“No erotic work of art is filth if it is artistically significant; it is only turned into filth through the beholder if she/he is filthy.”
– Egon Schiele
India has a rich, sexually-charged history. We’re not above falling back on old cliches that begin with ‘in ancient times’ because it’s simple and it’s true. We used to be one of the only cultures that tied sex to the sacred, as can be seen through the epic text Kamasutra and the elaborate art and murals of temples like Khajuraho and it fared us better than the sense of hypersexualisation and objectification of women, not to mention the all-pervading sense of repression that exists in the country today. Subsequently (or perhaps as a result of) our tolerance levels today are at an all-time low, making us hyper-sensitive as a country, and offended at the drop of a hat.
The “gatekeepers” of our society maintain an extremely hypocritical outlook on what can be considered to be a part of our ‘culture’ – a loaded word in current times, especially when prefixed with the word Hindutva - and insist on tweaking it at their own convenience. What’s even more interesting to note however, is that while mainstream media is unflinching about portraying the female body as a sex object, it still doesn’t seem to be able to stomach the fluid nature of sexuality, with people of alternate sexualities rarely or never depicted in a normal light. Homosexuals are often portrayed as an effeminate laughing stock in films, a powerful and far-reaching medium with the latent-yet-unfulfilled potential to nudge society towards progress.
Which brings us to our chosen medium of expression today. Art has a way of challenging realities and being a reflection of society, and with clampdowns on (and sometimes even violence against) the creative freedom of artists – such as the controversy surrounding MF Husain’s paintings depicting Hindu goddesses – it is not just artistic freedom that is at stake these days, but also progress towards an egalitarian society. Considering the hypocrisy and the complex gender issues we’re constantly attempting to navigate, we decided to take a fundamentally easier to stomach approach towards highlighting and uncovering a few (current) artists in the country who tackle these themes via multiple mediums.
These are the projects fostering dialogues around sex, attempting to bring it out of the shadows of taboo, that we found particularly eye-opening. We hope you do too.
[Note to readers: This is not an all-inclusive list. Watch out for more volumes on this topic, covering more artists soon.]
I. Thukral and Tagra - ‘Put It On Foundation’
Medium: painting, sculpture, installation, video, graphic and product design, websites, music and fashion
Delhi-based designer-artist duo Jiten Thukral and Sumir Tagra find artistic expression in anything from painting to installation to product design, through which they aim to tackle the issue of safe sex. Their exhibition ‘Put-It-On’ was first showcased in 2007 in New York, and addresses the issues of safe sex and increased sexual activity within the Indian youth. Their art juxtaposes traditional perceptions of sex in our society with pop culture in an intriguing and thought-provoking way. For instance, one of their paintings depicts ancient Hindu temple art depicting various sexual positions half-covered by a sheet, indicative of our neglect for our sexually-charged past and culture, and the veiled nature of sex in our society today. Using popular connotations - such as the metaphor of Superman, who wears latex and saves the world - they are trying to conquer barriers in the discussion of sex.
Tukral and Tagra also established ’Foundation Thukral and Tagra’ that aims to create dialogue on the topic of sex, and subsequently safe sex, targeting mainly urban middle class youth in India. The aim is to get rid of the embarrassment felt while talking about sex, so one can take precautions. As a part of the Foundation exhibition at India Art Summit, 2011, they even had merchandise like slippers illustrating the need for safe sex and have, in the past, also collaborated with NGOs who were present at the exhibition and distributed educational material on HIV/AIDS and initiated discussions on the safety precautions one should take.
HG Loves: With the Foundation, at the India Art Summit in Delhi in 2011, Thukral and Tagra created an interactive installation called ’The Beautiful Game,’ which alludes to the sense of sport and therefore playfulness that often lies in the heart of courtship and romance. The installation included a billiards table with a cue ball and a pink ball. To pocket the pink ball, one had to go through the cue ball first, signifying the need for one to use a condom during sex.
II. T. Venkanna – ‘Self-Portrait’
Medium: visual art
All of T Venkanna’s work challenges societal norms and atrocities related to the sexual behaviour of humans. There is thematic continuity to his work that binds it together, although he does not work on a series as such, and it is all reflective of his belief that society has a rigid outlook towards sex and, therefore, one’s true feelings come out through their sexual fantasies, in which one finds the truest form of a person.
His art aims to ‘remove the trappings of identity’ and he believes the nude form is the best way to do this. There is also an unmistakable sexual surrealism in his work that sets it apart.
He has re-imagined works of different artists such as Eve, by Henri Rousseau, with own version called ‘Adam for Eve’. While Eve is alone in the original, Venkanna’s immersive take on it depicts himself in the painting, where he is in the process of painting an Adam to accompany Eve, because he believes that while the first creator is god, the second one is any creative person or artist. The snake in the painting is also giving Eve a banana as opposed to an apple in the original, so she can pleasure herself. Venkanna, when he first saw the original, was concerned as to why Eve was alone and, wondering if she felt lonely, decided to create something to pleasure her.
Venkanna has a fascinating perspective on various issues such as feminism, and co-relations, such as that between beauty and skin colour, or sexual pleasure and that derived from music; but it’s his mixed media self-portrait that really caught our attention. In this piece, he has drawn a portrait with several miniscule images of which all form the shape of a penis, because it is the organ that creates future generations and thus continues one’s ‘self-portrait’ in a sense, over time.
He elaborates on his own artistic perspectives below:
“The sexual behaviour of human beings is habituated by societal norms and conditions,” he says.“I believe it is due to this, that sexual fantasy gains importance in a human being’s life and an individual achieves extreme pleasure out of this simple act of day-dreaming, wherein s/he escapes from the harsh realities of this world via an undisturbed and uninterrupted flight of imagination.”
HG loves: How T Venkanna’s work retains a sense of honesty and innocence about it. . Contrary to what some might assume, based on his work, his thoughts behind the art are as simple and innocent as a young boy’s. He deals with several important and complex issues in a logic that is impeccable, once you draw it out of the negative context society has attached to it. Venkanna wins you over with his unique blend of surrealism, imagination and personality displayed through his art, to make for an open-minded body of work that removes the ‘trappings of identity’ and is respectful to all genders.
III. Balbir Krishan – ‘Out Here And Now’
Medium : Visual Art
Balbir Krishan’s ‘Out Here and Now’ is a self-reflective, partly autobiographical journey of him coming out as a homosexual. The series contains 20 nude portraits of men celebrating a gay man’s sexuality and the trauma and travails before and after coming out to the world. His first series was largely well-received, besides an attack by an anonymous person at the showcase of his exhibition in Delhi. Balbir has been at the receiving end of censorship before though, when his exhibit at the Marriot in Hyderabad, Bed of Roses, was taken down for showing homosexual content. Incidents like these show us exactly why Balbir’s work is pertinent, as people are still offended by homosexuality in our society and choose to express it by refusing to have that conversation altogether.
That has still not deterred Balbir though, who, with the help and support of the artistic community, uses his artistic expression to shed light on the deep psychological trauma that he himself has gone through due to society’s general disapproval of homosexuality.
One often questions the difference between art and porn in certain situations, and it’s the manner of portrayal that set the two apart. What makes Balbir’s work stand out is his fine use of colour and textures to create depth in his paintings - within his subjects as well as on on the canvas for a viewer. His work is a multi-layered look at the true identity of a person who has been living in the shadows and his homoerotic imagery is accompanied by elements like vines and grass (especially in ‘Bed of Roses’) and earthy textures that are visually divine.
HG Loves: The honesty in his work. Balbir’s emotions have been the driving force behind his work, whether it is sexual urges or trauma of keeping his sexuality in the shadows. He has bared all through his paintings, unafraid to be vulnerable to an audience that may not receive it well. His determination to go on with the help of the artistic community is also commendable.
IV. Sandeep Dhopate - ‘Fighting into Oblivion’
Sandeep Dhopate, through his glamourised portraits of the Pahelwaans, questions the sexualised nature of Kushti - the popular Indian wrestling sport. As a photographer, Sandeep is unafraid to tread into the realms of nudity and sexualised portraits, but this series expects the viewers to delve deeper into the images to understand his point of view, and urges them to look beyond the obvious. Sandeep conveys the story brilliantly; Kushti is traditionally looked at as a ‘manly’ sport, yet Sandeep sees the fine lines of sexual energy present as two men first maalish each other with oil and proceed to grab each other’s kacchas as they vie to to pin each other to the ground. Though modesty in clothing is generally key in India, these pahelwaans wear nothing but a loin cloth to fight each other.
HG Loves: How Sandeep is unafraid to tap into the unspoken and add an extra layer to what meets the eye, all done masterfully through blurred, well-lit images depicting movement in different angles.
V. Prabuddha Dasgupta - ‘Women’
No conversation about photography is complete without the mention of Prabuddha Dasgupta though unfortunately for the art world, this particular one will have to be posthumous since Prabuddha’s demise. We couldn’t resist putting him on this list however, because if we are to discuss current bodies of work that encouraged healthy dialogues around sex and sexuality. Prabuddha carved a niche for himself whether it was his personal or commissioned work. His style was revered world-over for being distinctly his own, and Prabuddha continually pushed creative boundaries in India, with projects such as his Tuff Shoes campaign featuring Milind Soman and Madhu Sapre in the nude. His personal book ’Women’ remains till date the only book of photographed nudes in India. Being the pathbreaker who was the only one who dared to do something different, it was not easy for him to have his subjects agree to be published in the nude, and he had to tweak many works to protect the subjects’ identity.
The fact that “Women” still remains the only book of nudes in India is a stark reflection on the society that might have come a long way in other spheres, but still lags behind in the acceptance of artwork that was ahead of its time to begin with.
HG Loves: ‘Longing.’ A work in progress that Prabuddha was working on in 2011 at the time of his passing. A series of black and white pictures that include photographs of the act of sex itself, as well as a dreamy perspective on a pivotal love affair and all the complexities and emotions surrounding it. The subtle beauty of Prabuddha’s art is depicted in these enchanting, blurry nudes of his girlfriend and several self–portraits as well. With his mastery over the camera, Prabuddha pulls you into this love affair, and takes you on a never-ending journey of longing - of the past, the future and of everywhere in between.
VI. Saumin Patel - ‘Kaamotsav’
Medium: Illustrations & Graphic Novels
Saumin Patel’s collection of erotic art, Kaamotsav is an out-and-out celebration of India’s rich erotic history where we tied sex to the sacred like it was the most natural thing in the world, against the backdrop of present-day society that hypocritically allows for tasteless sexual imagery through mainstream media but declares it ‘not out culture’ in any other form.
Unshackled by a storyline, the artist wishes the viewer to derive their own meanings of his mystical drawings influenced by ancient Indian temple and mural art. It is not an exploration of penetrative sex, but a mythological exploration of the fantastical and fantasies through tasteful, poetic and detailed sketches. As a viewer, through his intentional ambiguity, Kaamotsav is woman-centric as he explores female sexual energies and fantasies, a repeated imagery of a snake for instance...highly sexualised but yet not vulgar. His passionate drawings jump off from the pages right into your pleasure centres.
HG Loves: How through Kaamotsav, Saumin Patel aims to go back to our roots and shed light on the sacred nature of sex with tasteful, erotic art.
VII. Sharmishta Ray - ‘Liberation’
Medium: Visual Artist
Sharmishta Ray draws inspiration from her own diasporic life, having relocated from one country to another quite a bit - from a strict Islamic society in Kuwait, to India as a refugee of the Gulf War and then the US. The distinct characters of all the places have evidently influenced her work as an artist and her work is autobiographical, exploring her sexuality within the confines of a rigid society. Her paintings reflect these confines and the imposed censorship on sexuality through its subtle but sexually-charged content. To depict the nature of LGBT communities in our conservative societies, Sharmishta paints her reality with thick oil paint on canvas, and it is only when you dig deeper that you might understand the veiled meaning and realise that everything else is just a cover-up, exactly how one must cover up their alternate sexualities in society. Her work is ambiguous and abstract, a veritable reflection of the nature of sex and sexuality and her personal experience of it.
HG Loves: ‘Liberation.’ A 3-hour-long effort compressed in a 3 minute video in collaboration with Gaysi Family that has Sharmishta using charcoal and ink to envision what liberation means to her. She drew a nude woman with a rose to show the beauty of a woman owning her sexuality, and reclaiming her freedom.
At its core, art is inherently embedded in culture, and it is only by accepting alternate viewpoints and perspectives and according artists the creative freedom they deserve, that we’ll be able to take the first few steps towards a society that has sex, and isn’t afraid to talk about it.
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