Texting the Subtexts: Extending Documentations in Time

FEATURE / Subtextual Documentalists / Johny ML


Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai presents a show of photography works by eminent artists, Jyoti Bhatt and Manisha Gera Baswani. Titled, ‘Subtextual Documentalists’ and curated by artist Rekha Rodwittiya, the show brings forth a view of artists and their lives as documentations from different time frames, evoking a ‘before and after’ moment with each passing frame, observes Johny ML.

Subtextual Documentalists

Subtextual Documentalists

If you ask (I have not yet) the veteran artist, Jyoti Bhatt, whether he would like to be remembered as a painter, printmaker or a photographer, he might tell you that he would prefer to be known as an ‘artist’. And he will emphasise on the word ‘artist’ with his genial smile and the meaning of that cannot be anything but ‘I am an artist who does art all by myself’. Quirky, witty and sharp in his wisecracks, Jyoti Bhatt stands alone in a generation of artists that had gone out to find indigenous and modernist visual languages for the Post-Independence Indian art. While the artists of his generation looked around and beyond the immediate surroundings for inspiration and purpose, Jyoti Bhatt went into the surroundings that were closer to him but remained unexplored. He took his camera around and documented the art of living cultures; unadulterated by academic education but enriched by the university of life. Bhatt’s photographs have become a documentary source of many dying cultures today. A natural with the camera, more than with any other medium, Jyoti Bhatt is a wonderful painter and graphic artist but each time one looks at his works the confusion prevails; are his photographs inspired by paintings or are the paintings inspired the photographs? It is a Zebra moment of his aesthetics. You could approach it either way, but Jyoti Bhatt remains an eternal photographer who has immortalised not only his paintings and graphic art but also the friends and fellow artists through his exquisite black and white photo documentations.

Gallery view of works

Gallery view of works

‘Subtextual Documentalists’, an exhibition of the photographic documentary works of Jyoti Bhatt and Manisha Gera Baswani, curated by Rekha Rodwittiya at Mumbai’s Sakshi Gallery is an interesting comparative study between the works of a ‘sub-conscious’ documenter and a ‘conscious’ photography photo documenter; Jyoti Bhatt and Manisha Gera Baswani. Hailing from two different time frames and locations, both Jyoti Bhatt and Manisha took to photography as their inseparable creative interest even while pursuing their academic training in painting or graphic art. In a way both of them did not know that their camera works would eventually form a comprehensive body of works that would claim its rightful place in the arena of Indian contemporary art. In this particular exhibition, Jyoti Bhatt and Manisha are brought together by the curator not because both of them are photography artists (too) but because they have extensively documented their peers and fellow artists. These two artists are subtextual documentalists, according to the curator because their ‘texts’ have been, considering the academic training they have in hand, their ‘works of art’. Or the portraits of the artists in their chosen locations or forced ones could be treated as ‘texts’ but what we read out from there could be the ‘subtexts’ within the larger narratives of their lives.

Notwithstanding the fact that both Jyoti Bhatt and Manisha Gera Baswani started off as academically trained artists, they differ considerably in their paintings and prints, but what makes them similar is their perennial interest in the lives and locations of their fellow artists. It is generally said that artists are diehard narcissists and they often make self portraits than focusing on the portraiture of others. If an artist is too interested in the portraits of others, then it should be seen as a ‘reverse narcissism’, an effort to see oneself in others. Photographers generally suffer or enjoy (from) this psychological condition as they want to see the world in the faces and places of other people. A search for a unified world, a search to understand the field of their operation must be one of the goading factors, that has triggered both these artists in training their cameras at their peer group artists. Above all, as artists themselves they are also driven by the curiosity factor (of capturing these curious characters called artists). Sometimes it is a very conscious act of documenting and at other times it is simple act of capturing, which later becomes a solid documentation. As the curator of the show Rekha Rodwittiya has given considered attention to both these factors.

Work by Jyoti Bhatt

Work by Jyoti Bhatt

As I mentioned elsewhere, Jyoti Bhatt is a ‘subconscious’ documenter. His photographs of the fellow artists seem to have taken their origin from a sort of quirky curiosity that Bhatt had for his friends. Also the faces of those artists might have had reflected his own self in different ways. Interestingly, throughout his career as a photographer and artist, Jyoti Bhatt seems to have taken very less interest in his own portrait and whenever he had taken, the result was a fragmented self appearance. They are either reflected in a distorted way or deliberately distorted by the camera angles. As camera wielding people, it is natural that photographers are generally not inclined to document their own selves. Today with more and more sophisticated devices or much help available around, one could take self snaps along with the subjects of their interest but most often the photographers feel that an inclusion of themselves in their own frames automatically mars the effect of the documentation. A documentary photograph becomes important and interesting when the absence of the documenter becomes so conspicuous that he/she leaves and asserts an individual unique presence there within the frames.

Work by Jyoti Bhatt

Work by Jyoti Bhatt

Jyoti Bhatt is a subconscious documetalist mainly because while taking these photographs he was not aware that one day they would become ‘works of art’ or ‘historical documentation’ of our art world doyens. Unlike Manisha, Jyoti Bhatt was not training his camera at the ‘already famous’ artists. His idea was to see and capture the artists of his time in their comfortable ‘skin’ and locations. One would wonder while looking at the photographs of Sankho Chowdhury, Ram Kumar, N.S.Bendre, Sarbari Roy Chowdhury, Jeram Patel, Nasreen Mohammedi, Ira Chowdhury, Gita Kapur, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, Bhupen Kakar, Richard Bartholomew, M.F.Husain, Souza, Ara, Krishen Khanna, K.K.Hebbar, Raghav Kaneria, Himmat Shah, Mulk Raj Anand and so on. They were really young people at some point in their lives! That is the kind of idea that we get. They are not remote people but their physical appearances do look remote and they all look like they belong to a different planet altogether. Though Jyoti Bhatt is interested in the ‘places’, in these works where he gives more attention to the portraits, the places appear as comfortable locations, as in studios, campuses, home interiors, protest sites and so on. Jyoti Bhatt’s gaze is not of a ‘male’ or a ‘male photo journalist’ who is also a documentary photographer. Here, his gaze is sympathetic and playful. He does not seem to be looking for action, but he seems to be there for the moments that are in fact not ‘decisive’. They are moments that happen naturally and the click on that moment need not necessarily be the decisive moment as these photographs do not show any kind of ‘tension’ within the frame as we see in the pictures of Cartier Bresson. Jyoti Bhatt’s characters look more relaxed and they already seem to have accepted the photographer in their vicinity.

A self Portrait of Jyoti Bhatt

A Self Portrait of Jyoti Bhatt

There is a photographer in the room. This is what makes most people conscious about their manners and postures. When the photographer makes his subjects comfortable and helps them forget his presence, then the resultant frames are much relaxed. If we look at the same subjects that appear in both Bhatt’s and Manisha’s photographs, in their ‘younger’ and ‘older’ selves (and also in their black and white and colour incarnations), in the photographs by the latter, the subjects look a bit conscious of the photographer’s presence. It is not just about the presence of the photographer alone that makes them conscious of their manners and postures but also the knowledge/fact that these photographs are documentary evidences that are expected to feature in a publication or exhibition. Why I say so is, because there is a fundamental difference between the approaches of Jyoti Bhatt and Manisha. Bhatt is the photographer of the minimum and Manisha is the photographer of the maximum. In other words, Bhatt is the photographer of the ‘limited’ and Manisha is the photographer of the excess. Bhatt’s photographic act is limited because each frame is a valuable frame for him and each frame is an unknown frame also. Even if he could click a series of pictures in continuous succession of the same subject, he is/was not sure which one would have got the preferred image until he developed it in the darkroom. Hence, one click is a maximized click within the minimum. Manisha operates from a different time zone and with different photographic devices. Her final photograph which is meant for exhibition is a minimized result from within the maximum/excess clicks facilitated by the digital camera. However, there is no quality comparison between the photography of these two artists as they are equally interesting and aesthetically refined in their works.

Work by Manisha Gera Baswani

Work by Manisha Gera Baswani

Manisha Gera Baswani took to camera as an artist first and later as a ‘documenter’ or ‘documentalist’. She started with manual cameras and later graduated to digital technology. Her first tryst with documentary photograph started off her interest with her mentor artist, A.Ramachandran, with whom she spent many hours assisting in his studio works and learning a lot from his large pool of artistic wisdom. Later she moved on to documenting other artists in their working spaces and exhibition spaces. This interest grew further only to include other art movers and shakers including gallerists, collectors and critics as her subjects. Today, her effort is to observe and understand the changing complexions of the Indian contemporary art through her lens. Manisha has now become an official stalker with a decent appointment. She makes her subjects comfortable over a period of several visits or her persistent presence and insistence on her absence. Manisha knows for sure that she has been making a rich archive of images and she has been meticulous in this act. Unlike Jyoti Bhatt, Manisha is conscious of her act of documentation and its value and purpose.

In this curatorial project, Rekha Rodwittiya brings these two artists together as in an effort to bring two parallel streams from different locations and conjoin them to make a bigger visual stream. The curator looks at a younger Manisha in Jyoti Bhatt and an older Jyoti Bhatt in Manisha. Had it been Jyoti Bhatt pursuing the artists with his relentless spirit and joviality, he would have definitely become Manisha Gera Baswani. Had Manisha been born a few decades earlier, she would have definitely been a Jyoti Bhatt. Though these are hypothetical combinations and wishful thinking, seen from the curatorial point of view, we see Manisha representing the future of Jyoti Bhatt’s present by simply being present in her present. It is almost like receiving a baton from a relay runner, though here it is done quite knowingly by Manisha. I am sure when Manisha started off, she was not exchanging notes with Jyoti Batt or making mental notes of his archives. But it is sure that over a period of time she has become aware of the presence of his oeuvre in this genre of documentation art or art of documenting and one of the photographs where Manisha makes Bhatt the subject of her photograph, she underlines the fact that she knows her ‘Jyoti Bhatt’ well. In this photograph, Jyoti Bhatt is seen sitting at the right hand side of the picture, against a table with a glass table-top. His reflection is seen in an upside down symmetry. This was how Jyoti Bhatt always portrayed himself; as a reflection. Jyoti Bhatt, while seen in reflection too, is captured in a contemplative mood. What makes the photograph interesting is the empty space towards the left of the frame. This symmetrically imbalanced picture is curious because, it suggests the viewer to make a compositional balance. I can only see Manisha Gera Baswani sitting at a similar table looking towards left. It is an imaginary picture but as I said before this is how photographers make their presence conspicuous through their absence.

(Images courtesy, Sakshi Gallery, the Internet)


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