We often find ourselves at war with our own bodies. Plucking at rolls, poking at cellulite and picking our food choices apart just enough to be happy looking into a mirror. Under all those layers of insecurities, designer clothes, products and make-up lies an anatomy hidden in its natural state. It takes a lot to shed these complexities and lay bare our bodies. For a few people out there, this move can be an easing, stress-busting, natural and confidence-building experience. “Being in the nude is like a lifestyle for me. Like yoga would, this soothes my worries, helps my self-confidence and find my inner self,” says Srijan*, a 31-year-old man based in Bangalore. Srijan* is a family man; he’s the General Manager at an automobile company, enjoys spending evenings with his friends and travelling – he is also a practising nudist, and has been, for the last 13 years.
Many use the terms ‘nudism’ or ‘naturism’ interchangeably, while some believe there are certain distinctions between the two philosophies. “Both would prefer to be as clothes-free as often as possible; the naturist in order to closely identify with the environment and the nudist in order to be natural and liberated from the restrictions of clothing. The naturist is primarily attuned to harmony with the natural world and the nudist is focused more on the human aspect of being bare among other humans,” explained Roger Poladopoulos when posed the question. The differences may be there but basic ideologies are the same – being comfortable in their natural state, respect for their bodies and that of others in a platonic way. For the purpose of this article, I will be using the term nudism, as it is generally more recognised/identified.
It’s hard to research about nudism on the internet without your first few Google search options coming up as pornography. Globally there has been a growing conversation, albeit still on a smaller scale, about nudism and nudist colonies, with restaurants, parks and beaches (for this emerging community) sprouting across regions. The main apprehension of people to the situation is the perception of it being an expression of perversion – nudist parties and resorts being a big orgy that only people of questionable character indulge in to fulfil some fetish. So consider my surprise when I heard of a growing underground community in India that organises meet-ups for like-minded people, all practising nudists.
‘Letting it all hang while casually sitting in someone’s living room and chatting cannot be comfortable’ is the first thought that popped into my mind.
But it’s not just simply nakedness, nor is it a meeting of nymphomaniacs and swingers. Nudism is not about sex, it’s a celebration of the body with all its flaws and faults which is quite funny in juxtaposition with our current image-driven world. “Nudism connected me with nature. My skin accepts all seasons and keeps me positive and bold,” shares Prakash, a 33-year-old from Andhra who works with an MNC. India’s nudist community isn’t a murky sinister group overrun by vulgarity and promiscuity as many believe. The community consists of educated people, some work in finance, others are lawyers, chefs, writers, stay-at-home moms and dads across age groups. Srijan* connected me with other members of the community across the country and, from my inference, the biggest groups are in Bangalore and Kolkata.
“Nudism is a very old form in India and it was a lot more accepted then. It’s after we adopted the western culture from the British that we became prudes,” says *Srijan, and he’s not wrong. Religious nudism has been a longstanding practice among Hindu and Jain ascetics. It’s seen as a rejection of all material goods, including clothes, a path to enlightenment. So why is it looked down upon in larger society? “I do not want to walk naked in the roads, but I want my country to accept nudism and approve some nudist associations,” comments Pooja, 27, on the secrecy that goes into being a nudist in Indian society. “Women are more apprehensive because they will be shamed in the society if anyone discloses that she is a nudist,” she adds. It was understandable that the people we spoke to requested to be anonymous contributors or have only their first names used. While people like Prakash are open about it with their parents and select family members, others hide it from their wives and husbands, opening up to a choice few friends after much explaining.
So what exactly goes on at a gathering of nudists? From the conversations with Srijan*, Pooja, Prakash and Shalini, the apprehension when it comes to disclosing their lifestyle choice to the public is clear, and finding like-minded people to share this experience with doesn’t happen too often. This need for connection is what drives the meet-ups. The gathering is always at a community member’s home. People can undress or stay dressed as per their choice. Healthy discussions about nudism, about confidence building, nature, body positivity ensue; they watch movies about nudism, some share their experiences of attending gatherings abroad. “We talk about anything under the sun and have fun talking. So far, I have been to all-girls meetings around 20 times, in which I left two of the meets when I understood that it is a lesbian group where even sexual acts will take place. I have also been to a mixed group five times, where it was so decent and fun with no sexual acts. It is all indoor in a private villa or apartment in which they play movies related to nudism and have a barbecue,” shares Shalini. “Genuine nudists are hard to find, but they do exist in great numbers,” she adds, alluding to the difficulty in separating sex from nudity, a grave problem for the rest of society as well.
“If you look at history, it speaks about nudism and half-nudism, but then we started covering up our bodies with oh-so-many fashionable clothes. People think that nudism leads to sex and whoever follows it they name as hippies. Because of society, we (the community) are unable to come out. If we do we may face a lot of social and political issues. One thing I have observed is that in the name of God if you are bathing naked at streams then no one says anything – like aghoris, rishis, sadhus and jains. They’ve understood nature and are flowing along with it,” says Prakash. “If a common man who is nude is caught by someone, immediately they’re tagged as crazy people, someone that has done something wrong. There are people, like my friends and some of my colleagues, who understood the concept. Likewise, there are those that don’t want to highlight this aspect of their life or get into trouble. But nowadays you see articles are coming up like ‘Sleeping Nude Is Great’, so maybe people are changing. They need some time to understand...I don’t think nudism is a lifestyle or new trend. We are born nude.”
All four of them point out the skewed gender ratio when it comes to these gatherings, with far more men attending the mixed groups. Both Shalini and Pooja lament the difficulty of females to go out and find genuine nudist friends and many women actually stop attending the meetings after they get married out of fear of judgement. Encouraging other women nudists to come out and join their meet-ups is further derailed when word spreads of ‘naked women’ coming to a meeting. “These are people that pose as nudists after seeing women there. They then start misbehaving and try approaching them,” says Pooja. Shalini feels that the misconception of the practice as a sin is what stigmatises women in the community; “If they come to know that a woman is a nudist they will think she is a prostitute and ready for sex,” states Pooja. “I have seen some of my nudist female friends getting into trouble when they go out to socialize,” Shalini adds.
“Nowadays everyone has a camera phone, there are people that come to the meetings and just click the nude women’s pictures and start harassing them. This is not safe, later they will face family and society issues which they cannot answer or handle. Even some men don’t feel comfortable when they meet in groups, they also avoid photography. This is a safe zone. There are sex seekers who enter into every community. People still need to get educated and understand nudism,” Prakash states. Srijan* tells us that pictures can only be taken with consent from the attendees of the meetings, which can last anywhere between two to five hours. More than men, India is a country that fears the female form and hides it behind notions of modesty and respect, and any questions about female sexuality and agency are not tolerated in a traditional society.
It’s quite a paradox considering we’ve consistently been one of the largest consumers of pornography globally and when you see the depiction of women in Indian cinema, one of the largest influencers of the masses, as titillating objects of desire modelled for the male gaze. According to a study conducted back in 2014 by the UN found that there is a significantly higher prevalence of sexualisation of female characters in Indian films and a low score when it came to women in significant speaking roles and as engineers and scientists. It’s been four years since the study in question, and while there have been some changes, I’m pretty sure India would still be at the top of this list.
It’s a strange situation that India’s nudist community finds themselves in - between prudity and traditions on one hand, and rampant sexual violence on the other. All while the Sheila Ki Jawanis and Chikni Chamelis fill the airwaves and we hold on to the title of being the land of the Kama Sutra.
Often people find comfort in nakedness because you have nothing left to hide. Nudism can be very democratic that way, everyone exists in the same form with nothing to cover up. It can be easier to get to know someone when all your walls are dropped and connect at a different, less superficial level.
Having your special parts swinging in the breeze may not and is not for everyone, and that’s fine. However, as humorous as the initial thought of a bunch of naked Uncles and Aunties discussing politics or gossiping in their birthday suits may seem, be wary of misconceptions and don’t simply write them off as a bunch of kooks. Speaking to members of the community was a real eye-opener to just how content and liberated they feel - they might even be onto something.
For those interested in nudism and connecting with the community Srijan* suggests checking out Truenudist.com
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