Grappling with Nudity in Indian Art

2I started this blog few years ago, on a day that saw M.F. Husain’s paintings being taken off India Art Summit. Outraged and anguished, I ended up writing a few lines..mostly to vent I suppose.

Husain had painted some paintings of Hindu Goddesses in the nude and *that* became his crime. That some intellectual illiterates with no understanding of art and more importantly Hinduism, a religion I was born into, a religion I am attuned to and a religion I hold close to my heart were decrying and debasing works of a prolific Indian artist seemed akin to a personal attack and affront. Interestingly, that gut reaction occurred when I hadn’t studied art, had never taken even half a course  in it, busy as I was managing brands at an MNC. However upon moving to NYC, a city that breathes all things artsy, few things seemed destined…and studying Art History at Columbia University, a university renowned for this discipline felt as organic as listening to Moonlight Sonata whilst staring at the river and twinkling city lights out my apartment window.

An entire circle of sorts was completed when I found myself  reading  Tapati Guha Thakurta’s Art History and the Nude: On Art, Obscenity, and Sexuality in Contemporary India, a chapter from her book Monuments, Objects, Histories: Institutions of Art in Colonial and Postcolonial India. It’s a book I can’t recommend enough for anyone even remotely interested in art history and archeology as disciplines in contemporary  India. No surprises then that I chose to write a review of that chapter as a part of my coursework.

Few things happened while writing the review: one, I could now comprehend better the reasons for my anger at the India Art Fair occurrence   and two, I could understand why the people of India remained largely mum at the Husain fiasco. The confusion that exists in the mind of an average Indian (with little or no understanding of his country’s artistic tradition) is obvious to see. We have an overtly sexual artistic heritage straddling the spiritual and erotic with equal ease. This is witnessed in the full breasted, thin waisted, and broad hipped yakshis gracing the Sanchi stupa dating to the second century B.C or the unabashed sexual imagery covering the medieval temples of Khajuraho. What were these images doing on temples and stupas? Why did our rich miniature painting tradition blatantly show loving couples, kissing and copulating?

What is quite clear is that with the arrival of Islam in India and thereafter the British with their Victorian sensibilities, this very artistic heritage quickly became an embarrassment. That is the soft spot that the ‘Hindu’ right stabbed and shamed by targeting a maverick ‘Muslim’ painter. Husain made for an easy and soft target, given the bigoted rhetoric that was at play, a rhetoric with absolutely NO backing of the religion it was ostensibly ‘protecting’. India has just elected a right wing party into power. Yes, my heart did sink for many a reason, not the least of which is this kind of obvious, insufferable gundaism that the right subscribes to.

In any case, understanding the Indian nude, its passage through time and the place it occupies in the social framework of India today makes for an absolutely riveting and fascinating study.

Here is my review of Tapati’s work. It’s the shortest paper I’ve written so hopefully won’t make for a difficult read. Do glance through, if only to get  sense of where we were and where we are; to get a sense of what Hinduism was, and what it’s now claimed to be.

(There may be some formatting errors since I am copying and pasting this, so do excuse those.)

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Having grown up in what is referred to as modern India, I can say with some confidence that ‘uncomfortable’ is a good word to describe an average Indian’s feeling towards the nudity in art. In Art History and the Nude: On Art, Obscenity, and Sexuality in Contemporary India,Tapati Guha Thakurta tries to answer some pertinent albeit tricky questions about when and how nudity or semi-nudity of female figures became a problem in Indian art history. She exposes the tangle of religious and aesthetic meanings as both competing and corresponding frameworks of artistic interpretation, and probes deeper anxieties centering around the female nude, a figure imbued in contemporary India with concerns of tradition, religion, morality, and national identity.To set stage, she cleverly juxtaposes two recent occurrences, a spotlight tinged with national pride that shines on the sexually charged imagery of Khajuraho temples and an unfortunate controversy around the prolific Indian painter Maqbool Fida Husain. Both these occurrences revolve around the Indian nude in art; one celebrates it while the other condemns it, and between them they cover an entire range of emotions and attitudes to the nude.

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A painful episode unfolded for liberal Indians in the 1990s with the alarming and embarrassing witch-hunt of the flamboyant M.F. Husain. Husain’s crime was that he, a Muslim, had painted nudes of Hindu Goddesses. That he had a huge body of work of which these constituted but a small part was completely overlooked by the right wing. Wanting to score brownie points with their vote-banks in the aftermath of the Babari Masjid demolition controversy, the right wing shaped this ‘issue’ astutely into a controversy and attacked Husain. His work, they propounded, was an insult and an offense to Hindu sensibilities. Several paintings of Husain’s were removed from galleries and some were even vandalized and burned. There were violent demonstrations and he was banned from entering the city of Ahmedabad. The saddest part of this tragic tale was that the harassment reached such bizarre heights that the nonagenarian was forced to leave India in the last years of his life. And to bring the absurdity of all that happened into focus, at the center of this was a painting of a bony and taut Saraswati, lacking any tactile simulation of female flesh, where the iconographic attributes of the Goddess, though present, are never foregrounded1.

To defend and contextualize Husain’s work, art historians tried drawing attention to the Indian tradition of full bodied, unclothed female sculpted figures, medieval temple complexes like Khajuraho and Konaraka replete with nude imagery or the ritual and religious validity of nudity in Indian iconographic traditions such as the depictions of a nude Goddess Kali or even more extremely, Lajja Gauri, the female icon of fertility in the Deccan. What these arguments were saying was that a bare female body was an inalienable feature of the iconography of Hindu art, indeed even Goddesses, and that such depictions were fully within the realm of the aesthetic. Despite all arguments, the general mood remained strongly anti–Husain. Husain further went on to make a movie called Gajagamini and a series of overtly sexually charged paintings of his muse Madhuri Dixit, an Indian actress. While he did like to push boundaries, it would be fair to argue, as Guha Thakurta does, that it was a part of his creative prerogative. He ought not to be bracketed by, or answerable to, any age-old Indian tradition.

Another critically astute observation made by Guha Thakurta in this regard is that the Husain controversy could not have gained the traction it did, as quickly as it, in the absence of a fertile ground for the seeds of mistrust and intolerance to grow.It becomes rather obvious that once the genteel veneer of India is scratched, unresolved tensions, prejudices and a basic illiteracy in, and ignorance of art and art history come to the fore.The nude in India has been a continual source of both enigma and unease given the blurred boundaries between art, religion and morality in past tradition. This controversy therefore exposes a wide rift that exists between the nude as an entrenched symbol of high art and the nude as a target of popular, public disapproval, pitting the aesthetic and the moral as two opposing modes of encounter2.

Interestingly, when recovered as an object of art, the nude is accorded full religious sanction of Hinduism. This development too however, took a long time coming in postcolonial India. To start with, the explicitly erotic content of several temple sculptures gave rise to more questions than answers. British officers and scholars of the early nineteenth century caught up in their Victorian sensibilities, found these sculptures embarrassing and shameful. Even early Indian art historians were at a loss to explain the abundance of erotic imagery. What were these figures doing in temples of all places!

Embracing of the erotic came to be over decades and Guha Thakurta gives a good summary of how it came about. Post a classification of monuments in the late nineteenth century, most of Indian painting and sculpture came into its own at the start of the twentieth century after breaking away from Eurocentric biases and misconceptions. Between 1920s-1930s in a new line of scholarship by the likes of Stella Kramrisch, V.S. Agrawala and Coomaraswamy, ‘style’ came to be regarded as a prime pivot for the dating and periodization of sculpture as well as for understanding meanings of forms and motifs. Throughout these scholarly pursuits it was imperative to resist the conflation of various nude, seminude voluptuous female bodies on display with Mithuna and Maithuna (loving) couples so as to be able to consider them (female nudes) within their own references. As was wont to happen, over time and genres the feminine body came to be endowed with several meanings – from primeval associations with nature and fertility toan external guise for the hidden spiritual physiognomy of the sculpted figure3.By the 1940s, equal weightage was accorded to both the simplistic purity of Buddhist sculptures and the overtly ornamented and eroticized medieval ones. In a stunning reversal, the sensual was anointed an innate attribute of the Indian art tradition. And finally, as a natural progression to this, eroticism ‘arrived’ by the 1960s-1970s marking the large body of sensual images guilt-free and available for true appreciation.

This was also a time when the Indian nude was valorized as an integral feature of Hindu religion and aesthetics, devoid as it now was of the prudishness and revulsion that had shadowed it in face of India’s colonial past. Much was done to forge a new identity of the nude and to distinguish it from its western counterpart. In this context says Guha Thakurta, the popular sensual/spiritual distinction was deployed by contrasting the idealized and stylized concept of the Indian body with the naturalistic, western one. Furthermore, it was also argued by several scholars that the Indian nude in all its seductive charm was never completely nude. It was invariable the body adorned, as Vidya Dehejia states in her book of the same name. Alankara (ornament) always includes clothing, as indeed does shringara, a word that means “adornment” in addition to being the term for erotic rasa4.

 

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Similar meaning and spiritual symbolism was employed by art historians to explain the stunning temple site of Khajuraho with its enthralling, erotic imagery. Routinely referred to in epithets as clichéd as “Temples of Love” or “Divine Ecstasy”, these temples are well known in both popular and scholarly realms. Information generated by scholarly circles on the symbolism, iconography and dates of these temples is readily lapped up by tourist guides, coffee table books, pamphlets and fed back to the public in increasingly marketing savvy ways. There are only sixteen panels concentrated in three large temples (of total temple complex of twenty-two) that show sexually explicit imagery. Clearly then, these panels form a small part of a larger architectural and sculptural temple plan, a plan that goes unnoticed in light of the disproportionate attention lavished on panels displaying erotic content.

Sometime in the 1960s, with scholars stressing on interpretations beyond the literal, Khajuraho became an emblem for celebrating the sexual, given the more philosophical, spiritual and abstruse levels of meaning assigned to it with the help of textual, mythological, and ritual references. Several scholars, most prolific of who is Devangana Desai, have tried to understand and explain the erotic objects at Khajuraho. According to her, the best way to read these temples was to move beyond literal ‘tantric’ interpretations to more complex symbolism between the meaning these sculptures might carry and the textual imagery of religious vocabulary of the time these were constructed. Shobita Punia is another scholar who reads into these sculptures the legend of the divine marriage of Shiva and Parvati and its consummation. Attempts were therefore being made repeatedly to embrace Indian art for what it was, spiritual and symbolic. Thus, just as the voluptuous yakshis proliferating ancient Indian monuments were decoded as motifs of fertility, sexual depictions on the walls of the Khajuraho temples became emblematic of the consummation of the divine marriage of Shiva and Paravati and, more abstractly, of the removal of duality and merger of the opposing cosmic principles of Shiva and Shakti, Purusha and Prakriti5. One finds spiritual and metaphysical interpretations providing religious and aesthetic sanction to erotic Indian art almost everywhere and it was these interpretations that brought Khajuraho into the folds of Indian art history triumphantly, squashing all stigma, making it proud of its erotic heritage.

In all of this what is evident is that despite all its modernity, artists, their works and movements in India somehow need to be anchored in the lineage of Indian art tradition, in the nation’s past for to be authenticated, accepted and embraced. Maybe this need is an unavoidable outcome of a five thousand year old heritage but it does sometimes seem to be just that, unavoidable. In the case of Husain, whose modernistic artworks were based on a select coding of national themes, motifs and “a complex structure of citations” drawn from Indian mythology6, the modern, traditional and national boundaries conflated and combusted.

In conclusion, to get a sense of where and how the Indian nude is currently placed and the journey it has travelled in contemporary India, this piece by Guha Thakurta is a must-read. By skillfully contrasting the Khajuraho case study (with its pride in the Indian nude) with the Husain example (showcasing an innate discomfort with the nude), she highlights the sharply divided space the Indian nude occupies. While a little long drawn, the piece is thoroughly interesting; especially its ruthlessly incisive conclusions. Guha Thakurta exhibits a splendid strength of conviction by outing the fine line that divides the erotic from the obscene, the aesthetic from the pornographic7. From the continued proliferation of Khajuraho’s sexual imagery into public forums in posters, hotel lobbies and souvenirs to Husain’s self-indulgent voyeurism apparent in his overtly sexualized caricaturing of the ideal Indian woman in Gajagamini, she states that both sexual allure and titillation find authentication in the name of tradition7. In the wider context of a religiously, politically, nationalistically and culturally charged India, art historical resolutions tread an uncertain ground as the line between the sacred, secular, moral, immoral, art or crass become impossible to fix. On the eve of the possibility of an impending right wing government coming into power in India, it becomes imperative to watch these lines and keep an eye out for where and how the Indian nude will move next.

Notes:

  1. Guha-Thakurta, Tapati. Monuments, objects, histories: institutions of art in colonial and postcolonial India. Columbia University Press, 2004. PP. 248
  2. Guha-Thakurta, Tapati. Monuments, objects, histories: institutions of art in colonial and postcolonial India. Columbia University Press, 2004. PP. 247
  3. Guha-Thakurta, Tapati. Monuments, objects, histories: institutions of art in colonial and postcolonial India. Columbia University Press, 2004. PP. 255-256
  4. Dehejia, Vidya. The Body Adorned: Sacred and Profane in Indian Art. Columbia University Press, 2013. PP. 24
  5. Guha-Thakurta, Tapati. Monuments, objects, histories: institutions of art in colonial and postcolonial India. Columbia University Press, 2004. PP. 244
  6. Guha-Thakurta, Tapati. Monuments, objects, histories: institutions of art in colonial and postcolonial India. Columbia University Press, 2004. PP. 253
  7. Guha-Thakurta, Tapati. Monuments, objects, histories: institutions of art in colonial and postcolonial India. Columbia University Press, 2004. PP. 266

References:

  1. Guha-Thakurta, Tapati. Monuments, objects, histories: institutions of art in colonial and postcolonial India. Columbia University Press, 2004
  2. Dehejia, Vidya. The Body Adorned: Sacred and Profane in Indian Art. Columbia University Press, 2013.

 

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