Keshav Malik essays

There are people who get very upset when it is said that painting nowadays tends to be uniform, dull and internationally conformist instead of being personal, local, individual and exciting. They reply to such charges - if such a comment can be called a charge --- that since it is possible to distinguish between the work of one abstract painter and another, this international manner is not uniform. Throw in a little lecture about feeling for colour and so on and you have the case for the defence of painting. It is natural when fashion holds full sway that it should sound outrageous when anyone dismisses the reigning favourites as not very important. Clearly when a certain kind of picture is chosen to adom the background of all advertisements for carpets, furniture, fabrics etc.., then this is the fashionable art of the day. It also follows that it must be harmless art.

It would be foolish to worry unduly about a situation which is historically so usual. What is a bit amazing is that painting of the kind that Rameshwar Broota practices does not by its impact cause those who make claims for a human order for abstract art, do a little rethinking. This painter and few others on Indian art scene have brought the human image back into the light of day in a shocking way. When paintings like Broota’s and others were seen earlier one thought that here is something which would defeat the technical and philosophical pundithood. For how could a man look at such immediate, almost tangible manifestations of the human spirit and then have recourse to the dusty jargon about feeling for colour and so on. Broota’s are competent paintings in the most painterly sense, and that is why they generally succeed as images that disturb one’s complacence. Remembering Broota’s own remarks are somewhat helpful here.

“Most people’s minds seem to turn away with a kind of distaste from the notion of allegory.” Of course for Broota it is important. Painter’s enthusiasms are a strange enough study. “Not everything in the world can be called by the right name: a spade is not always a spade. In painting and literature pointed allegory and the allegorical method are viewed with mistrust.”

But with Broota the vulgarity of bold realism is dying out. The mechanical universe is disappearing in monstrous monkey shapes, in barely imaginable dimensions, compared no longer to the homely and work day but to most unexpected things.

This and all the other factors in the general insecurity of mind and body in which we live today have served to discredit the naiveté of the old fashioned social realist painter. It is becoming clear that if pure fantasy, unrelated to reality, is dangerous, lunatic and irresponsible, pure observation, undirected by imagination or moral impulse, is almost meaningless.

So along these lines Broota defends his use of the allegorical in painting against those who have chosen plain abstraction or crass realism or ‘objectivity’ as the articles of faith. The literature of the past was in any case saturated with allegory. It is the art of expressing a relation between things which is not ordinarily perceived. And so one has Broota’s baboons at the conference table, or weighing merchandise with faulty scales! It is the art of throwing light on aspects of the world which are ordinarily disregarded, or of placing what is familiar in an atmosphere which will reveal something unexpected and unknown in the most unlikely social places; to it. Broota has recourse, since his teasing thoughts seem to have outrun the ordinary and accepted modes of expression. The deliberate cruelty of man to man, the isolation of individual from individual, is his matter, and rightly.

It may be objected that Broota is not a proper allegorist, but talking to him it becomes clear that it is impossible to restrict the word allegory to writers like Swift and others. The method is used more or less by all artists whatever their medium. A distinction can of course be made between allegory and symbolism. But both merge at some point. Broota’s are still- life narratives or descriptions. By their fantasticality and exaggeration Broota’s extremely well-drawn and polished apes mean more than the forms that meet the eye. Broota has his tongue in cheek and he admits it without betting an eyelid. He is however not an ‘intellectual’ but only a morally motivated person.

Broota’s whole upbringing, and the difficult days, has inspired him to stand against Kant and the present day fashion of Indianism and the Indian symbol at any cost. He is categorical on this point. He is not a lyrical being, nor a mystic, but what is rather rare on the Indian scene, an observer of the human situation and its appalling foibles. He has no pretensions and yet indeed is watchful of any hidden ones. In his paintings, the best of them, the effect of allegory as he testifies, is no accident, but the result of painstaking effort. He is a slow worker, and is meticulous. But without the fervour and vigour of his wry imagination the formal style would have been infective. Unless his allegory was in some sense true it would be flat: without it, with all his skill his would have been banal, or aseptic.

Only some painter watch their step as carefully as Broota. He has little of the humanity of maudlin humanists, none of the gentleness of saints. His is a savage indignation, in which a crisp style is being forged. He makes use of alternation in scale and we observe the absolute power which his creatures can exercise over ordinary mortals. But in the end his monkeys are like us. He lampoons even himself often enough. Thus, in his viewpoints, vanity and casualty and the avarice of everyday life are freshly perceived.

This admirable method suits Broots’s satire which appears derived from his admiration for the simple, together with his dislike for the petty and the mean, the overcomplicated and the pretentious. Still it is this simplicity which makes possible Broota’s commendable concentration, a composition’s close-knitness, like a pointed instrument.

A painter, if he is worth anything creates painting with the whole of himself. Thus Broota’s work, and his view, excite either loyalty or animosity. And that may be saying something.

Keshav Malik

First published in Lalit Kala Contemporary, 1973.

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