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South Asian Art - In Memory Of Prashant Fadia

Razvin Namdarian

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Indian Nudes and Prudes

Nudism has long been a controversial issue in art through the ages. The artist has always argued on the grounds of the beauty of the human form and artistic licence. The ‘keepers of morality’ have argued on the corruption of the human mind with art that is dubbed ‘indecent’. Indeed even the famous Michelangelo had to face censure when the Pope asked him to paint fig leaves on Adam and Eve!

Strangely enough India is a country of extremes and radical opposites, here we have ‘Bollywood’ which for decades was forced to portray any form of physical intimacy between characters by a show of lovebirds or flowers coming together and which still faces censorship issues if, heaven forbid, the actors kiss on the lips. Then we have the oft shown example of the Khajuraho temples where not only nudity, but the Kamasutra and all forms of lessons in physical love, are portrayed on the carved panels. It has indeed become a cliché that whenever one speaks of censorship in art, those against it will invariably site the example of Khajuraho and Kamasutra!

Can one trace the origins of nudism in Indian art? The Ajanta and Ellora frescos have an element of nudity as do most temple art in India. The Lajja Gouri, is one Indian deity that is always depicted nude, so is Goddess Kali in some instances. The miniature art of painting that is a legacy of the Mughals also has many examples of nudity. So when did the Indian sensibility move from almost revering the nude human form by giving it a home in temples to almost outright banning it for the common man? Could it be a hangover from the prudish era of British rule?

Post- colonial India saw artists waking up to new influences and experimentations in art. Pablo Picasso’s nudes and rebellious style of painting rocked the art world. F N Souza, Akbar Padamsee are some of the famous artists who also have a repertoire of nudes. Padamsee himself has once lamented that people shy away from buying nudes for fear of what the domestic help or neighbours would say. M F Hussain has received much flak for his portrayal of Indian goddesses in the nude, even being forced to live in exile for fear of physical harm by religious fanatics.

Essentially according to those who appreciate art, when an artist renders a nude, he is showing the true human form, stripped of all the affectations of adornments or raiment’s of clothing. It is through nudity that an artist can bring the king and the beggar down to the same level – nudity could well be seen as the great leveller! Besides, why is the human form perceived as being shameful? Artist Chitra Ganesh’s artworks abound with nudity, with eyes in the place of breasts and gaping wounds being shown as full ruddy lips. And her works are very much in demand, though one needs add that the artist lives and works in the US where nudity is not such a taboo topic.

One does not presume to condone nudity in the public sphere, we are not talking here of nude billboards being put up. If an artist chooses to exhibit his art in a gallery space where any visitor is making an effort to go and see the work, then it should not attract censorship. Such nudity in art is not being forced upon a person not comfortable with it. Also, most nude paintings tend to be representational, to the extent that while appreciating the artwork, one may not even consider the nude aspect of it.

The arguments for nudity in art are many, however, the bottom line remains that nudity makes the Indian population uncomfortable. When a famous artist chooses to make nudes it gives the politicians a platform to air their views about protecting Indian morality. It will be cold day in hell before the majority of Indian society overcomes its prudish nature.

~ Razvin Namdarian

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