Sometimes I wonder how different my life would be if I never went to another art exhibition, read another novel or poem or listened to another musical performance. It would be lesser, of course, without the banquet of earthly delights to wonder at and rejoice in; and would leave me without the comfort of a shared historical and cultural narrative as well as being party to the network of references and insights that artists share with anyone who chooses to enter their world.
Absorbing the artist’s ideas and making them one’s own- or simply reflecting on them- across a different culture always raises questions if not barriers. However, the story of a group of farming folk from the backwoods of Rajasthan seeing explicitly sexual Khahjuraho sculptures would belie this assumption.
“How beautiful is the act of love,” they exclaimed.
For the good people of the right-wing puritanical Vishva Hindu Parishad just the thought of an exhibition put on by the excellent Delhi Art Gallery titled, “The Naked and the Nude” was enough to march angrily to the arty hang-out of Hauz Khas village and stage a raucous protest at the “commodification of women’s bodies and pornographic nature” of over a hundred years of painting the human form.
As someone put it, “There is no comfort level (in India) with the idea of a sexual woman.” As ever, she is either madonna or a loose woman- witness the level of debate that followed the recent terrible violation of a young woman. She should not have been out at that time of the evening, she should not have been with a young man. in fact it was made out by her defenders that the young man who’d gone to the cinema with her was just a “friend,” not a boyfriend. Even an earlier description of him as her “fiancee” was quickly erased. So selective are we in our perceptions of reality: that women must be treated as mother, saint, goddess, or slut is only one aspect of our ability to grasp the world in any sort of holistic way. Another example could be, sweep your courtyard and fling your dirt where it isn’t visible; eat in a “themed”, airconditioned restaurant with an open sewage drain running outside. Examples of evasion and not having the intelligence to “bear too much reality” would amount to volumes.
Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941) was a strange hybrid of European and Indian. A gorgeous Frida Kahlo look-alike, strong browed, fearless and talented, she came back from Paris and Hungary to seek a vision and palette in Simla and Lahore. Tate Britain showed her paintings a few years ago. Her nudes, in our own National Gallery, somehow escape censure. “Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse and many others, India belongs only to me.”
Kishore Singh, a director of Delhi Art Gallery, kindly gave AshaRani and me a guided tour of his exhibition, emphasizing that the naked form expresses the painter’s intention and attitude in a very different way to the clothed form. It can be political, as in Nageshkarv’s colonial objectivisation
or an argument for widening one’s perspective.
Is this how you see me? A compendium of domestic concerns?
But I am also Laxmi Goud’s elusive and exquisite beauty.
And a loved woman
Compare the above pictures with Raja Ravi Varma’s 19th century coy depiction of a woman’s body and note the close historical parallels with art in Europe.
I wonder if Modern Art would host this interesting exhibition for us to view in Oxford. What a contrast to the raw pink flesh of Jenny Saville’s huge canvases of clinically observed bodies which I viewed with fascinated if horrified admiration last summer.
I’d love my friends to see the spectrum of talent and genius from India, ranging from the most tender of studies to the misogyny and playfulness of Francis Newton Souza.