A closer look at the oeuvre of the acclaimed Indian painter in light of his retrospective in New Delhi.

“Visions of Interiority: Interrogating the Male Body”, curated by Roobina Karode, is ongoing at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Delhi until 1 March 2015. The retrospective spans five decades of the painter’s work from 1963 to 2013.

Rameshwar Broota, 'What to do', 1969, oil on canvas, 178 x 254 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Rameshwar Broota, ‘What to do’, 1969, oil on canvas, 178 x 254 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Art Radar met Rameshwar Broota (b. 1941, New Delhi) at his office in Triveni Kala Sangam, a private art school in New Delhi where he has been the head of the Department of Art since the late 1960s. After graduating from the Delhi College of Art in 1964, this position allowed him to retain time to paint while teaching semi-professional artists for only two hours a day, as opposed to government art schools where he would have had a full-time workload.

Broota’s studio is set amidst the space allotted to the students – and even former students – a position which makes him available at any time to provide guidance. His apartment is on the top floor of this well-lit building, surrounded by trees and lawns. This serene environment stands in stark contrast to Broota’s dark, large and overbearing figurative works, exhibited in “Visions of interiority: Interrogating the Male body” at Kiran Nadar Museum.

Rameshwar Broota, 'Anatomy of That Old Story', 1970, oil on canvas, 139 x 203 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Rameshwar Broota, ‘Anatomy of That Old Story’, 1970, oil on canvas, 139 x 203 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Against injustice: The early years

After graduating, Broota painted his immediate environment, representing groups of emaciated, famine-stricken bystanders seated passively on street walkways, such as in What to do (1969). Given such a dire economic and social context, he felt outraged by the level of corruption that reigned within the then government of Indira Gandhi, despite the Prime Minister’s facial commitment to democracy and social progress. This quickly led to the so-called “ape” series, in which fat brown apes lie lazily on large sofas, sometimes fighting for power, sometimes sharing the opulence, surrounded by a cohort of servile white apes, as in Anatomy of That Old Story (1970).

Broota’s anger at such discrepancies was partly driven by his own family story of a financially strained childhood and a desire to fight social injustice.As a teenager, he dreamt of joining the army or the police, foreseeing himself as a white knight bringing equanimity into a corrupt administration, for the sake of the people. Prevented from following this path, he decided to study art – which he had been practicing extensively on his school books – eventually considering it as a redeeming mission in its own way.

Rameshwar Broota, 'Shabash Bachche', 1979, oil on canvas, 139 x 139 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Rameshwar Broota, ‘Shabash Bachche’, 1979, oil on canvas, 139 x 139 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Etching apes and skeletons

The “ape” series lasted until 1979, when the artist found himself trapped into repetition and localities. Struggling to find a way of expressing “more universal and philosophical issues”, he started scraping an unfinished painting with a spatula, finding solace in the thinly etched green surface that resulted from this process, keeping only two small apes in the lower left part. The painting, called Shabash Bachche (“Well done child”, 1979), was the first of a series that would last a decade, during which the green monochrome surface evolved into a grisaille made out of six successive layers of ten different shades of grey, beige and light pink pigments, meticulously scraped with a razor blade.

These ghost-like figures are made after the artist’s own body, almost skeletal at the time due to lack of food. In a prior interview, Broota explains that he wanted to go to “spaces that are unseen, unknown, the so-called unconscious”, and express our bodily condition that forces us

to suffer, fight for our survival and die like animals under the knife of a butcher.

Rameshwar Broota, 'Runners', 1982, oil on canvas, 203 x 203 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Rameshwar Broota, ‘Runners’, 1982, oil on canvas, 203 x 203 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

“Visions of interiority”

Runners (1982), the first painting ever to be acquired by Kiran Nadar Museum, represents a trunk, hanging upside down like a carcass, and two naked male figures running between walls, as within an inescapable corridor. Three videos projected in the exhibition complement the series: The Body (1985) shows the artist’s bust, hand tied up like a carcass in a butcher’s refrigerator, shining with a pink glow as if the skin had been removed – an unplanned consequence of bad technical quality. Pushed by the brown hands of a mock butcher, the body spins, its dark teats facing the spectator like an owl’s eyes. It is then massaged like dough, like meat, by two powerful hands – this is the artist’s wife, the painter Vasundhara Tiwari – and starts breathing heavily, emitting quasi orgasmic noises, before returning to stillness.

Rameshwar Broot, 'Silence', 1992, oil on canvas, 254 x 254 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Rameshwar Broota, ‘Silence’, 1992, oil on canvas, 254 x 254 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

In the following video, A Biography of Life, made later in that same year, a pink and slimy hand strongly lit by an unseen spotlight creeps like a spider along a surface covered with newspaper cuttings, attempting to scrape the paper as if to hide underneath, to no avail. It is caught and disposed of.

The paintings of the following decade are more redemptive, a change possibly induced by the growing appreciation of Broota’s work by collectors such as Chester and Davida Herwitz. The haunting bodies gave way to twilight scenes devoid of human presence, in which the earth and sky tend to fuse into a bundle of undulating, pulsating lines, as in Silence (1992).

Rameshwar Broota, 'Untitled', 2005, oil on canvas scraped with a blade, dimensions unknown. Image courtesy the artist.

Rameshwar Broota, ‘Untitled’, 2005, oil on canvas scraped with a blade, dimensions unknown. Image courtesy the artist.

Interrogating the male body 

Since 2000, the human body was back in focus, and the sketchy grisaille gave way to a stark dichotomy of black and white hues, featuring close up views of male body parts: a leg, a foot with black socks and trousers, kicking or being trapped within mechanic devices. The dynamic, aikido-like gestures, expresse a confrontation between man and machine, sometimes humorously as in A Chance Encounter (2007), in which a man’s foot kicks a cylinder and gets stuck in the tube.

Rameshwar Broota, 'Untitled', 2005, oil on canvas scraped with blade, 89 x 178 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Rameshwar Broota, ‘Untitled’, 2005, oil on canvas scraped with blade, 89 x 178 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

In other paintings, ithyphallic images of metallic objects contrast with the flaccid presence of fingers or slack lower bellies, retracting as if to protect. This suggests, according to Broota, that man is the victim of his own mechanistic invention, relating their phallic sensuality to the linga – the Hindu symbol of Lord Shiva’s energy.

A new lens

The precise realism and the close focus of the compositions can be traced to the influence of digital photography, which the artist has been practicing since 1990, after buying a SONY DIGITAL MAVICA FD-7 camera. Teaching himself a complex and painstaking editing process, he started reworking to an extreme level of precision the lines, dots, wrinkles and pilosity of the male body, making its sensuous presence felt as if seen through a microscope.

Rameshwar Broota, 'Untitled', 2005, oil on canvas scraped with blade 12 x 24 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Rameshwar Broota, ‘Untitled’, 2005, oil on canvas scraped with blade 12 x 24 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

As in the works of the preceding decade, these images appear to combine a sense of the tragic with a search for redemption – or sublimation of a bodily condition. One of his most recent triptychs shows a feminine figure lying on a bed, yawning: a rare occurrence of a woman in this man’s world. On her left, a man practices a yoga position and on her right another man sits in meditation within a house-machine. The strength and physical presence of the woman contrasts with the meditative and otherworldly concerns of the masculine figures.

Rameshwar Broota, 'Untitled', Triptych, 2011, oil on canvas, 178 x 533 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Rameshwar Broota, ‘Untitled’, Triptych, 2011, oil on canvas, 178 x 533 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

This male/female complementarity in which the woman incarnates bodily energy and man spiritual energy, stems from Hindus scriptures – of which Broota is an avid reader, especially the Bhagavad Gita, for him “an endless source of discoveries and enlightenment”. It confirms the metaphysical dimension embedded within the artist’s work, but also that this process is based on both a sublimation and a use of the bodily energies.

Christine Vial Kayser

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Related Topics: Indian artists, painting, artist profiles, art about the body, events in New Delhi

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Brittney

By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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