Rameshwar Broota, 79, is one of India’s most successful painters. But he’s only a painter in as much as he uses to paint on his canvases. His process is akin to a stone sculptor, who finds the image in the block of stone by chipping away at it. In Broota’s case, his blank canvas is fully coated with paint and the images are formed by nicking it away with a blade until all that remains is only what was meant to be there.
Broota’s serendipitous discovery of this nick-blade effect in 1979 is a testament to his career as an artist. He has spent more than half a century switching over from one medium to the other. He has defined and redefined his art by spending long days and nights working with canvases, resin, in the darkroom and on photoshop, allowing the tools and materials to take him on a ride.
“I never choose the subject of my work. It just happens, the way it happens when we go from one place to another”
He is as prolific as he is measured, producing not more than a couple of medium canvases or just one large size triptych a year. He heads the painting department at Triveni Kala Sangam in Delhi, where he has a studio. He has worked extensively with experimental photography, preferring to cut, crop and stitch together bits and pieces of various photographs, invert colours and separate layers to realise his vision.
His latest experiments with resin have led to transparent sculptures holding small objects, paper and language in a moment, allowing you to peer through it and discover the layers beyond the surface.
The media may have changed, but the recurring theme in his art has been to guide the viewer to look past the exterior. His earliest series from the ’60s depicts clusters of emaciated bodies, naked and hunched. It was about the inequalities in society. towards the marginalised, the mistreated labourers, and the unemployed. In the ’70s, monkey-like creatures populate colourful canvases, displaying sociopolitical disparities he had observed in society around him.
“At some point, I realised that what I was painting was largely a personal subject, a local observation”
“However, art is for everyone. It must be universal, not just an expression of personal anger”
What followed over the next few decades (from the ’80s onwards) were series on the evolution, disintegration and deconstruction of the human body, from an ape-like form to man to the elements that make up man.
Broota’s highest-selling work, a 1979 piece titled Numbers, sold for USD 914,000 (approx Rs 6.9 cr, per current exchange rate) at a Christie’s auction in Dubai in 2006. But you wouldn’t know it if you saw him. He’s a reclusive artist who harbours quiet wisdom. He prefers the company of his artistic tools to the jabber of social gatherings.
Right now, like the rest of the world, he is living in lockdown and discovering the joy in banal household chores. He took some time off to talk to me about his art, his approach to teaching and why he won’t get on social media.
EXCERPTS FROM OUR TELEPHONE CONVERSATION
AA: What is left of a man once he is stripped of his body?
RB: With painting, you can only show the physical aspects of the body. You cannot depict the intangible, such as the mind or knowledge. But a person’s soul is reflected through their body; their gestures speak about their inner being.
I started exploring this in my series on labourers and delved into the human psyche in the gorilla and ape series. The idea was to show that even though the man had evolved, his base nature – whether it is gluttony, jealousy or lust – it is still a part of him. Our animal instincts are still very much a part of us.
My work has talked about the man through the ages. I portrayed the journey of mankind, their suffering, their search for food and shelter, surviving wars and much more. Man is depicted as a man. His broad physical features are all simple, but his expressions and gestures convey what he has been living through. So the body, I think, should reflect the inner being.
AA: As an artist who has long delved into the secrets of the self, of humanity and our place in the universe, how do you think this lockdown is going to affect people’s psyche?
RB: What is happening now is part of the process. Nature is balancing itself. Human beings are fragile. But because of their greed, corruption and hunger for power, they have made things - structures, machines, military weapons, even deadly viruses - that are more powerful than them while ignoring the fact that these inventions could lead to their own annihilation. It’s time now for us to realise that life is uncertain. I feel that going forward, people are going to be more sensitive toward their fellow people and towards nature.
AA: How has it affected you and your art?
RB: This has not affected my work. My thoughts on this have always been the same – I cannot bear to see anyone suffering. I respect all life and am also a strict vegetarian. After I saw how they extract honey, I stopped eating honey. Even the process of milking cows is cruel. This kind of torture and also the killing of bigger animals is happening all around us. My journey has always been inwards. I practice yoga and meditate, and delve into my inner being. I don’t work on immediate experiences and outside happenings, which you will notice in my paintings. The changes come gradually, say every ten years or so.
AA: Tell me a little about the resin sculptures. When did you start working on it, where did the inspiration come from, or what message do you wish to impart through this?
RB: I have always admired sculpture but never tried making one myself. It so happened that one day when I opened the shredder to throw out the paper cuttings, I was smitten by the beauty of waste. I could visualise these papers in between the glass and needed to find the perfect medium. I spent quite a while looking for some sort of transparent liquid when I came across some information about resin, which had the glass-like feel I was looking for.
At that time around 2016 good resin was not easily available in India, so I ordered two bottles from the US and began my experiments. I went on adding layer after layer of newspaper clippings, torn notes, drawings, metal nails, weathered postcards, feathers, even an X-ray of lungs. One will see the concept of timelessness in these works, just as in the paintings. You can read the script or see a lost coin somewhere in between the layers.
AA: Do you have a vision for how the work should be?
RB: I very rarely visualize how the final work would look like. It all develops as a part of the process. Eventually, I get clarity of the concept and the entire composition comes to be. The process is spontaneous. Sometimes I start with an idea and sometimes I go at it at random. This is true for my paintings as well. When I started the Ape series, it was not what I wanted to do initially. The apes gradually emerged. The same thing happened with the Man series. Those that didn’t make the cut - were either spoilt, did not represent my vision or not up to the mark - which was created in the process of my experimentation, they were discarded, and it never really bothered me to discard them.
AA: Tell us about your approach to teaching and what are some fundamentals you try to impart to your students?
RB: A teacher must have a method and personal experience. Knowledge of method is important to teach a pupil how to draw, design and understand the value of the structure, arrangement and composition. I share my knowledge of the different materials that I have experimented with and encourage the same spirit in my students.
I never tell them what to do; when they don’t have a clear idea in mind, I give them some suggestions. If they are stuck with an idea, we go through a Q&A round. I ask them what they think about putting an image here or using this colour instead of this.
I teach my students to analyse and understand their work, to question it, dissect it and be convinced by it. When a work is created with conviction, that’s when the viewer will truly appreciate it. I also encourage them to compare it with other artists, even across media, and adopt certain other techniques into their own work. However, I don’t encourage self-pity or criticism of other artists’ work.
AA: Your oeuvre as an artist is wide-ranging, your subjects powerful in the way they force us to look inward. You will not be easily forgotten, but how do you want to be remembered?
RB: It’s difficult to say how I will be remembered, but I would like it if what I’m doing now, my creativity, my curiosity and activity, inspires younger generations. I have not worked for admiration nor have I made deliberate attempts to customise my paintings. But at this age, I am still in search of new materials. If young artists are inspired by this octogenarian as an active and sensitive person, that would be great. Sensitivity here is different from sentimentality. Sensitivity as an artist means you observe and are tuned in with the world around you – the colours, gestures of people, how they talk, their smiles – every minute detail. That sensitivity is ultimately reflected in art.
AA: Artists are now finding a new way to connect with people through social media. We are let into their process, their lives and ideas, sometimes even before they are put on canvas. Do you think you will be getting on the social media bandwagon any time soon?
RB: It is true that people are promoting themselves on social media and it is perhaps a need of the hour. But of the thousands and thousands of pictures that are being uploaded every day for people to view and like and share, I wonder how much of it is actually being absorbed. If you view a thousand paintings together, will you be able to connect with any of them or retain anything in your mind? We are only cluttering the minds of the audience with this. There seems to be so much falsehood and so much of the time wasted on it. I have also tried to use these sites, like Instagram, but I have found it tedious to take out time to upload pictures on social media. I know that not many people know me, but I am happy with what I have – a healthy life and a lovely institution where I work. It’s all god’s gift.
AA: What do you do to relax, take a break, let loose?
RB: I have never felt the need to relax or rest, even when I spoil work. I accept it as part of the process and move on to a new canvas, or look for inspiration elsewhere.
Meditation and exercise have been a part of my life since I was a child. I watched my mother and father and followed suit. This kind of concentration has aided my work; I do not get distracted easily. I go on rounds to check on my students and they also visit me in my studio, and after they leave, I resume my work where I left off. My work and teaching are part of my everyday life.
These days, at home, I find it relaxing to do household chores like washing the dishes and chopping fruits etc along with my wife, Vasundhara. I am experiencing this period from a different perspective. I don’t see it as a burden. I am an introvert by nature and avoid social gatherings and meetings. Visiting good shows and meeting friends stimulate and give me joy, but I don’t like spending much time on traffic and travel, or pointless conversations.
AA: Can you name an artist (past or present) that has inspired you. Why?
RB: When I was young, I was inspired by Picasso and Francis Bacon, and the Mexican artist Freida Kahlo. In India, I was impressed by A Ramachandran’s first solo show in Delhi, but there are also other masters whose lives and works have inspired me. It would be unfair to name a few, but to be honest, my memory is so bad, I find it hard to remember names. But more than people, I am inspired by anything good that I see around me. It could be a film, painting or music.
While researching his work and as I was speaking to him, I truly began to appreciate Rameshwar Broota’s obsession with his art. Some people talk about their work, but some, like Broota Ji, prefer to let the work do the talking. Even if you have not got a chance to see his work in full scale, the images themselves affect you. Be it the nick blade paintings, his resin sculptures or his photography ... delve into it. There’s a story he’s trying to tell us, about ourselves, our impact on others of our kind and our interactions with nature.