The Naked, and the Death of Free Expression

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HIGH NOON. The culture wars of the last month are going to escalate: the intelligentsia will fight back. An email from the Delhi Art Gallery the night before appealed to all right thinking individuals to show up and join a “peaceful protest group… against fundamentalist groups asking for the closure of its historic show on the human body in Indian modern art”. The fundamentalist groups in question are the Durga Vahini and Matri Shakti, the two women’s wings (for women below and above the age of 35, respectively) of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), which forced the gallery on 4 February to temporarily shut down their exhibition, The Naked and the Nude that features almost 260 paintings by 60 artists, including MF Husain, FN Souza, KH Ara and K Laxma Goud. Their argument is that the exhibition is an immoral act, which depicts women as sex objects, and that it should not be allowed so soon after the brutal Delhi gangrape.
The gallery in New Delhi’s Hauz Khas Village — easy to find because of the number of OB vans parked outside — is preparing itself for a siege: the police has set up barricades, while security guards crowd the entrance to keep people without press cards or the right connections out. There are no fundamentalists in sight. Inside, a dozen or so culture warriors have shown up in solidarity, and are already outnumbered by journalists seeking sound bites. “If the Naga sadhus can be naked in front of 100 million people, why can’t we artists portray nudity in art?” asks artist Veer Munshi. “(The protesters) need an agenda to be radical, and this is just a pretext to get media attention.”
“This is a one-sided debate,” says Nilanjana Roy, a journalist and literary critic, who was among those rallying the troops. “We may argue freedom of expression, how nudes are part of our heritage, but all they need to do to win is show up. There is always the threat of violence against the artworks, or worse, against people.” Indeed, the threat of violence has been key to this ‘cultural emergency’, subverting all chances for an informed debate on the issues, and allowing the Tamil Nadu government, for instance, to ignore a Censor Board clearance and cancel screenings of Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam in the state.
In one corner of the gallery, facing a bevy of cameras, is the man at the centre of this particular storm. Kishore Singh is the head of exhibitions at the gallery, and is “shocked and appalled” by the fact that his serious academic exercise of mapping the depiction of the human body in modern Indian art has been hijacked by politics. “Why are they protesting an art show?” he asks, incredulously. “They should be reacting to the Khap panchayats, to bride burning, to female foeticide. They should be incensed by the lack of development in this country.” He finds the contention that the exhibition objectifies women to be especially preposterous, pointing out how the modern masters he has featured use the nude form to feed a narrative about their subject, precisely the opposite of objectification.
Our conversation is interrupted by a phone call: a busload of protesters has arrived. The TV crews have already left to meet them. Chanting slogans against the gallery, a group of around 50 women marches on the barricades. Leading them are Simi Ahuja, the convenor of Matri Shakti, and Kusum Chauhan, vicepresident of the Durga Vahini. As the angry protesters chant, the television cameras surround Ahuja and Chauhan. No, they’re not against freedom of expression, they say, but the timing of the show is atrocious. Someone yells Khajuraho, the default argument in this longrunning debate. “Khajuraho was a different era,” says Ahuja. “It was the era of the Ramayana, where Laxman would not look above Sita’s ankles. Now, every woman, whether she is 16 or 60, is objectified by men. How can you then have an exhibition of naked women?” The running TV cameras stop me from pointing out that the Khajuraho temples were built some 1,000 years after the Ramayana was written, but horological concerns aside, the appropriation of the language of misogyny seems curious. Barely an hour ago, Kanchan Chander — a female painter known for her nudes — had told me, “I’m over 50, but even I get harassed on the road. These painters, through their sensitive treatment of the female form, have battled the objectification that women face.” Ahuja, who says she saw the exhibition earlier and was disgusted, says that her organisation is working for gender sensitisation of the youth. But what about painters like Jogen Chowdhury, whose paintings depicting women and the violence they face have been lauded by viewers and critics alike, I ask her. “Is the youth ready to appreciate the meaning of such art?” she replies. A fellow scribe asks her if she can name a few artists who have been exhibited. “I don’t want to comment on that,” she says.
Ahuja insists on camera that they will protest the exhibition every day until it is shut down, and that the protests will be non-violent. I ask Chauhan if that is indeed the case. She agrees, but a man standing next to her says that if peaceful protests do not work, they will turn to violence. He identifies himself as Vishnu Gupta, president of the Hindu Sena. I ask Chauhan for her reaction. “The Durga Vahini will not get violent,” she says. “Lekin agar seedhi ungli se ghee nahin nikalti to ungli tedhi karni hoti hai. We might get our brothers in the Bajrang Dal to intervene.” I put this statement to Ahuja, who dismisses it as the recklessness of youth. She calls over a pot-bellied man, who she says is her legal adviser, to confirm to me that they will not turn violent. “You can’t get much with non-violence,” he says, shaking his head, but refuses to comment further. Another man comes by, and they take Ahuja aside. Five minutes later, another journalist asks her the same question. “I will only be able to comment on our future plans after consulting our legal advisers,” she says. The ‘legal adviser’, who repeatedly directs the two leaders on how to manage the protesters, refuses to give his name or affiliation, saying only that he is here to make sure the women don’t have to face the police alone.
As minor scuffles break out, the protesters shift their ire to the police. “Why don’t you take off your clothes and stand nude?” one woman asks the policewomen, who, to their credit, do not react. “Even your mother would make similar statements if she was here,” says Ahuja, when I point it out to her. We eventually agree to leave my mother out of it, but the belligerence does not stop.
THE DEPICTION of nudity in art has a chequered history in India. The case of MF Husain, forced to leave the country because Hindu fundamentalists objected to his nude paintings of goddesses, has been well documented. Last year, artist Pranava Prakash was attac ked by a small group of protesters during an exhibition in Noida, where he had displayed nude paintings of the rather more secular Vidya Balan and Poonam Pandey. Nor, however much they use the rhetoric of female objectification, is the indignant right restricted to protesting only female nudity. Last January, Balbir Krishnan, a double-amputee, was brutally assaulted by an activist offended by his new series of male nudes.
It was the case brought against Akbar Padamsee — one of the artists exhibited here — that provided legal cover for painters to display nudes in galleries. “In 1954, I had an exhibition at the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai, where I showed a painting with nude figures, called Lovers,” he recalls. “A police inspector saw it and asked me to take it down. I refused, telling him that only a judge could order that. I got a notice and was taken to the Small Causes Court. The judge there ruled in my favour.” The High Court, which heard the appeal, ruled that the police had no right to enter galleries.
“Nudes are part of our cultural tradition,” says artist Anjolie Ela Menon. “I have a Chola bronze statuette of Parvati in the nude. Kali is traditionally stark naked. Gods and goddesses have historically appeared naked in our art. And this is not just limited to the carvings at the Khajuraho temple.” Singh, however, refuses to make the Khajuraho argument to justify his exhibition. “This is a defensive argument,” he says. “I don’t need that validation. Why go back 1,000 years to defend what is happening now?” Choosing to focus on modern Indian art, he says that learning to draw nudes is — and has been for over a century in this country — an essential part of an artist’s education as it helps one grasp how to draw the human form. (He does say, however, that places like Khajuraho are some of the most wonderful classrooms for all artists.) Indeed, the oldest paintings in the exhibition are a pair of 1900 studies of male nudes by AP Bagchi, part of explorations in ethnography by British and Indian artists at the time. A number of artists not known for their nudes, or, for that matter, painting the human form, have works exhibited, such as Jamini Roy, known more for his ethnic prints, and the landscape painter Chittaprosad, whose nudes, Singh says, have a Reubenesque quality.
“The nude began as a study,” says Singh, “before artists developed it as something sensuous. Later, they realised that they could use the naked form to create a narrative. It did not matter whether the body was clothed or not. Apparel became a distraction at this point.” Menon says she doesn’t like clothing her figures because she doesn’t want to situate them historically or geographically. “There is something very universal about a nude figure,” she says. The exhibition shows how various artists use the naked form in different ways to make different points. Souza, for instance, has a complicated relationship with his nudes; a result, Singh says, of his complicated relationship with women. Many of his pieces are virile and angry (to the extent that a publicity manager for the gallery requested journalists not to publish them for fear that they might mischaracterise the entire exhibition as misogynist), but there are also more sensuous, respectful works. Husain’s works, meanwhile, are tamer, more sober, with amazing iconography, which makes it doubly perplexing that of all 60 artists, the VHP would demand most vehemently that his pieces be removed.
Nudity is also used to make a political statement, to show human degradation, as Munshi puts it. An untitled piece by B Prabha shows a half-naked woman with her dead son on her lap, looking askance at the heavens. Then there are works by Jogen Chowdhury and Bikash Bhatta charjee showing the humiliations faced by women. Bhattacharjee’s Ceremony, for instance, shows the shame of a woman whose hair has been shorn as part of an initiation, while Chowdhury, who Singh says saw the human as a corrupt being, shows a woman butchered to pieces in Yellow Flower.
The various artists TEHELKA spoke to had various interpretations of why artists use nudity and how nudity came to be used in Indian art, but show no ambiguity on whether the nude in mainstream Indian art is vulgar. “It is the people who make charges of obscenity and vulgarity who have the worst minds,” Padamsee says. If only such a debate could have taken place between the two sides. That was not to be, however. “Yes, we can have a debate,” said Ahuja. “But first, they should close the exhibition, and if they win, they can reopen it.” She relented, it seems, for a police officer made his way to the gallery and told the authorities that the protesters wished an audience. Singh refused. “Let them withdraw their protest first; only then will I entertain them.”
An hour later, the crowd had disper – sed. Did the protesters leave first or the TV cameras, I asked a policeman. “They left together,” he said with a chuckle.
With inputs from Aradhna Wal

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