This article was originally published in BLOUIN ARTINFO.
A lot has changed on India’s art horizon ever since I first stepped out of my office in central Delhi nearly 15 years ago to interview an artist. It’s funny that I can’t recall the name of the artist now who became my first art byline in New Delhi. But that’s not surprising considering art writing was the preserve of the unfortunates in a city that was still hefting itself up to snatch the tag of ‘cultural capital of the country’ from Mumbai at that time.
I had been handed that assignment by my seniors as a filler – a story that wouldn’t have found place in the newspaper had the editors not been presented with an advertisement-free space on that day. To top it all, the story was slotted for the ad-free black-and-white page in the newspaper that would largely have colour pages the next day.
So, I stepped grudgingly out of my office, and decided to walk to the Triveni Kala Sangam, instead of hailing an autorickshaw and spending a bomb for a byline that nobody would have cared for. That was my first encounter with the lovely art space in the heart of New Delhi, that over the years, has come to occupy a quarter in the comfort zone of my being.
At the venue, I ran into a senior art writer, who had come to interview the venerable Rameshwar Broota, who was – and still is – head of the institute’s art department. She had dropped the name ‘Rameshwar Broota’ with considerable weight, to instantly clarify, albeit very subtly, that though she may be pally with me, she was far higher up in the art writing hierarchy than I was. I had sighed with despondency, wondering if I would ever get to interview some of the living greats of Indian art.
A few years later, much to my own delight, I found myself at the Triveni on an assignment that I was truly proud of. I had come to meet Rameshwar Broota. The contentment was not just because I had finally been allowed by my editors to interview somebody really out there at the top of the art pyramid of the country. It was also because talking at length to an artist who has built his career with great struggle without compromising with any external force whatsoever – and has still managed to make his way up – was an experience worth emulating for any creative individual.
And that is why, a retrospective of Rameshwar Broota’s fifty-year-old career is a pleasure that any connoisseur of art would welcome unambiguously. Besides, it’s another worthwhile opportunity to talk to the otherwise reticent Broota.
The retrospective of Broota’s works, ‘Visions of Interiority: Interrogating the Male Body’, opened at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), Saket, a few days back and will be on view till December 30. The show has been curated by Roobina Karode, director and chief curator of the KNMA.
This retrospective is more seminal than most such enquiries into an artist’s entire lifetime’s work because it brings together canvases from an artist’s studio that has steadfastly remained a studio all these years and never once degenerated into an art factory.
“It’s been a pleasure for me as well, to see so many of my canvases from so many decades gone by… because I have never been prolific as a painter; I have had only a handful of solo shows. I’ve painted only when I have felt that a subject needed to be painted,” says Broota, reflecting with delight over an exhibition that has been put together with the generosity of many of his collectors from all over the world. Broota, who was born in Delhi in 1941, graduated from the Delhi College of Art in 1964 and joined the Triveni Kala Sangam as the head of its art department in 1967.
Broota informs that the show was put together in the past four months; while some collectors were forthcoming in sharing their possessions, quite a few declined to part with the canvases that they were used to seeing at a particular place in their houses day in and out. “I totally understand that predicament. After all, these are collectors who buy a work of art only when they feel passionate about it and get attached to it over the years,” he reasons.
With all the past five decades of the artist’s career finding adequate representation in the exhibition, one can actually see the evolution of his art progressing on the walls of the museum – from the 1960s when the energy of a younger Broota finds expression on canvases in rather sharp and sarcastic comments, to the past decade where the articulation is more mature, tending to be metaphysical.
“I’ve made hardly 300 paintings in my life, which cover all the five decades. That’s because I paint only when I am totally confident about what I’m going to paint. And I continue to paint on that topic till I find complete expression on that subject. Once I’ve found that, I move on. I’m a perfectionist. There are no undone areas in my work. I don’t know what others say but I feel there hasn’t been a single weak phase in my career because I’ve taken time to make it strong… that’s why I haven’t painted much in my life,” explains Broota.
The philosophy works with photography as well, an art form that he has explored with as much depth. He shares that he picks up the camera only when he is not painting and only when he has to say something with it. “When I paint, I can’t take pictures and vice versa. And I take a lot of time when I do either,” he laughs.
At the retrospective, especially striking is the ape series of 1970s-1980s, which is a revelation for somebody who has not had the privilege of studying all of Broota’s works earlier. It is in sharp contrast to his later art, the celebrated ‘Man’ series, which interrogates the male body more directly, or the more recent series, ‘Traces of Man’, which is a metaphysical comment on the remnants of man, of the intangible traces that he leaves behind even when he is physically gone from a place.
“Yes, the ape series had surprised people,” recalls Broota with a smile. “I was young, there was this bitterness of the youth on struggle, poverty, deprivation all around. One knew that there were corrupt people in power who were responsible for the general misery. I expressed the self-indulgence of the corrupt through bloated apes. Those were not drawing room paintings,” he elaborates.
Has he ever felt the need to go back to the subject given the manifold increase in corruption and the divide between the rich and the poor that we see around us now?
“I don’t think that I would keep painting corruption all the time. Corruption may not have ended in the society but as a subject I reached a saturation point with it. If I don’t move on, it would be like continuing to paint one’s own family forever. The thought process would never grow,” he muses.
We veer off to the inevitable talk on the market but at the back of my mind are playing the innumerable canvases that sum up the brilliant career of Rameswhar Broota. Those are the canvases that were created without any pressure of the market, a fortunate choice that the artist made which many others find very difficult to steer clear of. And the ongoing retrospective is such an un-missable opportunity to view that art for the sake of art.
‘Visions of Interiority: Interrogating the Male Body’ by Rameshwar Broota is on view at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, 145, DLF South Court Mall, Saket, till December 30. The museum remains open from Tuesday to Sunday, 10.30 a.m. to 6.30 p.m.