An exhibition of Rameshwar Broota’s new work makes a subtle comment on the violence in our lives
by Georgina Maddox
This article was originally published in The Hindu
In a studio hidden from prying eyes, on the fourth floor of Triveni Kala Sangam in Delhi, artist Rameshwar Broota’s latest creation is taking shape. He ministers to it with the hands of a surgeon, watching over the epoxy resin as it sets.
The resin has the effect of creating a floating world, a microcosm where various objects and forms that have been trapped in its sticky surface lead an afterlife suspended in time.
Layers of mystery
The objects vary, from metallic nails, an X-ray of lungs, stray feathers, to the all-important bits of text on which the title of his exhibition hinges — ‘Scripted in Time’. The solo show opened at Vadehra Art Gallery on February 1 with great fanfare.
Broota is displaying a new body of work in mixed media that he has been labouring over. After his 2016 retrospective at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, this is certainly his most exciting show.
In his 70s now, Broota is still experimenting when he could easily have been resting on his laurels. He is known for his meticulously rendered canvases on which he works for hours with a blade to clear paint until lines of sepia and black-and-white emerge to form the image.
Broota’s signature work focuses on the male body. His preoccupation with the male form has been described by poet Keshav Malik as uncovering terra incognitoor ‘unknown land’. This describes both Broota and his work: not only has the male nude not received enough attention in a world dominated by the female muse (painted mostly by male painters), but the artist himself is also something of a mystery, being a man of few words.
One can easily see that he prefers painting to speaking. When asked about the ‘inspiration’ behind this new work, he smiles wryly. “I was sitting near the paper shredder one day in my office, when I suddenly noticed how fascinating words looked when cut up in pieces. When they are no longer legible they become pure form. I thought, how beautiful
it would be if I could present these shredded words in liquid glass,” says Broota. The search began for liquid glass in which to suspend these serrated words and it ended with epoxy resin.
“Epoxy resin was the closest I could find to liquid glass. It is not heavy like glass and it works very well to suspend objects, even preserving them. This resin is difficult to work with, but it has a magical quality,” says Broota. He adds: “The medium takes long to dry — each layer needs at least 24 hours. Each object needs a layer over it, hence depending on the layers, it can take months to create a single work.”
Epoxy resin is not easily available in India and most of it has to be imported from the U.S. However, these are just teething troubles. Does the experiment work? We note that the suspended objects, when treated with resin, gain a mysterious air. It changes their meaning, adding another layer that goes beyond their visual play and glowing surface. Resin mummifies, and when we consider the choice of Broota’s objects, we cannot miss the fact that they hint at a critique of violence, whether immediate, as suggested by the nails, or implied, as in the X-ray image, where the lungs have sustained the slow violence of toxic air.
The subtle comment on violence is echoed through the oil-on-canvases as well. The bullets, the pockmarked surface of skin, the burn-holes in plywood, they all lead the viewer to a landscape of destruction.
In one of his ‘Untitled’ paintings, we see a director’s chair, cricket stumps and then a face that emerges from the scarred earth. It is as if the powerful have been displaced. War, a great leveller, has reduced civilisation to a pile of bricks and rubble. In this apocalyptic landscape, human presence is but a phantom. “It often happens that after a spree of figurative paintings, I return to doing more abstract work, relying on a few objects to convey meaning. The objects that were relegated to the background now come to the foreground. There are traces of mankind, but the human form is indeed absent in these works,” observes Broota.
His preferred medium for these works is the time-intensive oil-on-canvas. “I like to paint with oil so that I can layer the canvas, scraping off the layers. I use over six to seven coats of paint to get the desired effect. I employ the blade as much as I use the brush,” says Broota.
Surprisingly, his meticulous canvases are never planned through sketches or preparatory drawings: “The composition on each canvas develops spontaneously and I keep working on it till the painting tells me it is done. “
There was stinging wit and humour in Broota’s early ‘Ape Series’ of the 1980s, which depicted mankind as a garrulous ape engaging in various social activities. This was a comment on the crumbling social system made murky by unethical police officers, military generals, bureaucrats and the judiciary.
The sting and humour have receded, replaced by a more philosophical attitude. “I was young then and felt a sense of despair more acutely. When you are young, you can’t keep silent. I used satire as a weapon to deal with those feelings of angst in the face of social inequalities,” he recalls. “Now I feel that art can’t be so local or personal. It must embrace larger issues. It should be universal and that is why one sees a more philosophical approach in my work. It is open-ended and accessible to any culture,” says Broota. We agree with that.