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.