By Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi: A small band of artists is exploring taboos of alternative sexuality, erotic love and the body as a medium of extreme expression of anger, passion and protest on the visual canvas. They are keeping alive the ancient legacy of eroticism in the Indian artistic tradition.
“Sexuality has been a part of culture for hundreds of years in the temple sculptures of Khajuraho and in the visual portrayals of Krishna Leela,” Sushma K. Bahl, a senior art critic, historian and author, told IANS.
Bahl said, “During the Mughal period, the bold depiction of human body in Indian art was replaced by more subtle portrayals of women with the ‘zenana’ culture”. In the Victorian era, eroticism was seen as a taboo in art, but it has revived after independence, the art historian said.
One of India’s leading photo-essayists, Sunil Gupta, showcased “Sun City”, a visual narrative about gay love across continents in the country for the first time last week.
Commissioned by the Centre Pompidou in Paris and funded by the capital-based Vadehra Gallery, the photo essay with 10 frames is an interpretation of a 1962 science fiction movie by Chris Marker, “La Jetee” or the “Jetty on the Pier” about the aftermath of holocaust, time travel and death.
Gupta has carried Marker’s theme of prophetic visions of death into a crossover story about an Indian brown-skinned man who goes to France to live with his gay lover. However, at the beginning of the journey, the Indian hero foresees his death.
In Paris, he discovers bath houses where he has several gay flings with men. The photoessay ends with the hero’s death outside the airport in Paris – the body lying sprawled with the Frenchman looking down on it.
“The death of the hero in my photographs could be from poverty, HIV/AIDS or romantic love. In the original, the death was from nuclear holocaust,” Gupta told IANS.
Gupta, who is working on a photography project based on Alice Munro’s short stories, believes art with unconventional themes like alternative realities is part of the mainstream now.
New wave artist Tejal Shah, who lives between Mumbai and Paris, has interpreted the lives of queer women in a project, “Queer Women Take a Holiday”. It is a series of photographs of queer women with their faces blurred in the privacy of their surroundings. Last year she created a sensation in Germany with her portrayal of nude transsexuals and erotic collages.
“Living in India has been a difficult proposition since it has been difficult for lesbian or transgender women to be out (visually) for varying reasons of safety that could lead to losing jobs, apartments and fracture further the relationship with families…,” Shah says.
Leading contemporary artist Mithu Sen studies aspects of sexuality, femininity, gender and society in her multimedia where human figures, anatomical specifics like teeth, hair and sexual organs are often juxtaposed with plants and animals.
In her prize-winning conceptual work, “Black Candy”, Sen translates “male psyche” on the canvas by capturing men in playful and intimate moods with sound installations.
Bold references to sexuality and nude figures were found in early pioneer of contemporary art F.N. Souza’s art, inspired by Pablo Picasso, the 20th century master of dark eroticism.
Artist Bhupen Khakhar, one of the iconic founders of the 1970s realistic movement in art who died in 2003, said “he had chosen homo-eroticism as a theme in art because he was gay”.
“For me, there is nothing unnatural about homosexuality,” Khakhar said of his art.
“What is happening now is that the body is central to political issues in which the body has become a fragile ecological entity. There has been a rethinking about the forms of human body and in looking at the female body,” art curator Vidya Sivadas said.
Depiction of same-sex love with explicit visuals are found in Vatsyayan’s “Kamasutra” that has a chapter devoted to alternative love with illustrations, says a translated version of the treatise in 1883 by Richard Burton.
Alka Pande in her book, “Shringara”, which explores the sensuous “rasa” as depicted in the history of Indian art, says “Indian mythology is replete with stories of the gods enjoying the intense amorous dalliances”.
It translates into early and medieval Hindu sculptures like those of the passionate Shiva-Parvati icons.
(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)