Studies of his own anatomy have become digital fragments on archival prints. But, the 1963 canvas is a far cry from his present-day personality. The self-portrait at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) has a lanky Rameshwar Broota. Student of Fine Art at Delhi College of Art, he stares at the mirror through the corner of his eyes. Now with brows thick, strands of white in his hair, he paints in oil.
“In college I was known for my portraits,” says the 73-year-old.
When he started his artistic career though, he was to completely refrain from the genre, trotting the path of depicting human condition instead. Traversing through the city, from his home in Rajouri to Triveni Kala Sangam, he was plagued with what he saw; the labourers on the Capital’s streets appeared on his canvases as stark figures of emaciated men, their ribs protruding, and sharing tables with flesh-eating gluttons.
At KNMA, Broota recalls that period vividly. “There was a lot of gloom, poverty that I saw,” he says. People walking into the museum have before them distinct phases of Broota, in a retrospective of five decades, which has works sourced from world over. The Head of the Art Department at Triveni Kala Sangam confesses of being far from prolific. “There aren’t more than six-seven paintings each year, and when I’m practising photography that too becomes difficult,” he says. The most recent work New Arrivals shows new leanings — a comment on smart marketing. Leather jackets and torn jeans occupy the large-than-life canvas, which Broota describes as “representation of new-age fashion, where torn jeans too can be sold as fashion and has several takers”
Satire is not new to Broota. He lampooned politicians during Emergency in the ’70s. An untitled 1977 painting has three miniature monkeys on a pink sofa, against a backdrop of painted leaves. Broota had creatures of the jungle inside the drawing room making rules.
Slowly, apes gave way to men as less-evolved sapiens. Broota was on the verge of a new technique, of carving images by scraping out layers of monochromatic paints with sharp edges of a broken blade. Discovered in the summer of 1979, this was to remain with him; in the Metamorphosis series primordial landscapes were layered with a carpet of flesh and veins and phallic symbols.
Slowly men receded and architectural forms came to the fore, with archaic scripts and hieroglyphs floating on canvas. They were to resurface in the next century, in fragments, juxtaposed with man-made objects occasionally. The long career had few women — the lone female we see in his wife Vasundara on a triptych. On a chequered backdrop, she is oblivious of the men around her. “I was always scared that I would paint them beautiful,” says the artist, who even faced the brunt of painting morbid and “near-repulsive” depictions. “There were hardly any sales,” recalls Broota. Those days are far gone — takers for his work are in the waiting.
The exhibition at KNMA is on till December 20.