The Secret Lives Of Nude Art Models In India

The Secret Lives Of Nude Art Models In India
Pooja Sivaraman

It’s 9 AM on a Monday morning and Amrita Mala (name changed) is going about her daily chores. She has prepared breakfast for her husband and just about managed to get her daughter ready for school on time. Once they leave, she quickly gets ready for her own job. As she brushes out her long, dense black hair, the reflection staring back at her takes shape. ‘Voluptuous contours’ is how those who know her body best might describe it. Grabbing her cream-coloured purse, she rushes out of her small, dingy one-room apartment in a MHADA chawl in Chembur. She leaves smiling at her neighbours who perhaps wouldn’t smile back if they knew what she really did.

An hour later, she is on the premises of JJ School Of Arts. She recognises a few of the students who wave at her as she walks past a corridor full of portraits, one of which is of her grandmother, ‘Amma,’ as she is fondly remembered. “They see a little bit of her in me,” she tells me as she discreetly undresses behind a translucent curtain, walking out naked to a sea of unflinching faces. Standing almost perfectly still for over half an hour, she poses as the pencil-totalling students meticulously bring their nude study to life on canvas.

Amrita gets paid INR 400 per day as a ‘nude study’ or ‘model for a life drawing class.’ “It’s much better than what my grandmother or mother would get paid for the same, which was a mere 50 bucks,” she admits. “But it’s hard to find nude art models now, so the colleges have increased the rates.”

Nude Studies and life-drawing classes have been an inherent part of the Fine Arts curriculum in any discourse. It is a tradition that goes back in history, a fact that’s well-illustrated in all our iconic temples that depict human forms via sculptures, intricate carvings, paintings and more. Why, then, is it getting increasingly difficult to find nude studies in the country today? Moral standards enforced by societal stigmas and a largely conservative political environment have either forced the models to quit or carry on with their profession in secret – a risk that should be well paid for. “There are two major problems we are facing these days – the difficulty to find nude studies and our inability to be able to afford their fees,” says Dr Gopal Wene, art mentor at the Art Society Of India. “As independent art schools and organisations, we do not have so many funds. But life drawing classes are extremely important, that is why we do whatever we can to make these available for our students,” he explains.

His sentiment is shared by Mr Vasudevan, H.O.D of Painting in the Fine Arts Department of MSU University Vadodara, where nude study classes are scarce, more so because of Vadodara’s status as a smaller city. “The official rates fixed by the university are not high enough for a model to agree to unclothe herself. A few still do so out of the need to support themselves and their families,” he says, going on to explain the necessity of nude studies in fine arts. “To translate the beauty of the human anatomy, right from the contours of the body to the texture of the skin and the expressions of the model truly tests the potential of an artist. It is also central to understanding how the human body changes with age – all of which cannot be understood by drawing a clothed model.”

The art students, too, understand the importance of nude studies in their syllabus. Pujashree Vuramn, 25, a post-grad student pursuing masters in Painting was part of one of the fortunate batches to have had proper nude study classes at MSU, where the students themselves pitched in money to pay for the model. “There are lots of people willing to be nude studies who are in dire need of money. It’s just that the socio-political environment of our country is not conducive enough,” she tells me. After the sessions, a few Gujarati newspapers raised questions regarding the practice of having nude studies in fine arts classes and they stopped again. It was easier to find nude models 10 years ago but now, given the social taboos and decreasing privacy in the age of new media, it’s almost impossible to find one.

Photographed by Pooja Sivaraman

Amrita is not immune to the taboos herself. She understands what it means to be a nude art model at a time like this. Thus, nobody except the maternal side of the family knows what she does. Just like her grandmother, mother and sisters, she too has kept her occupation a secret from her husband who believes she is a sweeper in the college. Her peers, neighbours and friends still have no idea. “What if they were to see your painting or sculpture somewhere?” I ask her. “People here are not exposed to that kind of art or culture. They wouldn’t really find out. It’s one of the reasons I only give interviews to the English media and not regional,” she smirks.

Having been an art model for the last 13 years, Amrita was forced into it at the tender age of ten but she didn’t pose nude until the beginning of this year. “I was so scared, literally on the verge of tears. I held onto my clothes for the longest times until my mother nudged me to get over my fears. As I walked out naked, nobody saw me through a dirty gaze. For them, I was a study, something that would help them become better artists. It was all for the sake of art, it always has been. It took a while getting used to it, but now I am confident. In fact, the students are friendly and encouraging and now I freely give them feedback on my own portraits,” she tells me.

Amma, her grandmother, who has been a nude art model for the last 40 years too, laughs voraciously saying that she can easily tell looking at a portrait if a student is going to pass or fail. The Naidu ladies do not feel ashamed of their profession. “If we were only doing it for the money, there are hundreds of other jobs we could have done. But we feel a certain sense of satisfaction in helping the art students learn, they say. But given societal stigma, it’s just easier to keep quiet than to explain,” they say, still hoping for a raise in their wages.

It’s not just the unclothing part that is onerous either. Over the many hours that I spent with the Naidu clan, I began to understand what an under-rated skill it is to be able to hold one’s body still for such a long amount of time. In fact, nude art models tend to suffer from backaches, cramps and stiffness in the body and these effects have been documented.

Though there are no clear statistics on payment and the number of people working as nude art models in the country, the Maharashtra government recently hiked daily wages of live models for government-run art schools from INR 300 to INR 1,000 per day. In other parts of the country, it’s around INR 500. According to a Times of India report, the money involved in nude photography is far greater.

While the dearth of nude models is apparent and acknowledged, it is even more cumbersome to find a male model willing to pose nude. And it goes without saying that studying the male anatomy is as important as studying the female one in this space. That is why many male art students voluntarily pose nude for their classes. “A nude is very pure, like water. Male grace is important while posing,” reported Times of India, quoting Nayan Nagarkar, a Nashik-based professor who volunteers for nude sessions at Raheja School and Art Society of India and practices meditation to achieve the correct posture.

Amrita’s brother too used to be a nude model but he refused to keep any facial hair – one of the reasons why he wasn’t invited by art schools to pose anymore. Her youngest brother, however, poses semi-nude.

During a Nude Art Session In Raheja School Of Arts. Photographed by Pooja Sivaraman

An interesting shift can be observed today, however, wherein young urban millennials are using art to explore their own bodies. Tsohil Bhatia, a performance artist and former student of Srishti School Of Art and Design started clicking nude portraits of himself. “It may have been out of rebellion but it gave me a sense of freedom,” the 25-year-old says. Although he has posed as a nude study for just one session, Tsohil is very comfortable moving around nude in private spaces. “When you are standing up there like a sculpture, you are looked at, almost like a shrine. Being nude puts you in a position of power. At that moment, you have nothing to hide. Earlier people would ask me why I was naked all the time? I would simply think in my head, why aren’t you?” Given that he reveals his naked body to the public, Tsohil is often assumed to be homosexual, a stereotype many male nude models have to battle. While his peers have become used to seeing him in the nude and have actually started appreciating the work he does around the human body, his parents remain apprehensive. Ishani Das, a photographer and videographer based out of Delhi too works with her own body taking self-portraits and often poses unclothed for photographers. “People tell me it’s porn. I get unsolicited dick pictures sent to me on Instagram all the time but I hardly care now. I do it for myself, to understand the fall of light and shadow on a bare human body. It’s very interesting,” she says simply.

Self Portraits. Tsohil Bhatia (L) and Ishanii Das (R)

Be it nude art models posing out of the need to support their families or exploring their own bodies while doing so, the naked, bitter truth remains that it is a profession that continues to be frowned upon. Perhaps even more so now given the moral and political climate of the country. Most people label nude art models as prostitutes and even jeopardize artists whose work revolves around nude art. The problem is that these people (who sadly make up a majority of the country’s mindsets) may never understand the integrity, intensity and the importance of the human anatomy portrayed through art. Be that as it may, nude art models find ways to work around the taboos by either keeping it a secret or revelling in not caring, often with the sole aim of helping the art community grow in India with the added benefit of being able to put food on the table for some.

Amrita, however, looks into the mirror every day, the fear and guilt of her trusting husband finding out clearly visible in the reflection of her eyes. She only hopes to see a day where she wouldn’t have to lie to her beloved just to pay the bills.

Feature image photographed by Shreeda Patel.

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