Veteran artist Rameshwar Broota talks about his ongoing retrospective showcase, his fascination with man and what his work communicates.

This article was originally published in The Asian Age

Walking along the array of artworks that comprise Rameshwar Broota’s retrospective, presently on view at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Saket, is a deeply thought-provoking experience. There are images from several of his standout series arranged in no particular order, almost as though intended to be absorbed together as one dizzyingly evocative whole. It is when the artist begins to talk about them that a sequence emerges and goes on to unveil the trajectory not only of his own thought process as an artist but also of his conceptualisation of man’s journey through the ages.

“My concern when I first began painting was with poverty, hunger and labour. You’ll see that reflected in the thin, bony forms in some of my earliest work. As time went by, more observation and reflection drew my attention towards our nation’s bureaucracy. They had accumulated more than enough to get by luxuriously and their lack of sincerity was responsible for the deprivation I had been painting about. That was when the image of apes came to me and I began the series by that name, using the figures satirically. There were malnourished apes to represent the deprived and fattened, ugly ones to represent the bureaucrats. My intention was to depict the primacy of animal instinct in man and the crudity that defines the latter set of people despite their show of being civilized,” he explains.

The “Ape” series was followed by the “Man” series, wherein Broota’s primordial ape transforms into primordial man — lonely, faceless, naked and vulnerable. “In the ‘Man’ series I’ve attempted to foreground how man, from the prehistoric era all the way to contemporary modernity, is essentially the same. I have kept him nude because clothing would give him a label and have depicted his struggle through the ages,” he says.

After a decade or so of working with the “Ape” series, he began to feel the need to make his art less localised and more universal. He says, “I didn’t want my images of man to be topical, dramatic or photographic. This is why you’ll see that I put faces onto my forms very rarely. I don’t want expressions to get in the way of the form’s universality.”

Perfecting the form he was looking for wasn’t an easy process, however. “I would keep drawing apes again, then rub them out in search of a different image. I don’t paint based on immediate visual reference and ended up completely ruining a canvas in my struggle to find a new form,” he shares and points out that this was in fact how the style he has come to call his own over the years, was born: painting the entire surface green, he took up a small knife and scraped off the wet paint to form outlines. “Shabaash Bacche” came into being and was then followed by repeated experimentation with layers, shades, blades and contraptions to polish the technique.

There came a point where Broota reached a level of saturation even with the human figure and decided to move on to canvases that depicted the presence of man in the absence of his physical form. The “Scripted In Time” series, therefore, consists of abstract canvases inscribed with alphabets and symbols reminiscent of human scripts.
Ask him why most of his work through all these series is starkly monochrome and he says quite simply, “I never felt the need to use colours, really. My works have very clearly defined subject matter and are never decorative, even when I’m doing abstract patterns. Every element on the canvas is meant to support the subject matter depicted on it and colour comes in only when I feel the need to use it, which is very rarely.”

Some of his most recent works on display look at the familiar contemporary world through his signature monochromatic lens, this time punctuated with a few lines of colour. “New Arrivals” depicts a line of apparel displayed at a shop’s window. “There is a lot of tension and complication in some of these paintings, which depicts the tension prevalent in society at large. Another painting has a lady in the middle, yawning and unfazed by the figures on either side of her. This talks about how man has also become more self-centered and unmindful of anyone other than himself today. My art is my way of commenting on these things,” the artist concludes.