It’s not often that you find Ramkinkar Baij, MF Husain, FN Souza, NS Bendre and Bhupen Khakhar in the same room. But there they all were, looking at visitors from the walls of Amdavad ni Gufa, an underground art gallery in Ahmedabad. A recent exhibition — called The Indian Portrait XI — was a collection of 85 photographs lovingly clicked by painter, printmaker and photographer Jyoti Bhatt.
Bhatt (86) photographed his friends, many of whom taught or studied at the Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU) of Baroda, over the decades. MSU, which was also Bhatt’s alma mater,is where he first started wielding his camera. The portfolio was managed by art curator Anil Relia. “There are a few who were my teachers and always treated me as a young member of their family. When I photographed them and the older artists, I tried to bring my feelings of reverence, gratitude and admiration for them (in the portraits),” Bhatt said.
Among the featured artists was Bhatt’s childhood friend Himmat Shah, who was born in Lothal. Shah attended school at Gharshala, which was Dakshinamurti, the intellectual and cultural centre of the nationalist renaissance in Gujarat. He went on to design monumental murals in brick, cement and concrete, and is best known for sculptures of heads in terracotta and bronze, moulded at a foundry in London. Also featured was Feroz Katpitia, an electrical engineer and alumnus of MSU Baroda. He is remembered for his jaw-dropping scientific exhibits at the university’s annual art fair. Katpitia was a natural in front of the camera, as shown in his frames. He is seen looking pensive and absorbed in thought in his portrait.
“I had the opportunity to spend time with Himmat Shah, Kishor Parekh, Raghav Kaneria, Shanti Dave, Feroze Katpitia etc, so they were quite comfortable when I photographed them,” he said.
Globally celebrated painters such as Husain also found space in this historically relevant series. One of the founding members of the ‘Progressive Artists’ Group’, Husain’s background in cinema hoarding painting, as well as his strong appreciation for the high drama of Bollywood taught him how to communicate visually with the ‘everyman’ of India. In the portraits, his signature beard and smile were seen in shots taken through the ’80s.
Khakhar, too, made for a valued subject. A chartered accountant and a largely self-taught artist, Khakhar was portrayed as ‘The Accountant’ in Salman Rushdie’s 1995 novel The Moor’s Last Sigh . He returned the favour by making a portrait of Rushdie that he called ‘The Moor’. A self-professed homosexual, Khakhar featured the problem of gender definitions and gender identity as major themes in his work. In the photos clicked by Bhatt, Khakhar was caught in many moods, one of which included him sipping tea from a saucer.
“All my black-and-white photographs were made before the advent of digital cameras, and the coloured ones were shot with a digital camera, before smartphones,” said Bhatt, taking BL ink through amazing candids of sculptor and painter Ramkinkar Baij and Krishnaji Howlaji Ara, the son of a chauffeur from Bolarum, Secunderabad, who was imprisoned for participating in Gandhi’s Salt Satyagraha Movement. Ara painted landscapes and focused on socio-historical themes, but is widely known for his still-life and nudes, being one of the first contemporary artists to use the female nude as a subject. Baij, on the other hand, is considered one of the most distinguished early modernists in Indian art.
Women also found a fascinating place in front of Bhatt’s beloved lens. A gorgeous portrait of painter Shrilekha Sikander adorned the exhibition as did the legendary painter and sculptor Mrinalini Mukherjee, daughter of artists Benode Behari and Leela Mukherjee. Other portraits of women included painter and sculptor Rini Dhumal and Bhatt’s wife Jyotsna, a ceramicist who learned under greats Sankho Chaudhuri and Basab Barua. Today, a mentor herself to a younger generation of sculptors, Jyotsna’s expertise lies in ceramic works of geometry, cats, dogs and domes of wheels that come alive in 3D.
Bhatt studied painting and printmaking under the artist KG Subramanyan in MSU. He later began teaching in MSU’s faculty of fine arts and travelled through Gujarat’s villages and tribal regions, taking photographs of all that he encountered. But his pursuit to qualify the camera as a painter’s tool became evident in the unique exhibition he organised in 1969 called Painters with a Camera . From playing with an imaginary camera at a young age to acquiring his first one, a Voigtlander in 1957, Bhatt’s love for the medium sparkles in this documentation of fellow artists.
As a fitting tribute, the series concluded with a segment of Bhatt’s self-portraits. This includes a diptych which captured him in two widely set-apart decades, showing how much things have changed not just for the artist but also his profession.
Runa Mukherjee Parikh is an Ahmedabad-based freelance journalist