Art: Inside the Studio

Rameshwar Broota: The Suspension of Matter

Rohit Chawla
Rosalyn D’Mello is an art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover
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Rameshwar Broota and the exploration of corporeal vulnerability

AS IF NARCISSUS wasn’t lured to the edge of a pool, but to the bleached-out interiors of an alienating hotel room. Thereupon, in a black-framed, full-length mirror, he gazes not at his whole body in the full bloom of youth, but a singular segment; his right leg, naked hip-onwards, save for socks. Besides a table full of technological paraphernalia, and the cornered layout of the room contained within the image, in focus is a subject meditating upon its reflection. The wall-mounted photograph, printed on Corning Gorilla Glass, has been taken at eye level. The mirror reveals the artist’s left leg that’s otherwise absent. His is a male body contending not with its beauty as much as its fragility, daring to behold it, daring to capture it through a digital lens, thus alleviating the predicament of having to confront with the naked eye the perilousness of the ageing self.

Indeed, Rameshwar Broota, a technophile, handholds a device that helps him gauge how the image will appear on the lens he’s strategically postured. His bodily gestures become a form of performance where both his muse and his audience, like Narcissus, is himself. The 78-year-old artist has rarely disguised his fascination for the male figure, having inflicted upon it, through the medium of painting, various forms of clinically administered violence. Whether obviously or inadvertently, the male figure usually refers back to himself. Incidentally, his now well-documented technique of layering his canvas, then lacerating its textured surface with a blade also began with him contending his reflection in front of a mirror one day, from morning to evening, impelling him to mimic its form on a canvas. Over two to three days, he applied layers of silver, ochre, burnt umber, and modified tones of black, often while each application was still wet. He then proceeded to extract a figure using a blade. When I’d met him at his retrospective, Visions of Interiority: Interrogating the Male Body, at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Saket, in November 2014, he’d told me how when he went to sleep the night he first began nicking paint with a sharp- edged blade, he had woken up shaken by a dream in which he was experiencing in a corporeal way, the violence of each gash. “It was as if I was scraping my own body,” he’d said.

AT HIS LATEST solo, Scripted in Time II, at Shridharani Gallery, Delhi, from January 28 th to February 12th, 2019, Broota’s established penchant for such laborious technique that seeks to arrive at self-revelation through some form of corporeal flagellation, via the materiality of his chosen mediums remained evident. Wrestling with it even put into perspective an observation made by one of his dearest friends, the late critic and writer, Keshav Malik, whose portrait Broota had on display in a corner of the gallery, as if to invoke his presence. Malik posited that Broota’s art was not built upon a ‘great’ idea, but upon a minute conscientious realisation, upon the attainable, upon a craft. He meant it as a compliment. ‘An artist of this order has to be a thorough craftsman, conversable in his chosen medium, and he at the same time has to be moral. By morality I mean he has to be true to the components he is using; he has to understand the attributes of the materials that are being orchestrated. Perhaps, even like a composer, he has to know what his instruments can do, what the field force will be like when they are placed together— or displaced,’ Malik wrote in his 2009 essay on Broota, titled ‘In Step with the Tortoise’, a reference to the slow and meditative nature of Broota’s practice. Malik argued that the artist should not be intimidated by prescriptive notions about how things can be put together— he shouldn’t be afraid to experiment. ‘To improvise, you have to have the skills that insure you against thinking only in terms of what might be workable.’

Broota’s studio, on the fourth floor of Triveni Kala Sangam, where, since he graduated from Delhi College of Art, he has served as head of the department of art, is a site that has witnessed his ceaseless exploration of painting as well as photography. His large-screened Mac has served as a canvas for the latter. Art historian Shukla Sawant summarised his relationship with this form of technology aptly in her 2007 essay, ‘In the First Person: Photography as Self- Introspection’. ‘For Broota, who acquired a computer as soon as it became available to the public at large, the screen is an easel, the mouse a brush, and the pursuit of a digitally perfected vision as solitary, lonely and emotionally involved a task as painting,’ she wrote. ‘It is a painterly engagement that draws him to the computer-generated image and not the virtual world of the Internet as a social/ public space to make art works for.’

Broota’s foray into sculpture began not with a great idea, but with the intent at something he was sure was attainable—a desire to preserve the tactility of sliced paper

Until three years ago, his studio primarily served as a space for these two mediums. His foray into sculpture began, like Malik summarised, not with a great idea, but with the intent at something he was sure was attainable—a desire to preserve the tactility of sliced paper. Sometime in 2016, Broota, who was sitting by his computer, found himself transfixed by a pile of shredded paper. “I thought, if this can be contained in some kind of very transparent, glassy medium, so it becomes a sculpture, as if inside the glass…” he explains during my visit. He soon went online and began to type in keywords like ‘liquid glass’ and ‘transparent acrylic’ until he arrived upon a potential material: epoxy resin, sourcing a quantity of it from America. When it arrived in his studio, he began experimenting with its properties. “I did some layering and poured it and placed some things into it… I thought it was wonderful,” he says.

He eventually arrived at the right ratio of resin and hardener. The two had to be mixed carefully and poured onto a contained surface and left to dry. Many setbacks ensued. What constituted a failure? I ask him. “Milkiness” is his answer. He was striving for a transparent viscosity, one that wasn’t murky in any way. Achieving the right effect, he soon learned, depended on various factors within and outside of his control, like temperature. He began to improvise, using exhaust fans, narrowing down the technique by regulating it over time. “When we mix the semi-liquid and pour it on some flat surface that has to be protected with something, like plastic tape, or a rubber mould, after 24 hours, it becomes hard, like glass. Then, whatever you want to draw or paint on it, you can,” he explains. “This is how I started writing or drawing, then adding another layer, then again writing and drawing, then another layer. Each day you add another layer, and so, you get all these kinds of depths.”

The end result is a sculptural form that encases a suspension of matter. Broota found himself drawing script-like forms that alluded to existing languages but had no real semantic connotation. Soon, he was incorporating an assortment of shredded paper, from old horoscopes to crumpled newspaper to torn notes, postcards, even his own photographic prints or elements from his own paintings, making his sculptures perform simultaneously as both tombs and shrines. He found himself playing with gravel-like material, using it as a form within which he would pour epoxy resin. His studio now resembles a laboratory with its traces of failures in the shape of rejected sculptures as well as recent success still lying in silicon moulds. He removes one ovoid result and allows me to hold it. It feels like liquid entrapped in the form of a solid. I see first- hand how he has even begun entombing his own X-Rays, evidence of mediums crossing over into each other’s territory. Intriguingly, he admits, that he can only work one medium at a time. Perhaps it is through this sculptural expedition that he has found a way to amalgamate both painting and photography. As a viewer, it’s difficult not to be infected by the audacity of such improvisation.

For Broota, the impelling artistic motive is to exercise agency over a medium in order to allow for his exploration of corporeal vulnerability. This inherent contradiction between how much authorial control he seeks to exercise over form and yet the sense of surrender that gets manifest through his wilful self- exposure in terms of his content is what makes his practice alluring. He articulates this tendency of his in Hindi: “command mein hai”. The repetitious nature of his evolved techniques draws from the realm of craft, while the content reveals a highly individuated subjectivity, a preoccupation with a soft-edged masculinity, one that is determinedly not alpha and that doesn’t derive from any conscious effort to establish its candour by posturing itself in relation to femininity. The female figure that does occasionally appear is that of his partner, Vasundhara, also an artist whose presence in Broota’s studio one finds in the form of text at the back of her packed-up paintings. In Scripted in Time II her sleeping form is the subject of one photograph taken by Broota, who admits to being an insomniac. It’s a tender image taken by someone who is unafraid to let us pry into the cocoon of the couple’s private intimacy. Its mode of looking is markedly different from the somewhat clinical manner that marks Broota’s study of his own body. It is Narcissus looking with a non-coveting yet loving gaze at a figure that is not him, per say, and is yet an extension of himself.

Broota’s decision to print and frame his photographs using Corning Gorilla Glass accounts for why they seem to fit in seamlessly with the display of the epoxy resin sculptures. There is a suspension of content and the two mediums seem to dialogue with each other. In his studio lie test prints of forthcoming experiments that disclose his eagerness to extend these recent experimentations. For instance, one photographic image present in the show, of Broota himself, seated on a chair, clothed in loose trousers and a banyan, one hand resting on his lap, is reiterated within the show, between the wall-mounted print and encased in a sculpture.

When we’re in his studio, he shows me slides of the image in a grouping of three that he’s arranged one above the other to create an animated image of a figure that exists in a simultaneous narrative form, like an unstable, unfixed being. Beyond where he holds the grouping that’s held together with a clip are rolls of cello tape in different shapes and sizes mounted on the wall. This is in the ‘office’-like section of his studio.

A few doors down the corridor is another studio space in which I find mugs and buckets bearing traces of the semi-liquid he has been using to make his sculptures. He shows me some of the milky rejects that nonetheless perform as testaments to the number of hours and days he spent labouring over their creation. He may have to destroy them. For the moment he’s placed them on a shelf as if as a reminder. Then he shows me a sculpture that’s still in progress, and it becomes increasingly obvious that at 78, Broota has found himself with a form that can possibly synthesise both the mediums in which he has been expressing himself for decades. His most recent work, left to dry on a wooden table, was still held within in the temporary rectangular border he made of masking tape to contain the fluid. Lying transparently was a chalk-like outline of a male figure reclining on his belly, while encased within many seamless layers were scraps of paper. Broota lifts it up so I can see how the sunlight passes through it. I think of the many digitally manipulated photographs Broota had in his show downstairs at Shridharani and his unabashed fixation with mirrors. I wonder if Broota’s recent and ongoing effort is in fact to transcend the comfort-zones of his previously considered themes and mediums so as to peer through and past a looking glass, thus extending the boundaries of the self, moving from reflection towards a solidified yet de-materialised state of being?

(Scripted in Time II will run at Vadehra Art Gallery from March 27 to April 29, 2019)