Most artists commit themselves to the enduring challenge of drawing from the imagination. Rameshwar Broota continually revises the way he looks at man himself. In a career spanning four decades Broota has moved from images of existential anxiety to sharp satire to a classic heroism, which settles tantalizingly close to the edge of hope and despair. In the process he compels a revision of the notion of the heroic to embrace, rather than exclude, the ordinary.
However, even this claim may be contested. Broota's central subject is man, through whose tensions and aspirations, lusts and endeavours, the greater issues of life are meditated. God is indifferent or distant, the human 'other' is absent; the solitary male becomes the site for conflict and resolution. Through repeated acts of resistance, the male body, with its skeletal frame or stolid musculature, plays out its postures of acceptance or confrontation.
Broota speaks of his painting with undiluted simplicity even as he locates himself firmly within the ordinariness of the vast Indian middle class. His mythico-classic figures, in the words of Keshav Malik, have their genesis not as legatees of a grand tradition but in the travails of the ordinary and the unknown, whom he invests with an unlikely heroism. Particularly in the last decade or so, the affirmative gesture of striving, of pushing the body into unpredictable spaces vests his figure with a determined stoicism.
Yet there is an extraordinary simplicity that guides Broota's intentions. At no point in his career has he taken an ideological position other than a broadly humanistic view. The present series of four paintings mark a distinct change in the artist's ouvre. For two years now, Broota has used the computer as a means to sift through hundreds of images and their compositional possibilities. One of the consequences of this relentless pursuit is the extreme close up, of the bodily frame that becomes the locus for Broota's philosophy of man. Perhaps for the first time, the figure is palpably at the edge of crisis. There is an imminence of tragedy in that the source of threat - architectural forms of man's own creating - are on view. The void of the past is now dominated by massive concrete angularities and chains. Even here, the artist refuses firmly to locate the sources of conflict. The use of the architectural construct as suggestive rather than identified form heightens the nature of the threat. Its externality, its source, its means of propulsion are not clear. But its massive presence blocks all forward movement and can only be resisted if jagged stone tears through onrushing flesh.
What is important here is that Broota's views of man exists outside traditional morality or the possibilities of expiation. In the process, man's "will to powers, as Nietzche defined life itself, is in crisis.
"This is the most productive period of my life".
Broota's evolution follows an unerring pattern: at the end of every decade an unease with the existing work makes way for visible change.
These images have grown out of an emergent spiral. Rameshwar Broota's student exercises, soon after his graduation from the Delhi College of Art, reveal depressed figures bled of all flesh tones. Overwhelmed by despair, they hold on to each other for cold comfort. In this period the only influence he admits to is the massive paintings of A. Ramachandran, which encouraged him to work on a substantial scale.
By 1967 at the age of 26, Broota was leading the Triveni art department. On the long drive each day from his father's home in Rajouri Garden to Triveni he traversed a city in rapid growth phase with eruptions of concrete structures and a marked cultural transition. The tentatively developing sphere of the artist with the venerable Delhi Shilpi Chakra, the National awards and tea sessions at Bengali market, created a cultural schism of sorts with Broota's own family that had lived in his father's railways housing in Timarpur, Shakti Nagar and then Rajouri Garden. It was a world of a closely held 'sanskaras' of the discipline of close family ties and robust sustenance. Yet for Broota, over the years, the conflict of interest was not social but internal, between the discipline of the family steeped in intellectual and spiritual enquiry and his own needs. A practitioner of dhyana and yoga, he also felt the contrary pull of the human world.
This existential conflict was to dominate the last two decades of his work. In the early 70's, however, Broota was probably the first Indian artist who turned outward with severely satirical paintings. Earlier, he had made forays into geometric forms, followed by stark figures of emaciated men, suggestive of the labour in Delhi's growing streets. A decade later the emaciated anemic labourers of the 1960's paintings inflate into overfed gorillas, their humanness emphasized by bright striped sofas, their telephones and drinks as they sit in serious consultation on the course of the nation. The genesis of the series of apes was fortuitous. Broota wiped out the face of a labouring figure in disgust and in the smear detected the heavy outline of an ape. Broota's invective was turned against conspicuous public over-consumption. Anatomy of that Old Story  is a direct take on this, probably fuelled by scenes of people gorging themselves in the sweet shops of Bengali market. Broota, bearded and thin [his rib cage is revealed] and his artist friend K. Khosa look up on an ape figure in the throes of avid gluttony.
In the early 70's, the butt of Broota's attack, the political establishment had enhanced its powers through abolition of privy purses, bank nationalization and the successful liberation of Bangladesh. It was the height of the license Raj, of the empowered bureaucrat and lavish public consumption. Towards the middle of the decade however, the realization that the apes with their gargantuan appetites were essentially too close to the Indian political reality and that they lacked universality, presaged change. Gradually this mockery of the inversions of power began to play itself out, notably through paintings like Spectators and Trial [both 1978]. Coming in the wake of the Emergency, such paintings define public response to political events as passive or completely absent. The figures become miniaturized and stick-like, seemingly adrift on the vast expanse of the canvas. Broota's view of Indian public life is desolate.
It was the painted surface now, tentatively scraped by a knife that opened up a whole slew of possibilities. By 1978, the sharp geometrically defined spaces and massive figures evaporated under the insistent scraping and nicking of the blade. On the brink of a definite phase in his career, Broota realised that a figure need not be imposed on a canvas. It could as well be coaxed, revealed or evacuated from its depths. This process unique to Broota, involves the over painting of the canvas with layers of paint, notably silver, deep ochres, and modified tones of black. This process of change, as he describes it, came through months of work that are 'spoilt' or 'rejected', through 'erasure' and 'struggle', which ends as a new method finally suggests itself.
The transition to a surface that resembles drawing, even as it rejects sharp deflations of line evokes two immediate comparisons. The first is to the painted figures of Rabindranath Tagore which with intense theatricality, seem to emerge from the darkened background of the stage or else, the unwilling recesses of the imagination. The other is of course the seductions of photography and of the negative that develops an image of blurred features, but a definitive frame. Or even the x-ray which reveals the primitivist skull and the bone structure, even as it blurs individual features. The process in Broota's work, is intuitive, but it may draw heavily on his long nurtured passion for photography and the intricacies of the photographic process.
The advent of the 1980's saw the mutation of the ape into the Man - essential, transitory, firmly athletic. Man wears a vest, even as his genitals are exposed, evoking the power of the athlete as if in a photographic freeze frame. In different series, Broota typically uses degrees of sexual suggestion in the male figure to denote power and erotic potential. In the labouring class the entire pelvic area is evacuated and rendered null, in the fat apes the demasculinized male politician is made to awkwardly wear bikinis. In the Man series - and subsequently the geomorphic landscapes - the articulation of a male sexual self is paramount. Yet it is visibly devoid of pleasure, even as it retains an elemental power. To quote Michel Foucault on Jean Martin Charcot's investigations on sexuality, "The essential point is that sex was not only a matter of sensation and pleasure, of law and taboo but also of truth and falsehood, that the truth of sex became something fundamental, useful or dangerous, precious or formidable: in short that sex was constituted as a problem of truth".
The 'problem of truth' for Broota seeks articulation at least at two levels. And it is difficult not to seek an interrelationship. In the series of paintings on Man that emerge through the1980's, the subject is essentially virile even as he engages in the act of aspiring, moving, suggestive of a singular type of resistance. Interspersed with this series however, are paintings of monumental penile forms that emerge from a geomorphic landscape. In this act of transference, from man to nature and then back again perhaps, the artist proffers the argument of the affirmation of the life force in its universalism, far beyond the immediate trials and unrealised desires of the individual self.
In the present series of four paintings there is a chronological evolution. The figure of Man has grown flabby with the passage of time. But his postures are perforce, defensive. In virtual and imminent collision with architectural forms of his own making, there is both resistance and a fatal inevitability. The torso in extreme close up, has a terrible vulnerability that appears to culminate in the recollections of old age. To play out the passage of destiny Broota used a photograph of the art critic and a long standing friend, Keshav Malik. Malik was stooping to sign a canvas utterly rapt in the act, when Broota photographed his face. The face appears like an interlocutor of man's destiny, the neck stretched out to assume the rivulets and eddies of the earth itself. Yet even in these paintings there are pictures that are alternatives of affirmation. If on the one hand there is decay and decrepitude, on the other, the continued need for bodily intimacy is objectified. Broota creates intimate possibilities that redeem man.
Readings of Rameshwar Broota must remain open-ended.
"Through many autumns have I toiled and laboured,
at night and morning through age-inducing dawnings.
Let husbands still come near their spouses.
Even as men did afore time,
law-fulfillers, who with the gods declared eternal statutes".
--- Hymn 394 in the Rig Veda
1. The Use of Pleasure: The History of Sexuality Vol 2 by Michel Foucault [Penguin 1992]
2. The Hymns of the Rig Veda vol 11 trans. By Ralph T.H. Griffith
3. The Shiva Purana [Trans and published by Motilal Banarsidass]