Artist Rameshwar Broota’s new series of photographs reconfigures the geography of familiar spaces.
by Vandana Kalra

In Rameshwar Broota’s office-cum-studio at Delhi’s Triveni Kala Sangam, a 32-inch MacPro glows softly in the morning light. It’s the machine on which the 70-year-old artist has produced his latest work — photographs taken over a period of five years, in vastly different places: from Greece to Turkey; from the barren wasteland of Spiti to the crowded streets of Haridwar. They are intricately detailed images, but blown up to a massive scale, and part of the exhibition “Open Enclosures” on at Shridharani Art Gallery in Delhi.

This was not photography of the moment, but a process that slowly took him over. “I spent nights on Photoshop. It was like the (old) dark-room experiments, where I used double or triple exposure, superimposed negatives and burnt portions of the image. An artist should do something different; else, the photograph will be common,” he says.

The 70-year-old artist began experimenting with photography in the late 1990s. He scanned old photographs, took lessons in Photoshop software and scanning. “I wanted to do something new, not just paint,” he says. Of his current show, he says, “The scale is larger now. It’s more earthy. There are more open spaces and fewer objects. The emphasis is on the details, like in my paintings,” says Broota who has long been known for canvases dominated by muted monochromes.

With this show, the colours seem to have made a quiet return. The landscapes he captures, though, are bleached of all recognisable markers. Shot in Greece, No Man, No Horse, No Parrot is the image of a man looming over a cluttered cityscape that could well have been an unplanned Indian small town. Where Does the Ganga Flow is a top view of the chaotic urban spaces of Haridwar, the river is nowhere in sight. It is, as if, he has captured the overwhelming sameness of the modern Every City. In the diptych No Dog, No Elephant, No Mouse, a half-covered woman on the bed is juxtaposed with a jet plane zooming off into the horizon. “It’s as if she is dreaming,” says Broota. “There might not always be a complete picture that is waiting to be clicked, so I add elements from the surroundings. It is the way I would like it to look. The photograph is almost like my canvas, where I can work on specific parts that I want to highlight or remove,” he says.

Broota, who began painting in the 1960s, was perhaps one of the first Indian artists to develop a satirical language. Through the Seventies, his canvases featured only corpulent gorillas, through whom he critiqued the crass materialism and authoritarianism of his times. “I wanted my work to talk about relevant issues, suffering and pain and not just be beautiful pieces of art,” he says.

But it was the “urge to break the monotony” that led him to conceive of the technique that has now become his trademark: the nick-blade effect. One night in 1979, frustrated with his efforts, he covered his canvas with varnish and grabbed a blade to scrub the paint off. What was revealed was a figure, not painted, but scraped from layers of paint. “The image amazed me. It was an experiment. Initially, I struggled with the technique but now I have learnt how to handle the blade,” says Broota. The first work from the series, Shabash Bête, is now in Lalit Kala Akademi, Chandigarh. He has not picked the brush since and the Bharat blade has become an integral part of his tool kit. “It’s cheap and breakable. No, it’s not good for shaving,” he jokes.

The technique also brought a change in his work. The gorillas disappeared, to be replaced by men. Many of the figures he drew were labourers, painted with missing pelvic regions; the politicians who lorded over them were emasculated too: they wore bikinis. Women rarely featured in his work.

Human anatomy, and especially the male body, has been central to Broota’s work since. Even in this show, What Lies Beneath he has a close-up of a human hand, showing every crease and wrinkle, adorned with a drop of water. “This could be earth, an animal skin or even a rock.” he says.

As a young man, Broota wanted to join the armed forces. He was rejected in the physical examination and reluctantly applied to Delhi College of Art on his elder brother’s insistence. The following years were to change his life. He met his first wife Shobha Broota, and while most of his batch mates opted for more lucrative designing jobs, Broota chose to teach at his alma mater and Jamia Milia Islamia University till he joined Triveni, which he heads. “That was the time of struggle. The salary was meagre and artists were worried about the future,” says Broota. But there was always time, he recalls, for heated discussions and frequent tea sessions at Bengali Market.

The struggle is long over, and Broota is a much-wanted artist in the market. In 2006, his 1979 painting Numbers sold for Rs 41.8 lakh, at Christie’s in Dubai, a record for the artist. “I keep a check on the auctions, but it does not influence me,” says Broota, who also does not do commissioned work.

He has been so preoccupied with his photography that he has not worked on canvas for a year. It’s time for the blade to come out of the art kit though. Kept in one corner of his studio is a triptych that has his second wife Vasundhara as his muse — it will feature in an exhibition next year.

Article republished from Indian Express – Sunday Express Magazine