Q) KK: In the 70’s and early 80’s you portrayed images of pop-culture currency: the biker, the hippies, the cross-dresser as well as cross-sections of a naked, starving population. Where did these images come from?
A) RB: after passing out of art school in ’64, I started my career with portrait painting. But after some time I found no creativity in this form. Though I tried every way possible, including distortion and abstraction, portraiture has stopped working for me. I just had to be more involved in creativity. It was a big struggle but finally in 1967 I started doing large size paintings: labourers, starved, bony figures, inert human beings sitting and standing; there was poverty everywhere. It was very structured work.
A) RB: There was this deep compassion for the poor along with anxiety regarding affluence and its wastage. One day, while I was struggling with a work, I felt I was at a standstill and suddenly wiped out a figure I was doing. In the process, a gorilla-like face appeared as if on its own volition. It looked like a politician holding files. I had found a new form to represent the powerful and the rich. These were all oil paintings with a lot of free brushwork alternated with a structured photographic finish: a satire on society.
Q) KK: Your scenes seem alternately surreal and meaningful. Is the ambiguity deliberate? One suspects you have subtly woven symbols of all kinds into your paintings. Along with exploring the bodies emblematic possibilities say as political battleground are you also raising psycho-social themes or capturing the lack of a centre, of moral resolution at the heart of contemporary living?
A) RB: Yes, but after a few years I decided the work was all too much about local issues, too personal; I felt it should be more about aesthetics, have a more plastic quality and should move into a more universal language. Also over a period of time I had got fed up of the image I had been using. But the subconscious was always at work; as much as I tried, it was always the ape that emerged. Then one day, after a particularly tough struggle with the image, I repainted the entire canvas with some green paint that was lying around. I was experiencing great inner turmoil when I suddenly picked up a knife and started scraping away the paint even though it was still wet. This unplanned exercise was very successful: the ape faded and man as naked being emerged. There was no stopping after this; the “Man” series lasted 10 years.
A) RB: I use this technique till today. The technique is the same, subjects keep changing. Call them ‘etchings’ or ‘scraped away paintings’, they have infinite detailing with a sense of abstraction in the subtraction. They are mostly abstract but with a humanly feel as the “Scripted in Time”, works where the man had left but the script was there, the presence was there. Preparation as well as execution for such works takes extraordinary time and concentration. But it is strangely enjoyable too. I have worked for so many years but in total there would be about 300 works at most. Of these in terms of series, the paintings would be about 150.
Q) KK: Is your tendency towards enhanced scale and an echoing repetition of images—sometimes within the same frame—an affirmation of presence, a dark and enigmatic presence as it happens. Or is it also about reflections of your own intimate psyche: allusions to intertwined concerns regarding power, eroticism and vulnerability have long marked your work?
A) RB: Canvas for me has always been very large and figure has to be more than life-size. The whole body expresses what I feel; it is not just the face. When man as naked being—with no identification—came into the work, he brought with him his pure, inner self, his strength. His victories and sorrows became the form. In between I painted “Prisoner of War” works. But the fact is that I have to keep looking for new form and subject so there came a time when I wanted to go beyond the “Man” series. Somehow I had become fed up again with the “Man” form and started experimenting with the canvas. Slowly architectural elements started appearing and looming large and the human figure got out of focus and faded away totally. There was a phase in the 80’s when I had a small studio and due to restricted space painted a lot of small works with heads and helmets. Then there was a return to huge architectural forms with steps and walls prevailing; later even the human figure reappeared from time to time. I have even worked with nature’s motifs occasionally, such as the monumental multi-panelled works featuring a banyan tree. But the tree which was very forceful up to a point, eventually turned decorative and limited. In between each series there were breaks made for abstraction or phallic forms abstracted yet taken to great detail.
Q) KK: Why have you taken to dismembering the body parts of your significant male figure? Could these parts be representative of some emblematic anarchic condition? Why do you sometime juxtapose them with architectural elements that are de-constructed, fragmented, and even free-floating when architecture issues from a cultural premise of security, shelter and structuring? What is being conveyed when architectural elements along with mechanical ones, both intrinsically hard and solid, impinge upon soft and pliable, even flaccid body tissue?
A) RB: Shortly after the year 2000, I became very meticulous and detailed working; my patience and energy were exhausted and I began seeking simplification. I had been working on a computer since ’95, making and manipulating images for myself. As such when the exhaustion set in, I could easily switch over to the human figure or rather its close ups: a face, a hand, a torso, and a limb, with the feel of time realised in each part of the body. The detail got back due to the close focus of a body part: a magnified part of the body with magnified feeling. The computer has become my sketchbook from where I take my images onto the canvas totally by hand. The diptych and triptych have started from here as human forms with heavy architectural forms face each other in sharp close up and detail.
A) RB: Yes of course they are; thoughts like these are always present in my deeper self and are reflected in my work. Philosophical questions about truth, about meaning of life, and about transcending the mind and apparent reality, have been a part of me since childhood. I am intensely pre-occupied with this kind of thinking. In fact I would go so far as to say that the practice of yoga, meditation and art are my life; they are like fundamental, ever present undercurrents that animate my living and being.
Q) KK: You have recently begun to use photography as a medium though one hears you have had a passion for it for some 30 years. One also hears that even in the early years you used manual interventions to expand the boundaries of this medium and that as a transformative agency it has in the last few years made possible the changing articulations of your artistic expression.
A) RB: For me, crossing the limits of camera makes photography more creative, more challenging, more mysterious. I feel that what I achieve on canvas, I must also achieve in photography. Content and strength must be present in both, but each medium’s challenges are different and so are its results. I have been doing photography very seriously these past 4-5 years. There is a balance between photography and painting in my work now. The simplification everywhere has been greater of late, going towards the minimal. So now there is more space and figures are sparer. So much so that space is often blank white with architectural and human elements counter pointed with subtle eroticism. The simplified image is almost like a cut-out.
Q) KK: Despite the simplifications that you have described, your work seems to continue to be tremendously painstaking. What kind of equipment exactly are you using these days and has it resulted in finer or larger sized prints?
A) RB: I use a Canon EOS Mark II, a 17 Mega Pixel Camera. My computer in a MAC PRO G5 with a 32” screen and my printer can take trial prints that are 24’ by any length. It is all professional equipment of the highest order. My working hours with the camera and computer are 10pm to 3am, but it still takes infinite time and hard work to create my artwork; my average would be say 2½ paintings and 8-10 photographs in a year.
A) RB: You could say the same about present day art itself. For me photography and painting are distinct forms, each having their own possibilities and limitations. Both are complete in themselves and I enjoy working in both mediums. However, my passion for painting remains as before and I use the computer as my sketchbook where, I conceive and define my ideas visually. The journey begins with the sketch, and the canvas takes me ahead to unknown places. There is tremendous satisfaction when my drawing is transposed to a canvas on which I work again with my paintbrush. It makes possible the textures and also the monumental scale that I love to work on. It is here that the real challenge begins.
Q) KK: Would you agree that your project has employed the traditional method of paint and canvas and of digital photography to establish a personal allegory for a rite of passage through art? And that computer technology plus plays an integral part in this as do the singular inflections that you introduce to your mediums?
A) RB: In different ways, yes, and I immensely enjoy the new options made available, the possibilities for flexibility and change that become feasible. As for my photographs, they in themselves constitute an expression of my art. I like to think that new contexts may become possible for this exciting genre. So these mediums—all of them significant—can exist independently, come close together, or overlap and become integral to each other. At the same time it is entirely possible that a day may come when one medium could get exhausted and the alternative one will prevail, but in my work at the moment, they are simultaneous.
Kamala Kapoor is an independent art critic and curator based in Mumbai. She has written extensively on Indian contemporary art since 1983.