A few of months ago, I attended an event where an artist painted my mental health journey on my body. I came, exchanged stories, and left with a tiny flower painted on my wrist. The interaction was brief, and I left with a feeling of irresolution. That fleeting moment of familiarity with a stranger was a small taste of catharsis, but I wanted more–I craved something stronger, a little more intimate. So when I heard of a Delhi-based artist experimenting with something similar but for hours and on the naked bodies of women and gender non-conforming people, I was beyond curious to know more. Let me introduce you to Aditya Verma, better known by his Instagram handle @ratyadityagram.
What strikes me most when I look at his work is its absolute rawness. There’s something so remarkable about platonic nudity, which unfortunately has become somewhat of an oxymoron in most societies. While Verma doesn’t identify as a photographer, the images he shoots for his Instagram account do justice in capturing the splatters of colour and abstract imagery scattered across breasts, bums, and all the folds of skin that make the femme form so magnificent. “The same thing is not as appreciated on paper,” he says. “That’s what’s special about body painting. There are living breathing people under all the art.”
My interview with Verma was lovely and bizarre. In just a few words he managed to make the space in-between our two telephones feel so safe—which I can only imagine is an imperative skill when painting on people in the nude. I asked him how he does it; how in a society where queer and female sexuality is so guarded, he manages to paint and photograph people at their most vulnerable moments. “The biggest thing is to not be concerned with yourself, that you are there to make art, or that your time is important,” he says. Further, he adds, “give that importance to the person in front of you.” In a lovely sentiment, he echoes that thought, saying, “You have to give people space, instead of occupying their space.”
The best way I can describe Verma is as a sherpa to the often unreachable heights of self-love. Throughout our conversation he continues to maintain that he has no agency, that he himself is not creating anything. “I am just the vessel,” he says. Where sexuality is often portrayed as aggressive or overbearing, Verma’s intimate style of body painting finds itself in the milder and kinder expressions of innate eroticism. “Having someone to look at you naked without anything in mind creates a safe space where people can explore their sexuality without being sexual,” he tells me.
Most of his subjects tell him that the entire experience is therapeutic, which is perhaps why they contact him in the first place. His approach to nakedness is clinical, but not dispassionate—it represents an important perspective of nakedness as being nothing more than simply being undressed. “A lot of young and mislead boys reach out to me asking how I do it,” he laughs, “and then I have to school everyone—which is a great part of my job.” Like the antithesis to every convention of sexuality, gender, and intimacy that plagues most human interactions, Verma explains to misinformed people who assume some form of physical lust from his work that “you can’t look for that through this medium. This is something really pure.”
As our conversation neared its end there was one final question itching on my tongue. “How come you don’t paint on men?” I asked, and his answer both surprised and saddened me. People so often assume something sexual from his body paintings and the fear of people’s reactions to a portrayal of homosexuality was simply too much for him to handle. “I’m not prepared to fight it right now,” he opens up. “It’s not a speculation of sorts, it becomes more of scandal and I don’t want it to reach my home.” Being an artist of provocation at a time of unbridled censorship is no easy feat. Where many have unflinchingly ridden the waves of dissent, Verma’s apprehension represents a poignant truth of being a certain kind of artist—a plight we often fail to recognize.
Many of Verma’s works have been taken off of Instagram, censored, or verbally condemned, but that hasn’t stopped him from continuing with his art. Fear is understandably a part of his vocabulary, but resignation isn’t. I’ll let Verma’s own words act in conclusion of this account. In a caption addressing an image of a blackened out crotch which was taken down, he writes, “Is it really that important to you, the presence of an underwear? The question you need to ask yourself is, will a small triangle of cloth really help you protect yourself from the unwavering ugliness of your thoughts? Will a social construct be the only solution to the social stereotype that clothes equal morality and goodness? Ask this of yourself every morning, while you strip away those last social constructs, preparing yourself for a hot shower that will yet again fail to wash the dirt and ignorance off your convoluted mind.”
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