Erotic artwork executed with a twist of fantasy is Saumin Patel’s contribution to society, in particular pertaining to its current warped mindset when it comes to sex. In Kaamotsav Vol 1, released as a small artbook, he depicts characters which are not gods or goddesses, or even really remotely mythological, as he explains to us. Defining them as ‘mytho-fantasy characters’, he relates that erotica is a field he’s been meaning to venture into ever since he used to illustrate for sex columns in GQ, with this project drawing heavy influence from ancient Indian temple art. He speaks to us of how their approach to sex used differs so starkly with the mindset that exists today, of a time when both genders were accorded equal respect and rights, without having to bear the cross of objectification. Irked by the constant bombardment of ‘ugly and absurd’ imagery as erotica, his own idea for Kaamotsav eventually gained momentum fuelled by the deep-rooted hypocrisy and wide-eyed scandal associated with discussing sex in our society.
In this engrossing conversation, Saumin sheds some light on the ethos behind his artwork, the sweet subtlety of desire and how his own fantastical take fits into the cultural fabric of the country in the big picture:
I. Tell us about your first memory of mythology - when did the fascination begin?
As a kid, I was not much of a reader and had a very short attention span. It was the mid-80’s and television set at home was a privilege. I remember I was fascinated by the black and white Marathi movies which told stories about the famous saints, and even Ramayana. More than the story I was fascinated by trick photography in these films. It was stuff like baking roti on Gyaneshwar’s back, the land tearing apart and Seeta being submerged in it etc. I remember I was very fascinated by visuals of Shiv’s Baraat which had all kinds of ghosts and scary creatures dancing around, while Shiv happily rode along on his nandi. I guess the visual was so bizarre and fun that it stayed with me forever.
II. What did you take away from your stint illustrating sex columns for GQ, in terms of where sex in India stands?
I really enjoyed working on art for GQ’s sex column. The articles discussed a lot of things. Sometimes kinky or naughty, but it explored aspects of urban sexuality hidden under blankets.
This was a great opportunity for me to explore equally naughty ideas. Working with art directors and editors, I understood that one can do lots without crossing the fine line.
In terms of where sex stands in India, I think it doesn’t require any magazine column to understand it. Fact is, we Indians love sex above all else yet don’t love talking about it openly. We would love to explore all possibilities of pleasure, and yet feel shy having a discussion about it. Everything goes on behind closed doors and out in the open, we pretend to not like it. This duality is causing a lot of trouble as it’s like trying to keep a beast caged in a rickety and rusted enclosure. It would be much better if we, as a society, accepted and agreed that we love sex and be comfortable about participating in a social dialogue. Most importantly, it will spread awareness, ease and a certain flair to our approach and indulgence. This kind of confidence might change our society for better.
III. What do you feel is the main issue with the erotic imagery that we’re predominantly exposed to?
Everything is wrong. I find nothing erotic, currently. All the imagery is ugly and absurd. Our films, the most popular mass medium,
have populated itself with the most atrocious display of this. There is no sense of confidence or truth in these images. Most of it portrays women as slaves to some kind of male figure, in which the former has no free will. We are milking the male ego a lot. Mainly, I feel the imagery is created to cater only to lust and not sublime desires. So it’s too noisy and chaotic and not at all poetic.
The problem with this is that society soaks it up like sponge. It all gets absorbed in our collective thought process. This takes shape in the form of no action or convenient ignorance towards deadly crimes against women and children. It doesn’t matter to us as a society if a woman is raped and killed in the most brutal fashion. We resort to candle marches and expressing our anger as a society and then, in a few days, it’s all forgotten until the cycle is repeated. It goes on as a loop and we as a society live with it. It’s absurd that we tolerate it or feel helpless about it. A short dress is considered reason enough for rape. This can only be a product of a suppressed and caged male mind. No woman or man must ever entertain such ideas. In a way, the imagery we are surrounded with is distorting our perception and not letting us cater to our own true desires. This is a big problem as we are then living a dual life, trying to balance between two stones and it’s always difficult.
IV. Please explain to us how you conceptualised ‘Kaamotsav’.
I always wanted to explore erotica which was inspired from Indian art forms. My early thoughts were about stories illustrated as comics. Not much happened with me being busy with my paid projects. I kept sketching, and soon it was evident that rather than binding the imagery with some word or story, it would be great to let each piece tell its own unique tale. This appealed to me as I could drift in various directions and it becomes a collection of explorations. This could have variety as well. Earlier, I was thinking of real people and real story ideas. As the explorations progressed, I found myself drifting more and more towards fantastical elements. This was very liberating. Later, I refined a few of these sketches to present through - Kaamotsav Volume 1.
V. Who are the artists that you look up to, and would say have been your biggest influences for this project?
The biggest influences for Kaamotsav have been sculptures and murals from our temples. The graceful figures and their heavily ornamental representation have been very attractive for me always. Besides this, the presence of sensuality in depiction of simple events always fascinates me. We had erotica in and around our temples and it makes me wonder how we have become like this today.
In terms of individual artists, Gustav Klimt, Alphanso Mocha along with Italian comic artist Sergio Toppi are clear influences for this project. Along with them Mike Mignola, Katsuhiro Otomo , Katsuya Terada, Moeibus, Adam Hughes, Barry Windsor Smith are some of my most favourite comic book artists. And Brian Froud, who pretty much defined the Fairies and goblins of the world. Edmund Dulac, Arthur Rackham, Ivan Bilibin are few of the masters who are always revisited by me. In terms of films, I love what Guillermo Del Toro has been creating and Jim Henson has left.
I think I am more drawn towards fantasy which is heavy-handed in terms of design.
VI. How are you currently presenting the project, and what do you aim to do with ‘Kaamotsav’ in the future?
Currently Kaamotsav has a small artbook which collects 29 unique pieces. I have three unique designs only for mugs. There are two sets of coasters. Few mouse pads and mini prints also carry art from the project.
VII. How have your observations of society’s attitude to sex featured into the project?
The only one element which remains constant between the project and our society’s attitude to sex is - we love to engage and indulge in the act of sex. The project aims to hit in a visual direction that is opposite to what society is exposed to currently. In between garish and ugly images circulating across society, people might find Kaamotsav subtle. But then desire, too, is a subtle feeling and it deserves a fitting visual take.
VIII. What is the kind of change you hope to affect with this?
Through this project, I only hope to start a conversation amongst people. The chat could be about their own desires or how desire plays a part in their lives. It could be about society’s attitude, or it could be about their own attitude towards sex. I hope that these conversations bring ease and more trust between people. As an artist, I can only hold a mirror to the society. Maybe they might see the reflection I want them to see.
IX. You mentioned that ancient Indians were more liberated than present society. Please elaborate on this; do you think we can ever achieve that kind of liberation again?
Let’s keep aside the historic or mythical notes. Let’s just look at one very basic example of symbolism: what do we pray to when we go to a temple of Shiv? Out of all the things in the whole wide world, why did someone think of that one symbol? Now we may present fifty different ideas as to how it is not what it appears to be and has deeper meaning etc. But what if our ancestors did not want us to dive into deeper meaning and accept the symbol for what it is? What were they trying to do by creating such a symbol for one of our primary gods? They could have chosen anything subtle according to today’s standards. No other society or civilization we come across has such direct symbolism. Nowhere in the world but here. Just this one thing is enough to grasp how liberated ancient Indians could have been. People who could link creation with an appropriate symbol and not be shy or ashamed about it.
I am sure we will not achieve the same liberated state of mind. Our hypocrisy as a society is in hiding behind a certain perception of culture, and believing fiercely that we are right. This is a huge hurdle as inside, we are something else and outside, we project something else. This duality then follows us in a lot of our ways of living and the way we approach everything in life. It’s bending our society where we want to be in sync with rest of the world by following standards set by others.
So in a way, we might assume we are free, but we have surrendered willingly to the Western way of living life. In turn, we are still slaves and we do not even realise it.
X. How do you suppose a paradigm shift can be achieved in attitudes towards sex on a large scale in the country?
The first thing we need to accept as a society is that we love sex. With this acceptance can come a reason to delve deeper into the subject matter. This will allow people to understand their desires better and, on the way, they might also understand bits about desire itself. Just admitting that we love sex could do wonders to us as a society. Of course, this is just a tiny first step but that could bring about a huge change. After this, having a conversation about it as a society should not be difficult.