“There I learned how faces fell apart,
How fear looks out from under the eyelids,
How deep are the hieroglyphics
Cut by suffering on people’s cheeks.
There I learned how silver can inherit
The black, the ash-blond, overnight,…”

 – From ‘Epilogue’ in ‘Requiem’, Anna Akhmatova, Selected Poems

For the last 40 years, Rameshwar Broota has been mapping a vast terrain of visual experiences. He has moved from the purely representational to abstract and back to figurative works. In the process, he has created a distinctive visual language combining elements of realism and expressionism. He has moved beyond recording manifestations of the human condition and has set out on a search to capture glimpses of a materiality.

In his recent series of canvases, Broota paints on an imagined darkened space close encounters between the human body and massive man-made objects. These contrasting juxtapositions of man and material in a cosmic void grapples with the enigma of existence. The resilience of fragile human flesh pitted against adamantine materials and forms presents a speculative take on the nature of life.

Writing about Broota’s Metamorphosis series, poet and critic Keshav Malik stated in 2001, “For him to create images means to seek eternity in the corporeal or in the countenance.” Malik’s observation on the artist’s relentless search for an inner core of abiding truth that transcends the limits of time and space aptly describes Broota’s style.

Over the decades, Broota has been shedding what he feels are inessentials in his painting like colour and narrative. From the earliest years as a young artist from the Delhi College of Art, Broota has been constantly experimenting with visual language in his continuing exploration of the nature of truth.

One of the major paintings of this series is a triptych which shows part of a leg bent at the knees and a hand held in the mudra of dhyana—a gesture of contemplation. It gives a partial glimpse of a man in a meditative pose. Around him the material world is in a cataclysmic turmoil. Crumbling in space are hard concrete objects and wooden lattices. In the midst of such anomie, the composed yogic posture signals an inner message of transcendence.

Such juxtaposition of opposites, the lithic hardness of concrete forms with sensuous flesh, the pliancy of skin with the rigidity of matter poses a visual challenge. The painting of an enlarged, exquisitely shaped ear counterpoised with an unrelenting concrete form crystallises a subtle dialogue between a man-made form and a natural one. The way he evokes the intrinsic characters of the two different forms is a wonderful experience. On the one hand, there is the complex auricular form with its supple skin and delicate, curvilinear bone structure and on the other, there is the severe, rigid, phallic form symbolising an incipient aggression. The contrasting tactile qualities of both forms are superbly expressed. For the last 20 years or so, the search to capture the precise textural quality of objects has been a crucial element in Broota’s language.

In this series of paintings, the painted finger with its bony structure, its convoluted folds of skin appears time and again like an invasive instrument, a phallic metaphor, or in a gesture of thoughtful contemplation. In one haunting image, a part of the face caught in a rictus of painful effort showing frowning brows, wrinkled nostril, eye squeezed shut, is counterpoised with two fingers painted vertically and meeting at the tip. It is a mudra or a gesture signaling deep thought or resolution of a problem. The gesture appears in this series of paintings with subtle intonations like a running thread. Seen together it assumes a suggestive importance. It is after all such a basic unit of human communication.

There is a painting which shows only the butt of a man and part of a thigh with the hands clasped tightly at the back. It is a gesture hinting at profound thought and firm decision. In a curious formation, the clasped fists seem to have multiplied into an organic growth. It suggests both movement and a sculptured feel. The monumental quality of sculpture is quite patent in Broota’s work.

There are two paintings where only the torsos are seen. In one, the body in the background is standing with arms akimbo. In the foreground, the ominous finger is stretched across the canvas.

Another painting done in this period shows three naked torsos heaving a cumbrous object in crepuscular light. Who are these men? Labourers toiling with their load, or primitive man conquering his environment? Broota observes the fear, pain, anxiety that obsesses the consciousness of modern man. But he also registers his indomitable courage. And when he is recording an amalgamation of all these emotional tremors, a transference occurs. He universalises the here and now to a timeless level of experience that has liminal associations in our mind.

The concept of straining human bodies struggling against material objects has haunted him since the late Sixties when he painted labourers at work. But at the time, these labourers were directly a part of a narrative. Adept at portraiture in college, Broota continued with portrait commissions when he graduated in 1964. But within a few years, he became frustrated with portraits. He could not visualise any development in his language if he continued as a portraitist.

It was at this time that he came to admire the large mural-like figuration of A Ramachandran. He also found himself getting attracted to strong powerful lines and forms.

During his sketching exercises, he felt himself drawn to the labourers working on the street. He admired the tensile strength of their rippling muscles as they pushed and pulled and grappled with heavy loads or worked with hammer and other tools. He began drawing these figures. Towards the end Sixties, he did a series of larger-than-life figures of labourers. He invested them with heroic dimensions, an ode to rugged fortitude.

It would be good to recollect in this context the dignity that M F Husain endowed on his figuration of peasants in the early years. An ennobling sense of humanism pervaded the spirit of the times. It should also be noted that from this time onwards, Broota’s vision engaged with the opposing pulls of matter and spirit. The idea was latent in the next decade but germinated in the Eighties when it found newer channels of expression.

Almost inverse to the works done in the late Sixties, Broota ventured into an ironic vein in the paintings of the Seventies. His Ape series critiquing the corruption and decadence among the political and social elite became haunting visual metaphors of a creeping rot in society.

The paintings were large—Broota’s imagination always engages with grandeur in scale. Broota used a lot of colour in the paintings of this series—something he pared down in his later works. What is significant is that this is the last series in Broota’s work that has a direct narrative and related visibly to an external reality. The philosophical and introspective search for an image, which was to pervade his canvases later, is not manifest here.

By the Eighties, Broota was ready to move away from the acerbic Ape series. He went back to the human figure and created powerful primitive humans. It was at this time that Broota hit upon the most unique aspect of his visual language. While restlessly dabbling with paint, he wanted to remove the paint in a certain area and rework it. There was a blade lying at hand and he scratched the paint with it.

He loved the sensation of scratching through paint and the effect it achieved. He adopted and honed the technique as an integral part of his visual vocabulary. While most other artists build up the surface of the canvas in different ways with paint and nowadays with other material as well, Broota adopted a process of reversal. He built up the canvas very sensuously with several layers of thin, transparent paint. Depending on the tonal quality that he wanted to achieve, he used browns, grays, blues, whites, metallic paints like gold, silver, copper and so on.

Then in what can be termed as archaeology of experience, Broota proceeded to delve through the layers of paint, armed with a razor blade, scratching into the depth in search for the image. For Broota, this creative process is like a yogic sadhana—a mystical search for the nature of truth in tune with his meditative nature. So deep is his involvement with the process that he identifies himself completely with it. He recounts an incident from the initial stages when he began scratching away the layers of paint. He had been at it whole day and at night he had a vivid dream. It appeared to him that he was scratching at the layers of his skin, feeling sore and painful and this forced him to wake up.

The chromatic nuances resulting from the scratching, in spite of their austerity, can be mesmerising. Broota’s magical handling of myriad textures creates a brilliant impact. Broota achieves this through the variety of ways that he wields the razor—sometimes to gouge out paint, at other times to employ linear strokes or fine cross-hatchings. The minute detailing is a fascinating visual experience.

The innumerable textural variety is supported by a subtle range of shades, sometimes predominated by silvery gray and other times by burnt umber. The dramatic shadows and the polished, glistening highlights weave images of mysterious depth, occasionally lit up with flashes of illuminating light.

If the Eighties’ work focused on the human figure, then the Nineties saw the emergence of semiabstract images. Broota imagined a scenario where man had disappeared but his relics, the remains of his civilisation colonised his imagination. It was at this time, other geometric forms like the staircase and the rectangular form with squiggly hieroglyphs offered a cryptic code on human destiny.

Again after 2000, figural representation reappeared in his work. Along with it one also observed the surfacing of some natural forms which began in the late Nineties. Like the majestic tree with its spreading aerial roots or the tracery of riverine channels, Broota seems to appropriate forms provided they are not soft, lyrical, graceful. His works speak of an inner metaphysical struggle where the human body and spirit are ranged against the indomitable forces unleashed by man’s own constructs. Witnessing the tumultuous power play on his canvases, one comes face to face with the primordial experiences of man’s unending need to conquer the physical world as well as the turbulent drives of his inner self.

One tool that Broota uses sensitively is a camera. He photographs himself and parts of his own body ceaselessly in an attempt to capture the feel of the flesh and bones These images, an autobiographical minutiae, he distils on the canvas investing them with a life of their own. They no longer appear as mechanical reproductions of the body but as autonomous forms. Even while painting, he feels the bone structure of the joints or the formation of the muscles in his body to get it exactly right on the canvas.

Light and dark goad him
as they run.
The east in embers,
and night
as she unfurls her parasol
of a million holes, and that flood
of sighs we call the wind,
all these run over him
without pity, without end.

doesn’t quite drown him.
He doesn’t curse his gods
but bears like a patient pole
a lamp upon his head.
His silence, a small fire,
keeps a vigil…”
-‘This Man’ by G S Shivarudrappa
(Translated from Kannada by A K Ramanujan)

– Ella Datta, 2004