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Folk Art, Photography, and Jyoti Bhatt

Written by Kadamboor Neeraj, November 23, 2019

Folk, Ethnic and Popular art – representation and issues

The makers of folk art normally trained within a popular tradition rather than that of the academy –   deeply rooted in a unique and distinct geographic, social, and ethnographic context. There are possibilities of overlap (several of which even exist) between these forms but what separates them from the fine arts tradition is the context in which they are created, the modes and mediums employed in their creation, the purpose they serve, and the way in which they are received and consumed.

It is important to question from time to time, the term ‘folk art’ in itself. Deeming something a work of art is more often than not based on the evaluation of that work against the fundamentals and principles of art – parameters which were developed over centuries in the framework of the Academy. Therefore, it is also important now, to question if these parameters suffice to evaluate folk art. By looking at the cultural practices of several communities, one is brought to understand that what may be termed as ‘art’ by the academic might in fact hold much greater religious, social, or communal significance. We can look at the creation of a Warli wall painting as an example. The creation of a Warli painting is a task undertaken by several members of the community to mark an auspicious occasion. The creation of this mural, for this community, in itself is a ritual bound by customs and traditions that are handed down from generation to generation. Considering this example, and looking at their creation and consumption, works of folk art are therefore, on such occasions, owned by the community at large.

Another possible way to approach the distinction between the folk and fine art traditions would be to pose the question, “What is art for?” – Or more specifically questioning what these arts were for. In contrast to the modernist argument that art can exist for its own sake, folk and ethnographic visual arts can be seen as just a portion of larger multimedia, multidisciplinary rituals. These rituals may be accompanied by music, song, dance, chanting, and what is left behind in the tangible, visible form, is the visual residue. The intent behind the creation of these visuals is less to produce a work of art that can exist by itself devoid of ritualistic or communal context, but more to produce an element that forms a part of a larger ceremony that marks a milestone in both the existence and progression of the community.

Human beings naturally exhibit a tendency for aesthetic behavior and the marked stylistic and ritualistic differences in these behaviors across regions go on to imply that they have gone through a gradual, organic, cultural evolution.

The creation of art in this context is not a disinterested activity. The multidimensional involvement coupled with the inherent productivity of the human being makes the art production process less of a specialist’s job and more of an activity that embellishes and enhances life/living at large. If modernism has allowed for art and art objects to exist on their own, it has also allowed for widening the gap between what is considered ‘fine’ and what is not. The presentation of art in the salon or the white cube gallery space elevates it to a sanctified position, making the art a dispensable luxury commodity, removed from the daily context. It is definitely worth putting thought into whether the mushrooming and steadily growing alternative modes of art making and exhibition (moving outsides the confines of the white cube space in an attempt to make art more accessible) are aimed at undoing the disconnect between art and everyday life.

The creation of art, as we know it today is an individualistic process. The concept of the studio artist as a solitary worker engaged in thought and developing ideas is more or less the result of European academic models that had, for the longest time, prevailed as the standard, world over. However, if one were to study the artistic behavior of indigenous societies, it can be observed that the creative process is not one that removes the artist from society but instead serves as an integral part of the functioning of that society. It is important to understand that in such situations, where there isn’t an artist figure to remove from society, it isn’t this intellectual role held by one, it’s a practice of expression that the community in fact shares, irrespective of occupation often. Practices that involve modifications or embellishing the body are for many communities, important rites of passage that establish the individual’s allegiance. The adoption of alternative production methods for makers, has at least emphasized their departure from the norms of their times. Where does the community, then, find itself in contemporary art making? The importance of art being located contextually in its time, and being contemporary, cannot be stressed upon enough. What cues and notes can makers then take from community art practices? While several artists have borrowed over and over from folk art practices, what lesson remains to be learnt is the need
to ensure that the work in itself remains relevant to its time and geography.

Jyoti Bhatt, Two Rabaris (Shepherds) during monsoon festival at Saurashtra, 1977

Representation of “folk” in the photographs of Jyoti Bhatt

All of this being said, we can now look at the photography of Jyoti Bhatt as an example to understand the methods of representation of folk and ethnographic art, specifically in the Indian context. Jyoti Bhatt undertook the task of traveling across the country with his camera with an aim to photograph and document customs and practices of rural and tribal folk. He switched from the sketchbook to the camera in the early sixties, for objectiveness that the camera offered as a tool for documentation. As the result of a seminar in the 1970’s organized by Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan, Bhatt went about documenting the objects and implements of rural Gujarat – pictured in their original context.

The documentary nature of Bhatt’s endeavor was also supplemented by his training and practice as a painter. The camera for him, was more than just a tool for documentation, but also a means for sociological study. In his travels across Gujarat, he meticulously photographed the craft practices of several regions – beadwork, rangoli, wall paintings, embroidery – and also the people responsible for upholding these crafts. Migration outside of the villages, and the changes in the economic patterns of the country had led to a shift in the lifestyle practices of people in rural India. Many of the crafts were seeing a decline in popularity, and some seemed to be on the brink of abandonment. The economic and social pressures that urbanization and the quest for modernity bring with them, began leading to these craft practices – which are deeply rooted in their cultural identity – to be seen as primitive. Bhatt’s usage of the camera as an artist’s tool was coupled with his understanding of the artist’s responsibility in the usage of it.

Jyoti Bhatt’s photography of rural India, folk art, popular culture, all convey a sense of urgency. Bhatt’s role here is not just of an artist-photographer looking to create the perfect visual, but also, and importantly so, that of an archivist. The need to document non-urban living in its own context without compromising on the uniqueness of the racial/ethnic and social characteristics of the subject being photographed, represent a confluence of journalistic enthusiasm as well as artistic responsibility. The role of the photographer here is made clear, as an outsider, wary of his position, and clear with his intention of non-intrusively observing the life of people rather than positioning the people being photographed as subjects for solely aesthetic purposes.

While Bhatt’s fascination for folk idioms also finds its way into his paintings and prints, where motifs and symbols are in riotous play, his usage of the camera in documenting these shapes and forms have led to the creation of what could be one of the most expansive archives of folk art documentation. One is led to understand that these images serve multiple purposes. Firstly, there is the art object; the product of a maker with a keen understanding of his location, time, and context. Secondly, a reservoir of documentary evidence that serves as historical evidence of communities and practices that have one, been seen as the “other”, and two, are on the decline. And thirdly, with Jyoti Bhatt being a farsighted pedagogue, these images become an invaluable source for the creation of newer methods of learning. Methods that do not marginalize, and are inclusive and have a holistic approach to the understanding of cultural varieties and the arts. While several systems work towards building educational frameworks that are rooted in their own geo-socio-cultural contexts, contributions such as those of Bhatt’s images, can be seen as a life-long commitment towards preservation and promotion of indigenous visual/cultural wealth.

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Further Reading:

1. Suzi Gablik in conversation with Ellen Dissanayake (1997). What is Art For? in Conversations Before the End of Time (pp 37 – 55), Thames and Hudson, New York, New York.

2. Parallels That Meet (Ed. Roobina Karode), Delhi Art Gallery (2007), New Delhi India