The world over nudity remains a concept too bold to accept and in India, we remain a culture that seems easily offended by it. The irony isn’t lost on me considering that India hails itself as not only the land of the Kama Sutra but is also among the 3rd largest consumer of pornographic content in the world despite a ban by the government.
With the latest controversy surrounding a nude photoshoot by Indian actor Ranveer Singh, we are once again forced to examine just why we seem so offended by nudity as a concept in films, art or even moments of culture. Is it just a by-product of years of living through the lens of Victorian morality or through our own years of casteism, where any men or women from the lower castes covering their body offended Brahmin supremacists and upholders of caste?
As we engage in the rather baseless debates of whether Ranveer Singh had any agency on his own body, now that we have moved on to even question men, instead of just women, (a surprising development in our extremely patriarchal setup, if you ask me) we thought we’d examine key moments in history and culture that sparked outrage because of nudity.
I. When Akbar Padamsee Was Arrested For India’s First Nude Art Scandal
Back in 1954, renowned painter Akbar Padamsee was arrested for India’s first nude art scandal. His painting, ‘The Lovers’ offended a police officer who took him to the Azad Maidan police station. A fixture of Bombay society at the time, the artist got support from the city’s top legal firms. Libertarian judge Nusrullah created history in court when he asked him, “How can you justify this gesture?” referring to a man holding a women’s breast in The Lovers, which was exactly what made the painting controversial at the time. To which Padamsee replied in dramatized indignation, “Can a father do this to his daughter? Can a brother do this to his sister? Only a lover can touch a woman like this. That’s why. And my painting is called The Lovers. This gesture is a universal gesture and that’s why I have used it.” In the historical judgement, where on the insistence of the prosecution, they came to a compromise and it was held that judgement for artworks should be reserved for artists and galleries alone. It was a historic cultural moment for the Indian Art world and the panoptical morality code that governs it.
II. Promita Bedi Streaking On The Beach
All the way back in 1974, Indian model turned Odissi exponent Protima Bedi ran naked on Juhu Beach for a newly launched Cine Blitz magazine. As is usually the case with Indian society, it raised quite a lot of eyebrows and stirred controversy. But the idea behind the photoshoot was to show freedom and liberation. Recalling the incident in her memoir, she wrote “The so-called streaking happened in Goa. I was spending a lot of time in those days with the hippies on Anjuna Beach. Everyone walked around naked there,” adding, “If you were in a swimming costume, you looked and felt odd. So I was a nudist like everyone else on the beach. Somebody must have taken a picture of me there, and what the magazine did was superimpose these pictures on a photograph of a Bombay street. And people were so gullible, that nobody even questioned it. Wouldn’t have there been crowds in the picture if I had really done this in Bombay?” A feminist icon in many ways for the bold choices she made, she defied every societal norm that Indian women were conditioned to believe as ‘normal.’ In fact, she was among the first Indian women in the public view that was so comfortable and assured in her body.
III. The Controversial NSFW Ad For Tuff Shoes by Madhu Sapre and Milind Soman
Around 27 years ago (yes, 1995 was precisely that long ago), Tuffs shoes published an ad in a leading Indian daily featuring a nude Madhu Sapre and Milind Soman, wearing nothing but shoes and a python wrapped delicately around them. Photographed by none other than the late Prabuddha Dasgupta, the man that has been credited as the one who ‘invented’ glamour for India in the 1990s, the ad sparked a frenzied national debate. Following its release, protests sparked and there was a general fervour of disdain instigated by the Shiv Sena against the two models, the agency and the brand for creating the said ad. Moral police allegedly handed out Saris to Sapre’s father outside their home shortly after too. On 27 July, when the two formally admitted to having posed nude for the Tuffs campaign, the moral mafia descended on them. They were charged with violating the Indecent Representation of Women Act, 1986, and subsequently under Section 292(A) of the Indian Penal Code. It took them a long 14 years in court to be acquitted of the charges in 2009.
IV. MF Hussain’s Painting “Bharatmata”(Mother India) & Portrayal Of Nude Hindu Deities
While M.F. Hussain was touted as the Picasso of India, he has been one of the most controversial painters in the history of Indian art. His paintings were mainly considered to be controversial for their subject matter and nudity, which from an artistic viewpoint were a mix of Cubism and the classical Indian style of painting. Among his most controversial paintings of all time was a painting named ‘Bharatmata’, that Hussain asserted wasn’t named by him. His portrayal of nudity when depicting ‘Bharatmata’ roused in red and crying, perhaps depicting the enslaved nature of colonial India, led to widespread protests in the entire country. Apart from that, his portrayal of nude Hindu deities in his paintings did not sit well with many, among those was the painting of the naked Saraswati. This attracted mass protests by the Shiv Sena and Hindu sects.
“Whenever you do new work which people don’t understand, they say it was done to create controversy,” said Hussain once talking about how his work has invited controversy time and again. In the hearing of the Bharatmata case, Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul of the HC said, “It is very unfortunate that the works of any artist today who have tried to play around with nudity have come under scrutiny. They have to face the music, making them think twice before exhibiting their work. The criminal justice system should not be used as an easy recourse to ventilate against a creative art.”
V. The Scanty Scandal Behind Satyam Shivam Sundaram
Released in 1978, filmmaker and the original showman of Hindi cinema Raj Kapoor’s love story, ‘Satyam Shivam Sundaram’ caused an array of controversies in the 70s because of a particularly intimate scene between the actors, Shashi Kapoor and Zeenat Aman. The censor board, which has for years taken it upon themselves to moral police Hindi cinema, asked for the filmmaker to temper the scene. Not only that the film also caused a furore for the way Zeenat Aman’s character Rupa was scantily dressed throughout the film. Years later, Raj Kapoor spoke of the controversy surrounding the film and how he was accused of depicting women through an exploitative lens. He wrote, “When the film [Satyam Shivam Sundaram] was complete, I asked the censor board, ‘Which is more harmful, this or what you are permitting? You see the banners and posters all over India. Everybody is holding a gun or a sword or something with which to kill — in a country that propagates non-violence! Can’t you understand that that is what is harmful?’ ” He defended himself by saying, “If a Fellini shows a woman in the nude, it is considered art. If I show off a woman’s beauty, it’s called exploitation! What influenced my work of the early fifties is not necessarily what will influence the work of the eighties. It is not that idealism has been lost. I have taken up themes in which women are perhaps more active than men or are more subjected to emotional tyranny by society.”
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