The heroine in Ketan Mehta’s Rang Rasiya, which finally released in theatres today after six years in the darkroom, is a guileless sex worker named Sugandha. In Mehta’s adaptation of Ranjit Desai’s book Raja Ravi Varma, Sugandha poses nude for Varma, India’s greatest portrait painter. While Varma does to Hindu goddesses and characters from mythology what Andy Warhol did to 1960s’ emblems of American consumerism, only with more craft and sophistication, Sugandha transcends her small life living vicariously as a goddess. She is elated, posing as Saraswati with a veena perched on her thigh. She gets scorn in the time in which she lived, early 20th century Bombay, but is immortalized through Varma’s legacy, and quite hearteningly, even a nod from the modern Indian censor establishment, which considers nudity and nakedness immoral and hence ban-worthy. In one scene in the film, Sugandha poses as a mythical character named Urvashi with one of her breasts exposed while Varma paints her in the middle of what looks like an inspirational fit. As a film, Rang Rasiya is slapdash melodrama, but it raises, yet another time, the question of nudity in Indian art. By art, I mean all art, including paintings, photography, music videos and cinema.

The film states the obvious, which is essential. Carvings of men, women and animals in sexual acts adorn Indian temples, but artists who paint nudes get persecuted by self-proclaimed custodians of morality. Moral police existed in the early 20th century, at a time when Sardar Patel pronounced the significance of swaraj, and it exists now, when art auctions take place in the ballrooms of our five-star hotels. The progressive and the fundamentalist are in permanent war against each other.

In 1956, art historian Kenneth Clark differentiated between nudity and nakedness in his book, The Nude. He wrote that the naked human body is exposed, vulnerable and embarrassing, while “nude", “on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone. The vague image it projects into the mind is not of a huddled and defenceless body, but of a balanced, prosperous and confident body..." So, to Clark, a nude is a beautifully captured and posed cover shot of a nude woman in Vogue while naked is Seema Biswas as Phoolan Devi, stripped of her clothes in Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen. Naked is a woman making love, and it rattles our moral police and self-censoring instincts much more than a vanity-evoking nude. Hardly do we see women or men naked in our movies. The nude is the target of virulent mob attacks and protests, as was the case at last year’s art exhibition The Naked And The Nude, at Delhi Art Gallery—members of the women’s wing of the Vishva Hindu Parishad protested outside the gallery’s doors. Around the same time, artist Anirudh Sainath’s paintings at the Chitrakala Parishath, in Bengaluru, were taken off after the art academy received threat calls to remove three paintings that depicted Hindu gods and goddesses nude. A few years ago, a couple of art students from the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, traditionally a cradle of art, went to jail because they painted some nudes. M.F. Husain left the country of his birth after Hindu fundamentalist groups continuously targeted him, starting with his painting of a nude Saraswati.

Nudity usually involves the female form and the debate around it in our part of the world of course alienates millions of women. Nudity or nakedness is twice removed from the reality of girls who have been wearing a burkha from a tender age, many women who have been covering their heads ever since they got married, and many who are yet to wear a pair of jeans. The Sugandhas of the modern world are possibly at the mercy of secret proponents of nudism who profess morality in their public life. These debates are elite and progressive, often hastily equating freedom of expression and confidence with bodily liberation, but they ought to continue. Mehta continues it—his choice of subject is a political statement, although given the formulaic treatment, the subject does not get cinematic transcendency.

Political Animals is a fortnightly column on the intersection of politics and culture.

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