One wonders how Rameshwar Broota views his “Man” series of paintings now, 30-odd years after he completed it. These are among the numerous Broota paintings currently on display at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (DLF South Court Mall, Saket), an exhibition called “Visions of Interiority”. Broota has been sketching male nudes for a long time now; this is, in part, a response to his own ageing body. Prima facie, it would appear that such a project would be hindered by a very human, narcissistic impulse: to create something solid and resilient in the face of change, to stare decrepitude down, in a way.
Instead, Broota took the infinitely braver path: to focus on the vulnerabilities of the male body. Earlier in his career, Broota made a series of ape paintings, placing them in contemporary social contexts. His “Man” paintings feature men only slightly more evolved than their earlier, simian counterparts. There are no discernible facial features anywhere to be seen. In Man 1, one of these blank slate Neanderthals appears with both of his hands hidden behind his back. Who’s holding him back? Are the shackles, perhaps, the same constraints that nudge him down a chauvinistic, patriarchal road? Or is the Neanderthal a more calculating, bloodless creature that stands by, hands folded in quiet complicity, as the evolving world passes him by?
In the 1970 oil-on-canvas Anatomy of that Old Story
, the apes cross paths with more or less evolved, naturalistic men; this time with a berserk surrealism. Two men, modelled on Broota and a friend, are sitting close to each other, arms interlinked; desperately clinging to a mob-behaviour status quo (Broota himself is starved, his ribs showing clearly). They are watching, aghast, as an ape in a chessboard blouse devours some meat off a bone. Eating loudly or in a crude, animalistic manner is one of the things portrayed as a typically male trait in pop culture. This gluttony is also, however, seen as an alpha male attribute (in the TV sitcom Friends
, Joey never shares his food, remember?). In this context, the “uncivilised” and hence unencumbered alpha male choosing to put on a black-and-white blouse is very significant. The androgyny is audacious, yes, but what’s even more striking is the accuracy of the Neanderthals’ expressions: How dare this… this monkey eat that way? Doesn’t he know it’s against the rules?
While it is, on the surface, a relatively straightforward take on haves versus have-nots, it lends itself well to these alternative readings, like much of Broota’s work.
The first thing that you notice about Broota’s ape-to-Neanderthal progression is that while the apes were placed firmly in the middle of a vigorous, bustling satire (like 1976’s Sofa Set, where three apes are trying very hard to be well-behaved on a comically large sofa; beyond a point, both the enforced etiquette and the furniture appears to swallow them whole) the men have very few objects around them. The few things juxtaposed with them are very well chosen; that is, if the background isn’t all white, as is the case with some of his post-2000 works. It is this stark, unfussy style that Broota favours now: his 2014 triptych New Arrivals is perhaps the pick of the exhibition.
New Arrivals is designed to be a parody of marketing gimmicks. The three sides of the triptych can be seen as chiselled mannequins modelling clothes that can be called high fashion or just plain old ridiculous, depending upon your point of view. There’s a leather-jacket-and-lungi ensemble that could have been taken from Chennai Express. There are some seemingly military-issue shorts that should really never be worn, even by mannequins. The central sketch in the triptych has a jacket-and-jeans set with the jeans torn fashionably, the entire assembly’s integrity being maintained by hangers.
The message is you can get men to wear just about anything, if you know what appeals to the Neanderthal heart. In this conversation, “you” are an evil marketing genius (is there any other kind?), in which case, thanks for all the pseudo-intellectual brain-f***ing that you and your kind have unleashed so diligently upon our TV sets. (Next time, buy us dinner first.)
“Visions of Interiority” is by no means a one-dimensional exhibition, but its most memorable bits are the ones in which Broota lampoons society’s idea of how men are supposed to look and behave. At some level, we’re all still swinging at bears with clubs, hoping for the best.