New Delhi: The study of the nude has been central to the history of Indian art in its journey from prehistoric cave art, the temples of Khajuraho, Vatsayan`s Kamasutra to modern portraitures by masters across genres and mediums despite the growing protests by right-wing groups.
What role can carnal play in high art?
"At a more popular level, in folk and tribal art, erotic motifs and symbols are a recurring theme. In both forms, erotica again plays a dual role: it is seen as cultic, religious practices and in the recreational activities of communities," says critic-curator Alka Pande in her book, ‘Indian Erotica’.
Pande says the human body can be used in art to portray social realities as well.
In 1954, artist Akbar Padamsee found himself in court defending a painting, ‘The Lovers’.
Controversy had broken out that the naked couple on Padamsee`s canvas represented modern decadent values, says a new book on art, ‘The Naked and the Nude: The Body in Modern Indian Art (Delhi Art Gallery)’.
Recalling Indian art`s early encounters with nudity, the book says Mumbai artists, bred on Parisian Bohemianism, led the "still largely imagined lifestyle of Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, known for their sensuous iconography, beautiful models and equally famous dalliances".
According to the book, in Calcutta too, artists used live models, but it was Mumbai that had been the hub of portrait painters.
"What provided offence was not the subject of the nude as much as its distortion," the book says.
In one of the galleries of the National Gallery of Modern Art are two paintings ‘Sleep’ and ‘Woman at Bath’ by Amrita Sher-Gil, which show her matured approach to painting the human body.
In ‘Sleep’ - painted in 1933 - Sher-Gil used sister Indira as the model to paint a sensuous woman in bed. The ‘Woman at Bath’, painted in 1940, distorts the nude form to create something more vital and basic, showing her artistic mastery over the human body.
In a 1934 work, the artist used her own self as a model "with full breasts and a mere wrap around her waist in a nod to the Tahitian nudes that had been painted by Paul Gaugin", the book says.
The human body became an experimental muse for members of the Progressive Artists` Group in 1948. Founder-member of the group Francis Newton Souza extolled the human body throughout his career, the book says.
Souza`s ‘The Blue Nude’ is among his earliest known works, which he painted when he was expelled from the JJ School of Art in Mumbai in 1948. It opened his career as a master of the human form with thousands of nude studies.
Souza`s mother "Lily Mary was a seamstress and the teenager Souza would spy on her customers as she measured them for clothes," the book recalls. He cut a peephole in the bathroom door through which he watched his mother bathe.
In comparison, MF Husain`s figures were "almost classical perhaps because the artist moulded his bodies to an Indian tradition". KH Ara was not shy of displaying the "full body". His nudes were contemplative and weighty but there was no perfection in line.
Among the Kolkata artists, Jogen Chowdhury had created a huge body of nude that were corpulent and intimate.
The artist says the body has often returned to his paintings as "realistically formed with supernatural eyes from traditional Bengali sculptures".
"It is a pity but I feel that we still have not acquired an attitude of ease and responsibility in our man-woman relationship. So we conjure myths - good or bad - about women and their sexuality," artist Bikash Bhattacharjee, known for his nude studies, had said in an interview.
Artist Anjolie Ela Menon, who had attempted to paint women in red light areas of Mumbai, retained a "contemplative sensuousness and even strength" in her nude studies.