to light. Mohamedi is better known as an artist whose ink drawings have traveled the world, though her photo work has remained relatively unknown until recently, especially in India. While Bhatt, perhaps not as regularly cited as a Raghubir Singh or Raghu Rai is in Indian photography, does float to the surface ever so often as a revered name in a conversation on the subject. But Karia remains an unsung hero, even within this tiny trio.

Diva Gujral, curator of this show and currently a Ph.D candidate in the department of History of Art, University College London, came across Karia in a serendipitous way herself. “In the course of exploring Bhatt’s writings, I found that he used to photograph alongside someone named Bhupendra Karia, who is a little-known figure in Indian art, and that was when I started enquiring into Karia’s work,” responds Gujral in an email interview. What began as a slow trail of discoveries for Gujral, through post-Independence and post-colonial art photography in India, became a “treasure hunt” that finally culminated into a group show that opened in March.

Common ground

One is bound to wonder what threads of commonality run through the three bodies of work for the images to be sharing the same white expanse of one gallery. To begin with, the artistes had a formal education in other strains of art, like painting, print-making and design much before they turned to photography. They also, at varied points of time in history, taught at the Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU) in Baroda, now present day Vadodara. Visually, their (collective) monochromatic frames are flat, two-dimensional surfaces on which the three artists ‘draw out’ with their cameras, lines, shapes and an interplay of grey in its varying shades. By virtue of shared timelines and geography, Bhatt, Karia and Mohamedi were also a part of the same intellectual and social circles that inevitably lead to joint collaborations between them.

Essentially, one needs to study the works in context of a then new, transforming India that was shedding its colonial skin to find its own uniquely diverse voice. “Surrounding each of these three artists is a wealth of networks, both from India and elsewhere, symptomatic of a moment in post-Independence India in which artists and writers seemed to spill in and out of their geographical containers”, explains Gujral in her note on the show. “The National Institute of Design had just been set up with the help of Charles and Ray Eames, who were designers and artists of international renown, Grace Morley of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was commissioned to establish the National Museum in New Delhi… and of course Le Corbusier had been asked to create the plan for the new city of Chandigarh,” elaborates Gujral. At a time like this, Indian artists had much to gain from international exposure.

Form and structure

Karia’s journey began as a painting student at the J.J. School of Art in what was then Bombay between 1957-60. He then travelled to Japan to learn graphics and later to New York for a diploma in Interior Architecture and Design. Karia’s Japan years not only helped develop a keen interest in working with ink that would extend into calligraphy, stone rubbings and wood block printing but also in photography. His earliest images made in Japan show a distinct affinity towards form, composition and textures – something that he retained and expanded on in his later work as well. Karia’s multiplicity as an artist also includes a host of professional endeavours that he followed with rigour, dedication and discipline. Be it his brief stint as a freelance photographer in 1962, or teaching at the MSU, from 1964-66 and finally his long association with photographer Cornell Capa that finally led to Karia playing a role in the founding of the International Centre of Photography (ICP), New York, where he eventually became the centre’s first Curator, Director of Special Projects in 1974 and subsequently its Associate Director.

Karia’s self-assuredness about his practice and his exacting ways did not sit well with a lot of his colleagues. His “abrasive assertions” saw him severing ties with both MSU as well as the ICP later where he felt his methods weren’t being implemented seriously enough. What stayed with Karia though were photo trips that he made through rural India, especially Saurashtra. “The fragrant fields, the smell of wet earth enveloping everything, the poor peasants who lived a simple life and even in abject poverty had a great dignity of bearing. Photographing the everyday life of India is a humble task - I like humble things,” detailed Karia in one of his meticulously kept diaries.

Championing photos

Bhatt, whose practice developed in part, in solidarity with Karia, was troubled by the fact that photography for a long time in India was not considered a valid art form in prestigious institutions across the country. Bhatt endearingly and yet cleverly devised ways of countering this slight, by pushing a photograph in using an evasive description of a ‘silver gelatin print’ at the Lalit Kala Akademi’s annual art show or organising a group exhibition titled ‘Painters with a Camera’ at Jehangir Art Gallery, Bombay in 1969.

Photography initially came to Bhatt as a medium that could document with precision what a painting could not. In time, he realised their individualities, “Eventually, I started appreciating the difference between a photograph and a drawing and also their uniqueness,” explains Bhatt in a foreword to the book on his work, The Inner eye and The Outer Eye. Like Karia, Bhatt too had traveled abroad to complete his education in both painting and printmaking. And just like Karia, Bhatt’s most significant work sprouts from his travels through rural Saurashtra and tribal regions across India. Often accompanied by Karia and his sculptor friend Raghav Kaneria, he travelled extensively recording the many traditional art forms, visiting and revisiting the same places. Says Bhatt, “Ritualistic and secular art forms which were usually created by women with transient materials such as clay, dung, flowers, rice flour etc. was the area which I thought needed to be given priority. Such forms were not considered ‘national cultural treasure or archaeological heritage’…”. During these trips, Bhatt held a teaching post at MSU which made it difficult for him get leave but supplied a steady income that funded his travels. Meagre availability of film was also a hindrance in exploring and shooting copiously. But in spite of these shortcomings, Bhatt seemed to be what Gujral initially thought of as a “…lone ranger in his photographic style, that he was the only one in Baroda who was trying out all these techniques in his work,” like photomontage, double exposure and abstraction.

Of course, Gujral soon discovered Bhatt’s contemporaries – Gulammohammed Sheikh, Jeram Patel and Vinodrai Patel – who also experimented with the medium just as much. Bhatt not only played with the content but also with form. Placing two or more images, one besides the other, he created diptychs and triptychs to glean new meanings from the existing content in his frames.

Abstract meanderings

Mohamedi’s images on the other hand are nearly empty landscapes, almost devoid of content. Just like her ink drawings and etchings, where the line is of quintessence, structure and form is an important yet difficult to decipher element. The viewer is often unsure of where the eye should rest as Mohamedi’s images lack a punctum – a central point from where the eye draws outward or comes back to rest within a frame. To understand Mohamedi, one needs to grasp a sense of her beginnings as an artist. Born in Karachi in 1937, she was raised in the cosmopolitan milieu of Bombay following Partition. After a brief education in London, in 1959 she joined her father in Bahrain where the sparse and arid desert left a lasting impression on her mind. Just like Partition had – a line drawn across borders dramatically changed her life.

Mohamedi’s work reflects a continued quest for detachment, disengagement and an emptiness that often gives birth to a heightened awareness. In her work we see reflected Mohamedi’s varied learning and influences from Zen Buddhism to V.S Gaitonde’s monochromatic abstractions, from Albert Camus’ sense of disillusion and existential dialogue to her interest in calligraphic script and the intricacy of Islamic architecture. Emilia Terracciano, independent writer and scholar based in London, in an article on Mohamedi revisits lines from the artist’s diary, “Plainer surfaces with concentrated depths. Each line, texture (form) are born of effort, history and pain.”

Making a collective

Mohamedi’s set of images are from her travels in Rajasthan in 1964 and 1967, the first trip was with M.F. Husain for the making of his film, Through the Eyes of a Painter. Straight out of a structured dream, her images of highways, concrete slabs and forms by the road, of blurred lights in the distance, seem to have been made almost by chance. As though viewed from the corner of your eye, in passing, as one can never be sure of what exactly Mohamedi is drawing your attention to in the frame. Bhatt’s images are quite in sync with Karia’s, having been shot in multiple locations. Rich in composition and content, Bhatt’s single frames and diptychs are more experimental and edgy in nature while Karia’s, though simpler in form, are full of intricate details. Starting with a mix of work by all three as one enters the gallery, the show slowly flows onto reveal individual bodies of images

Photography at Play is ongoing at Jhaveri Contemporary, Walkeshwar until June 3

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Printable version | Jun 25, 2021 1:50:24 PM |

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