When I was in college a photographer-friend asked me if I would model for a nude photoshoot. On seeing my hesitation she showed me a series of self-portraits by her to give me a visual reference. Everything about her appearance looked altered. The camera had captured the changing hues of her skin that had remained hidden behind her clothes. Her face bore an expression of unapologetic existence, even though she was an introvert, and her eyes reflected the depths of her soul. While you may find me being overtly poetic here, it was this very enigmatic quality of the photographs that have remained so vividly in my memory. However, I never modelled for her out of fear of a scandal lest someone should discover my pictures. Unfortunately, even today, many would relate to my former self.
People mostly associate the exposure of flesh with carnal desire which in hyper-sexual India is akin to a crime. While our ancient legacies, like the 12th-century temple of Khajuraho with its highly-crafted nude sculptures that have celebrated the human anatomy, are conveniently forgotten. Coming back to exploring nudity in Indian photography, few names have made their mark in its history. The late, globally renowned photographer Prabuddha Gupta remains one such legend. He broke new ground in 1996 when his book ‘Women’ became the first to feature nudes - capturing urban women in their various avatars. Sadly, it remains the only significant book on the subject. Veteran photojournalist Raghu Rai turned heads with his series of black-and-white photographs of nude females back in 2007. When asked what inspired this work, Rai, who has photographed iconic figures such as Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama as well as tragedies such as the 1984 Bhopal chemical disaster, simply replied, “the love of the female body.”
While human anatomy still hasn’t found an accepting avenue in the larger art world, young Indian photographers have continued to explore its beauty, shape and shadows despite the politics of modest and vulgarity it tends to evoke. Not the most viable of works when it comes to monetisation and susceptible to the scrutiny of the moral police, these photographers have carved a space for themselves in the digital art world.
We got to poke through the creative minds of some of these photographers whose work is not just bold and experimental, but above all, unapologetic. These artists not only use the human body to unveil its simplicity and grace but also as a powerful medium to voice their opinions on pertinent issues like body positivity, gender fluidity and as a stand against the abuses of patriarchy. However, to understand what binds them together, scroll down and see how they all use the visceral to expound the demons of the mind, enabling a mindful journey towards self-love.
‘There is no shame in nudity’ is a belief held by photographer Soumya Iyer, who in her project Gender of Beauty explores the female body with contrasting saturated colours and free-flowing movements. For the artist who also does a diverse range of fashion photography and has worked on semi-nude projects before this, ‘sketching the human anatomy’ is a subject that has always been close to her heart. By exploring the human body through her lens she wants people to accept its grace, simplicity and innocence without any prejudice. Her vivid and striking photographs in Gender And Beauty remain etched in the mind, long after the visuals are no longer in front of you.
II. Saumya Snehil
For her project ‘Unfiltered Humans’ on Instagram, Saumya Snehil photographs people who volunteer to bare not only their bodies, but also their souls. Each still has definite focus-a crevice of the human form that has been forgotten or shamed and she uses them to tell stories that have been both unheard and ignored. Snehil whose work is inspired by her father’s painting and principles, believes in keeping a simplicity of language at all times in her creations. “It the only way to create a sustainable relationship between the art and the audience,” says the freelance photographer who also enjoys doing lifestyle shoots and street photography. Though it is the complexities of vulnerability and the power to survive emotional struggles, is what makes the subject of her nudes. In an age where social media often becomes a tool for sculpting our lives into an unrealistic idea of ‘perfection’, ‘Unfiltered Humans’ weaves in news feeds, narratives of forgotten truths.
III. Namrata Jain
“I don’t think nudity should be censored,” is what drives Namrata Jain’s work with the human body. Through stark black and white monochromes her photographs raise pertinent questions on female sexuality. Jain who is a student of the Pearl Academy Of Fashion in Delhi looks at depicting those parts of the female anatomy whose exposure has often labelled women as “whores” and justified the sexual violence waged against them. In a way her nude work calls for women’s right to sexualise themselves without receiving flak for it. “I want people to shake the ugly thoughts that they have planted in their heads about nudity,” confesses Jain. Reclaiming the female body from patriarchy, nude photography here, has become a powerful expression of freedom.
IV. Roshini Kumar
Fashion photographer Roshini Kumar’s work is defined by both bold colours and ideas-especially with those regarding body positivity. Her latest series BARE, encourages people to celebrate their bodily differences as opposed to being influenced by beauty standards set by society. In a world of filters, for every kind of supposed bodily flaw, Kumar uses a stark nude colour palette in BARE, as a way for people to feel more comfortable with their ‘natural selves.’ “I was a victim of societal pressure that led me to hate my body. After surviving cancer I came out with a whole new perspective- I started loving my flaws and my body for what it naturally is...” confesses Kumar. This Mumbai-Bangalore based artist who also dapples between fashion styling and digital art is currently working on “Pussy & Patron”- a photo series on female sexuality and their sexual freedom.
Rohan Tulpulye, works with models to marry fashion and nude photography, which he believes will cultivate an appreciation for the human form. A recurring subject in his work is challenging the notion of conventional beauty, whether to promote body positivity or celebrate what society sees as physical flaws, especially in his projects like ‘Beauty Through Holes’, ‘Motion Plus’ and ‘The Plus Side Of Life’. Tulpule’s aesthetics are inspired by what he calls the ‘nonlinearity of the human body’, which he feels is best expressed in a noir colour palette while playing around with light. What is striking about the artist’s work is that as opposed to mainstream fashion his stills carve out a unique character for each of the models he photographs. “There have been times when models have changed their perception about their bodies after they see the final output of my work with them. The way I see this, I am spreading smiles with every shoot and making them comfortable in their own skin,” says Tulpule. Unhinging the superficiality that is often associated with fashion photography, his work is both riveting and refreshing.
VI. Gaurav Hingne
What describes Gaurav Hingne’s nude photography at best is a mesmerising naturalism that seeps in every frame. Candid and nonchalant, his subjects seamlessly blend with their surroundings, almost evocative of a painting. Perhaps this is because what draws Hingne to create a picture, is not the subject but the lighting that surrounds it and the shapes that form as a result. “A pretty face, a particular body size-these aren’t markers of beauty for me. It’s the patterns formed by light on the body, that solely drives me,” he confesses. Another striking aspect of Hingne’s work is the strong portraits he creates, capturing the eyes in a way that they often seem to be speaking to you. Despite producing such nuanced work Hingne, who is a commercial wedding photographer, gets flak for his work with nudes. “I don’t bother much with those who have a problem with my work, they were raised with a certain social conditioning that I can’t necessarily change. I am just happy with those who appreciate it,” he confesses. While his personal work is taking a backseat at the moment, keep an eye out for this artist, who is bound to captivate you with its raw depiction of the human body.
VII. Ishani Das
For Ishani Das, her exploration of nudity in photography began with self-portraits, giving her a deeper understanding of not only the human body but also herself. “The way I see it, its not about going nude, but just going bare,” says the Delhi-based freelance photographer and videographer. “I don’t see why people hate on it, even view it as porn. Its the most natural thing in the world.” After receiving backlash for her nude work, as a reaction, much of her work is now informed by normalising nudity, even if in small and subtle ways. What also keeps Das inspired to take on nude photography is that just like for most other photographers, it intensifies her love affair with light. “When light hits the bare skin, it creates the kind of shadows that can never be replicated with cloth,” explains the artist who often uses single-coloured lights, especially in projects like her ‘Amber’ to experiment with this phenomenon. Tender, enigmatic and by all means bold, Das’s work is sure to both transfix and provoke questions about the intricacies of the human form.
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