Samira Bose examines the embeddedness of Jyoti Bhatt's threshold drawings in complex histories of gender and labour.
In a monochrome photograph, the shadow of a man overlooks a threshold with a large drawing made in fading chalk powder. The photograph was taken in 1975, Hyderabad. It is outlined by the dark contours of a bamboo fence and branches of trees, with the drawing gleaming in the sun. The shadow figure’s arms are bent, and he seems to be holding a camera, capturing his own spectral presence as much as the intricately constructed pattern before him.
The photographer figure in this image is the artist and educator Jyoti Bhatt. The photograph is taken from his archive, which contains over three decades of materials from across India, ranging from photo-documentation and sketches to postulations in essays and elaborately illustrated instructions. In the archive, “threshold drawings” make a presence in several forms, including floral or geometric patterns created on the ground using coloured sand, natural dye, chalk, or flower petals. They appear in disparate designs across the Indian subcontinent in Hindu communities, and are known as rangoli in Gujarat, Karnataka, and Maharashtra; alpana in West Bengal; kolam in Tamil Nadu; mandana in Rajasthan; muggulu in Andhra Pradesh; and jhoti or chita in Orissa. Bhatt took note of how specific forms varied across regional contexts, but he referred to the drawings predominantly as rangoli, himself hailing from the context of Gujarat. An evolving art form, historically rangolis have been made for domestic purposes, a ritualistic purification of thresholds as invocations to auspicious deities. But in the present day, they also serve decorative festive purposes in urban areas.
While navigating the artist’s personal archive, a certain rapture with the art form keeps surfacing—his fervent photographing as well as his investment in them as part of his modern practice and pedagogical methods. This essay focuses on the striking presence of these threshold drawings in the archive, and the artist’s engagement with and negotiation of the form. It also proposes questions about traces, ritual continuity, and presence and absence in these threshold drawings, where complex histories of gender, caste, and labour intersect.
Tradition Through Modernity
Jyoti Bhatt’s prolific career as an artist, which began actively in the mid-1950s, spanned painting, photography, printmaking, writing, and education. Bhatt was a student and later teacher at MSU Baroda. Under the guidance of teachers like K. G. Subramanyan, Sankho Chaudhuri, and Kishore Parikh, Bhatt began his travels through the region, particularly to rural villages, to document the people and traditional practices that were changing or diminishing. These travels, and learning about the “living traditions of India,” impacted and informed his practice in manifold ways. The threshold drawings, or what he referred to as graphic motifs on floors, was one of several threads that composed his explorations. His photo-documentation of the form ranges regionally from Udupi (Karnataka) to Mandsaur (Madhya Pradesh), villages in Rajasthan to small towns in Tamil Nadu.
A kind of mourning underlines the ardency with which Bhatt photographed his threshold drawings, reflecting in part his concerns that such art forms are threatened in the modernist project of increased industrialisation. He positioned their presence in modern life as very much alive, thriving, and practised on a daily basis by women and children in Hindu households across the country. For him, such “traditional” forms are not parallel to modernism; rather they should be considered through it and as part of it. They were practices that should be studied, understood, and even taught as part of modern art curriculums.
Bhatt neither relegates the form neatly into religious tradition, nor into vernacular craft. Those familiar with his practice may notice that the symbols and structures he studied so closely often found their way into his works. Through observations and research, measurements and calculations, Bhatt considers rangoli through the lens of modern design. It is worth considering the implications of drawing from domains of the ritualistic, the everyday, and the domestic, and bringing them into circulation within modern art practice, in ways that cannot be easily reduced to ethnographic/appropriative methods.
In an interview of American poet and thinker Fred Moten1 by Charles H. Rowell, Rowell asks Moten about “cultural secrets” in two Brazilian art forms: samba, an African-Brazilian invention, and bossa nova, a European-Brazilian invention after samba. He also asks whether white people were attempting to possess the secrets of samba in their appropriation of that black form in their creation of bossa nova. Moten replies that while he does not know enough about bossa nova to make a definite claim, when he listens to João Gilberto, he hears “something that might be thought of as much in terms of possession by samba as possession of samba.” He references the work of his colleague and cultural critic Barbara Browning, and adds, “Browning writes very beautifully about samba, about the ways samba reveals that possession is also always being possessed and dispossessed, a loss of one’s self-possession by holding and by being held by what it is you think to be your own.”
Drawing on Moten’s provocation, rather than simply thinking of Jyoti Bhatt’s channeling of the form, or his possession of it in his own practice, I’m interested in the possession of Bhatt by rangoli, the way the artist is constantly drawn to it and furthermore, how he brings note to it and circulates it through varied registers. His shadow at the threshold then is like a haunting, as in to frequent, to revisit. The rangoli’s presence in the modern artist’s archive makes one think about the traces of the past—what we call historical or traditional—in the present.
Although a discussion on race and cultural appropriation versus Bhatt’s possession with/of rangoli may not appear overtly relevant, I find Moten’s foregrounding of the art forms and their ability to take hold of and disrupt different contexts, helpful in nuancing Bhatt’s relationship to traditional art forms. In the interview, Moten warns against “any naive romanticism regarding the salutary effects of racial mixture, especially given the brutal ways power can deploy it in the same interests for which it also deploys racial purity,” but adds that “it’s still necessary to consider the potentially fruitful ways that whiteness is disturbed and blackness reconfigured by Gilberto in his context and Dylan in his. They both contribute to the international of beautiful and necessary obscurity.” How does the ubiquitous presence of rangoli disturb modern definitions and circulations of art? What are the histories that it contains and hides, as we confront it in the archive of a modern artist?
Forms & Processes
From the early days of his travels in the 1960s, Bhatt was invested in the form and process of rangoli, reiterating the need to regard it as an art form of geometric precision and innovative design—particularly because it is created without the use of measuring instruments or note-taking. For him, this intuitive process holds immense potential for improvisation. A considerable part of his photo-documentation appears to be a formal exercise, a means to understand the regional variation in motifs, methods, and materials. Along with his photographs, the artist also maintained diaries, replete with meticulous notes, scribbles, and diagrams. He refers to rangoli as a practice that is “ancient,” rooted in the Hindu context and dwells on its linkages and divergences from mandalas and Islamic geometry. His sketches of rangoli are deconstructive, with numbers and measurements, sometimes drawn on grid paper, with hints of erased pencil marks behind the pen drawings—in a sense precisely the opposite of what he admired in the seemingly instinctual process.
As mentioned previously, Bhatt’s pursuit critically engages with a fear of loss—of such forms disappearing in the face of industrialising and urbanising forces. One of Bhatt’s suggestions in the context of the threshold drawings is for them to be learned and further disseminated through demonstration, bringing the form into newer circuits. Within the institutional history of MSU Baroda, demonstration by folk artists became an integral part of its pedagogy. “Traditional” art practice, then, would take on another life in the visual sensibility of the younger generations of artists.
Bhatt’s pedagogic approach in the project is evident in the instructional quality of his note-taking—learning as a means to later teach. At the same time, consider the way a form is often taught at home, and learned through observation or participation from a young age. In his archive, we can see the ways in which there is a certain pedagogic formalisation of the process.
An example of this is a carefully illustrated essay written in 1960 for the Gujarati magazine Kumar, where Bhatt “teaches why we do rangoli.” In this, and other manuscripts, he begins with instructions on methods and materials, how the “diagrams” start out with certain key structures, and are completed by adding details and patterns that are improvised every time. He then delves into the symbols and motifs, and their ritual significance. This is very much a meticulous exercise of zooming into and prying apart rangoli in a way that enables formal appreciation as well as the potential for creative replication.
Bhatt frequently photographed in quick succession, without neatly framing every image. Therefore, his scores of albums contain the presence of a number of individuals he encountered as they went about their daily lives. The photographing of the threshold drawings, too, captures life around it—members of the family that rally in the background in trepidation, accidental trampling by animals, clothes being dried, or food being cooked nearby. Note that in several images, his subjects are smiling quite knowingly into the camera, or seem unperturbed by his presence. With the colonial lineage of documentation, particularly in rural areas, Bhatt’s engagement as a photographer with his subjects is complicated, especially bearing in mind the gendered particularity of art forms such as the rangoli.
Images: Jyoti Bhatt, Kolam (Rangoli), Madurai, photograph, 1993. Jyoti Bhatt Archive, AAA Collections.
Bhatt also emphasises the intensity of labour involved in the exercise. An album titled "Rangoli" in his archive contains photographs from a visit to Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, in 1970. The series shows different women at various stages of the process of making a rangoli—washing and setting the ground even with water; drawing rough outlines and reference points; bending for hours, with knuckles, fingers, and even wrists smeared with powder; children and other onlookers milling about in the background. Bhatt’s essays highlight how in some communities, the patterns are painstakingly rubbed away and created anew every morning. He refers to this as the “symbolic gesture” that imbues the designs with a magical and protective power, considered to have the ability to ward away evil. In this sense, rangoli is a kind of ritual. It is an inherent part of more quotidian, decorative work in the domestic sphere, and yet always exceeds it in its connection with the mystical.
In his writings, Bhatt speculates on the purpose of making rangoli, and why certain motifs are rendered more frequently than others. In a 1980 manuscript on the wall and floor graphics in villages of Rajasthan, he talks about the peacock motif (in this context on wall murals), and how the momentary presence of a peacock in a courtyard or rooftop is welcomed and considered auspicious. He writes that perhaps the frequency with which the peacock appears as a motif is to “turn these fleeting moments into permanent ones.” The laborious practice, then, is a way to connect to one’s surroundings, to make still that which is always in flux, and to view the threshold as a connecting space between one world and another (the street, and beyond).
Images: (1) Jyoti Bhatt, Mandana Paintings (1975) — Reel 19. Jyoti Bhatt Archive, AAA Collections. (2) Jyoti Bhatt, Maan Osha (Wall and Floor Painting), Kapileshwar Temple in Bhubaneswar (1987). Jyoti Bhatt Archive, AAA Collections. (3) Jyoti Bhatt, Maan Osha (Wall and Floor Painting), Banapur (1987). Jyoti Bhatt Archive, AAA Collections. (4) Jyoti Bhatt, Mandana Paintings (1975) — Reel 14. Jyoti Bhatt Archive, AAA Collections. (5) Jyoti Bhatt, Mandana Paintings (1975) — Reel 11. Jyoti Bhatt Archive, AAA Collections. (6) Jyoti Bhatt, Mandana Paintings (1975) — Reel 19. Courtesy of Jyoti Bhatt Archive.
In an essay on women, threshold designs, and performative relations in contemporary Tamil Nadu,2 Renate Dohmen highlights the relative paucity of scholarly writing on the art form, and how, despite its material transience, it is culturally omnipresent in both rural and urban contexts. And yet, a certain kind of “invisibility” pervades in terms of a “(non-)perception” of the practice. She attributes this to a highly gendered perception of creativity in modern art historical discourse, as well as strict divides between art history and anthropology. These are mirrored and reinforced by the modern/traditional binary and rigid divisions between art, craft, and folk practices.
As Dohmen interviewed women that made kolams (the name for threshold drawings in Tamil Nadu) in Tiruvannamalai, a small town in Tamil Nadu, in the mid-1990s, she learnt more deeply about the performative, ritualistic gestures that connected the space of the domestic with “other forces.” While the symbols, according to the women, are continuously and creatively evolving, the acts of drawing are what bring together the private space of the home with the community outside—bypassers, bystanders, even those that trample on them, as we see in Jyoti Bhatt’s images. It is intriguing, then, that these are drawn on thresholds to serve a kind of in-betweenness—a link between the home and the public domain, between the earthly realm and a supernatural one.
The knowledge of threshold drawings are taught and learnt by observation over generations—even through spying on neighbours’ designs—and much like the designs themselves, while there may be a certain core structure to the form, Dohmen notes that they are constantly improvised in myriad ways. With her specific case study, she raises provocations about the study of the lived tradition, and how it needs to be regarded beyond the ritual and decorative as performative acts through which women in a household relate to the world outside.
Bhatt has described how the threshold drawing is “drawn not with a brush but with a fingertip,” and how the designs are “drawn through a fingertip that is used like the nib of a pen.” The use of the word pen is fascinating, in how it implies a kind of writing and also as a relatively modern tool. This perhaps relates to Bhatt’s general approach to the traditional art form, whether it’s his conscious use of words like “graphics” and “design,” and his use of tools of measurement. It is also reflected in his pursuit of defining, categorising, and disseminating rangoli through teaching manuals, periodicals, and his students.
And yet, I also wonder about modernity in the context of secularism, and whether rangoli can be regarded beyond its ritual role within a religion with an entrenched system of caste discrimination. Through Bhatt’s writings, and also within Dohmen’s research, I was uncomfortable with the refrain around cleaning and purification. In Sharmila Rege’s Writing Caste/Writing Gender: Narrating Dalit Women’s Testimonios,3 there is a reference to rangoli in the autobiography of Shantabai Krishnaji Kamble. She was the first Dalit woman teacher in the Solapur district, serving as an education extension officer in the Jat taluka (town headquarters) of Sangli, Maharashtra. In her autobiography, Mazhya Jalmachi Chittarkatha (The Kaleidoscopic Story of My Life), Shantabhai recounts two early memories of caste-based humiliation that disturbed her. One was when she was in sixth grade, and during a visit to the house of her brahman classmate named Shaku, she was forced to maintain distance. Within the caste hierarchy, Shantibhai was born into a caste historically oppressed by her classmate’s caste. She recalls, “On seeing me Shaku’s mother shouted: ‘Eh daughter of mahar, stop right there! You will stamp on the rangoli at the door.’ I stood there a little nervous. I said to Shaku’s mother, ‘Shaku’s mother, please send Shaku to school.’ As soon as I had said this, Shaku’s mother said ‘Shauku the mahar’s daughter is calling you. Hurry up and go to school.’ Shaku and I came to school, but her mother’s word kept ringing in my ears—“Eh daughter of mahar! Stop right there.”
The question remains about whose shadow is allowed to linger, and who the threshold drawings welcome.
Images: Jyoti Bhatt, Mandana (Floor Painting), Rajasthan, photograph, 1985. Jyoti Bhatt Archive, AAA Collections.
In a set of images in an album from Rajasthan, 1985, we see a top-down view of mandana, with the suede shoes and iron folds of the trousers of Jyoti Bhatt firmly in the frame. While these were taken a decade later, I am reminded of the image of his shadow at the threshold. The spectral presence of the male modern artist, the process of teaching and learning, the visibility of subjects and the simultaneous distancing from them. In an archive with such depth and density, there are no neat categories, only tussles and tensions. I was drawn instinctively to these eye-catching forms, ones I grew up around but overlooked and disregarded. But certain images in Jyoti Bhatt’s archive prompted me to ask questions, and regard the complex and intersecting histories that underpin the art form. They were an entry point, a threshold of their own. And still many more will ask these questions of the archive, as they think about what is forged, what is shared, and what is taken beyond.
Samira Bose is AAA in I’s Programmes Coordinator.
1. “’Words Don't Go There’: An Interview with Fred Moten by Charles H. Rowell,” Callaloo, Volume 27, Number 4, Fall 2004, 954–66.
2. Renate Dohmen, “The Home in the World: Women, Threshold Designs and Performative Relations in Contemporary Tamil Nadu, South India,” Cultural Geographies, January 2004, Vol. 11, No. 1, 7–25.
3. Sharmila Rege, Writing Caste/Writing Gender: Narrating Dalit Women’s Testimonies, Zubaan, 2014.