RAMESHWAR BROOTASelf Portrait, 1963, oil on canvas, 61 × 41 cm. Courtesy Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi.

Visions of Interiority: Interrogating the Male Body

Rameshwar Broota

Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

“Visions of Interiority: Interrogating the Male Body,” at Delhi’s Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), was the first comprehensive exhibition of Rameshwar Broota, a seminal figure of contemporary Indian art. Curated by art historian and KNMA chief curator Roobina Karode, the exhibition comprised five decades of Broota’s paintings, drawings and videos, offering an in-depth exploration of his life’s work.

The earliest work in the exhibition was an oil painting entitled Self Portrait (1963). In it, the young Broota’s gaze is fixed on something beyond the canvas. It is a gaze that one kept coming back to, in order to comprehend the trajectory of Broota’s oeuvre. The gaze is self-aware, evoking a hint of mischief that characterizes his perception of the world, both within and beyond the canvas, with equal parts humor and pain.

This gaze reappears in Broota’s work, manifesting as a form of unheimlich (the Freudian concept of the “uncanny”) whereby the artist—in the words of Freud—sees not the “aesthetics of beauty but the aesthetics of feelings.” In Broota’s work, the uncanny takes shape in his seething commentary on socioeconomic rifts, as well as in his preoccupation with ideas of the body, the absent, the invisible and the inward gaze. The latter concept is explored both metaphorically, in works that involve apes, headless figures and empty chairs, and literally, in works where he scrapes away paint on a canvas.

In his paintings from the 1970s, the uncanny reveals itself in the figure of an ape, in which satire is used to remind viewers that humans are in fact animals. In the hands of Broota, satire isn’t a mere allegory but a way to reveal the “familiar” as a discomforting reality of the world we live in. In works such as Anatomy of That Old Story (1970), the artist depicts himself and a peer as starved figures looking across at a privileged, monkey-like figure, who is laughing in delight at the full plate in front of her. This ape-like creature is a recurring motif in Broota’s paintings, be it in a group seated at a table having tea, or as a couple on a sofa in a plush, bourgeois setting. Ape-like creatures and headless figures in his other drawings from the same period add to one’s viewing experience of the morbid portrayed in Broota’s narratives of socioeconomic injustice.

In Broota’s monochromatic series from the 1980s, everything is stripped away, revealing an uncanny realm. The monumental paintings, while focusing on the male body, traverse all ideas of gender. The figures depicted are daunting and featureless, although some still hold traces of Broota’s ape-like creature. In Runners (1982), two figures are juxtaposed with what looks like a half-formed human torso. The work seemingly depicts the primal beginnings of “being,” where flesh is almost savage and carnal. Here, the uncanny realm has become “(corpo)real.” This experience of crossing over from the uncanny to the real is most evident in an early video work titled The Body (1985). Here the viewer confronts a similar torso-esque image, as it sweats, shines and breathes inconsistently to the sounds of loud and labored, rhythmic panting. This sense of exasperation transfers to viewers’ own reality, as unfamiliar elements confront them on the screen, including an eerie smoking man patting down the torso and soft feminine fingers that seem to trace the video’s imagery. It becomes imperative, then, to return to Broota’s self-portrait, and his stabilizing gaze, just to find one’s bearings.

Broota’s recent works are a study of consumerist culture and, while the sense of the uncanny is less prevalent in these projects, they continue to strike a chord with humans’ irreconcilable problem, whereby—in the words of American science-fiction writer Octavia Butler—we are made of two elements that cannot coexist, namely the “intellect” and “hierarchy,” in which the latter always subsumes the former.