From the moment Adam used a fig leaf as a pretty but prudish thong, nudity was rendered unnatural.
Artists from different traditions have tried hard to unpluck that leaf in order to allow the human body to burst forth on canvas, plaster and stone, but the fact remains that the Full Monty sends patrons running for cover. Ridiculously , many feel that gorgeous David should be diapered, that Khajuraho is kinky, and that the line between erotica and pornography is a fleshy one indeed.
How many BSE stock brokers would, for instance, drink their whisky under a full-blown Souza nude, with boulders for breasts and chunky thighs blasted open with a misogyny that the late artist was notorious for? How many would even go so far as to have a cheeky cartoon sex scene on the wall for fear of what the bai would say or what Mrs. Neighbour would think or what the kids would mutter? Dirty old perv, that's what. He should get broadband.
"People don't like nudes," grumbles octogenarian artist Akbar Padamsee, who has a large and tasteful oeuvre of the unclad female form. "They begin to say, what will the children and servants think. But there was one man, I forget his name, who said, I care a damn, it's my house, and he bought some of my nudes."
Fortunately for artists, there are still those who live dangerously. This band of buyers is unfazed by the Shame Police, an invisible but powerful presence who really would prefer it if painters stuck to meadows and demurely clad goddesses. (Shame on Raja Ravi Varma, and as for Husain!) These buyers can unashamedly feast their eyes on an obese Ara nymph or the miniatures of Waswo X Waswo, a symmetrically named gay American artist who lives with his boyfriend in Udaipur and paints tranquil scenes of nude men pissing serenely into an ocean of lotuses.
One of Waswo's ardent collectors is the bright-eyed Anurag Khanna, who runs a coal-importing business in Gandhidham in Gujarat, and gathers provocative art from all over the world with a messianic relish. Khanna's collection includes video art called Chingari Chumma, a light-blue print of a horse with a penis by Aji V N, and a huge work by New York lesbian artist Chitra Ganesh of "a woman licking another" . "Yes, it's crude," he says reasonably over the phone, "but I decided some time ago not to buy pretty art but good art, whether it's rude, crude or nude." Ganesh's works, a queer tweaking of Amar Chitra Katha comics, have bare-breasted nymphs with eyes for nipples, large body wounds shaped like juicy red lips and mounds of pubic hair uncensored by the razor.
Even the most fanatic liberal might shrink from displaying such trembling sexuality in the hallway - the Domino's delivery boy might flee. But an unperturbed Khanna points out that the blunt axe of familiarity can dull even the most scandalous offering. He says he comes from a "regular, conservative family" , and that his dadi lived with them till she passed away. And yes, his four-year-old daughter did say about the Chitra Ganesh painting, "Kya kar rahen hai, boy and girl ko karna chahiye" , but this only gave Papa a chance to introduce her to the idea of alternative love. "Koi nahin dekhta," Khanna says. "It's blankness."
Not everyone is so unfettered from the terms of propriety. Artist Meera Devidayal who lives in an upscale apartment on Altamont Road in Mumbai says that she has grappled with this chestnut too. "I have been through this problem," says Devidayal. "I had some erotic art works given to me by Laxma Goud. For a long time, I kept them inside. There's one of a nude woman and an animal near her. I said what if someone sees it, the servants and all that.
Then I decided what the hell, it's nudity, they can deal with it. Also, because it's in my studio with a whole lot of other paintings, it doesn't stare you in the face." The male staff, explains Devidayal, was her chief concern. "I had all these daughters in the house. Why throw nudity in the face of the staff and provoke them? It's not fair. So many are away from their families. I didn't want anyone to get sexually aroused. You know, one has heard stories ... "
Working with erotica in the office can be somewhat more distracting . So when a TOI editor recently mentioned the rather interesting art that hung in the offices of The Economic Times, it sounded like a lead worth pursuing. When Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar was ET editor, his cabin in Mumbai had a Bhupen Khakhar on the wall, of a boat peopled with nude gay men, two of them embracing. "Lots of people looked cursorily at the painting and dismissed it, thinking the couple was heterosexual," says Swami . "A few looked at it a second time, gulped, and said nothing at all! I cannot remember a single person actually discussing the homosexual content. Another cabin I occupied in Delhi did have a painting by K G Subramanyan of a woman with prominent breasts - I had no idea it attracted the attention of the editor. Not worth it, if you ask me."
Journalist Anil Dharker used to have a few Padamsee nudes in his Malabar Hill flat. "They were quite graphic, and yes, it did cross my mind that with the bai coming in and the dhobi... one could hardly pull a curtain across," he says. (Columnist Bachi Karkaria solved this problem by stringing balloons across a nude Modigliani print whenever there was a child's birthday party in the house, not, she is quick to clarify, for her own two sons who were "acculturated" but for the other kids.) "But," continues Dharker, "I did put them up, and no one ever cringed, and I never saw anyone look at it and freak out. I think in a painting, as opposed to a photograph, the breasts and female genitalia are more stylised and representational , and therefore the people we are afraid of offending may not notice it. No I would not hang a photograph of a nude on my wall."