What does the idea of ‘nudity’ evoke? Generally, shock and repugnance, something which very easily offends. In fact, there is a very thin line between the erotic and the obscene, and when it comes to nudity in art, it is impossible to predict how it would be interpreted. As an example, one may amusingly recall how deeply shocked Queen Victoria was on encountering the cast of the statue of David in the Victoria and Albert Museum so much so that the museum covered David’s genitalia with a fig leaf. Hilarious as it may sound, nudity in art has led to the persecution of artists in several instances. But didn’t Michelangelo himself said – ‘What spirit is so empty and blind, that it cannot recognize the fact that the foot is more noble than the shoe, and skin more beautiful that the garment with which it is clothed?’

In recent times, a case in point is actor Ranveer Singh’s nude photographs that split the internet into two camps – one appreciating it, and the other condemning it, to the extent of filing FIRs under sections 293 and 509 of the IPC, as well as, under Sec. 67 (A) of the Information Technology Act. Just as homosexuality was a criminal offence in India till 2018, nudity too, in various ways, still invokes the question of what’s lawful and what isn’t.

The hypocrisy of the Indian state, in name of “Indian culture”, becomes most brazenly pronounced in this matter: while on the one hand, the state is currently obsessing with its project of decolonisation, taking the concept a little too literally in several cases, it is interesting how it refuses to acknowledge India’s rich history of nude art, and, celebration of life itself through capturing in all forms of art, not just nudity, but, passionate moments of copulation and sexual pleasure. This refusal to acknowledge the celebration of nude art of the past, carries in it a deep-seated shame inculcated in Indian minds by the colonial admonishment of sex, sexuality, cultures of the body, expressions of sexuality beyond gender binaries that existed in pre-colonial times. An interesting example would be how till about the 1980s, a copy of the Kama Sutra held by the library at Delhi University was hidden in a back room and a faculty member could access it only on making a special request. This urgency to restrict the public circulation of Kama Sutra was symptomatic of the postcolonial nation’s intense wariness regarding sex, which has not changed much even today. However, it would be inaccurate to assume that all was wonderful with South Asia in precolonial times in terms of inclusivity and celebration of differences. Yet, the evidences of art’s celebration of sexuality and nudity in South Asia are way too many to ignore its existence.

The point in beginning the review of Archan Mukherjee and Tirthankar Guha Thakurta’s Myth, Mystery and Men with a reflection on nudity and sexuality in art is to locate this coffee-table book in a complex and nuanced cultural history of sexuality in South Asia. The book introduces its subject by asking a few questions: ‘Man—what does it mean to be one? What drives a human being towards their masculinity? Is it their social location, or their free choice?’ and so on. The book consistently deconstructs the idea of masculinity while also conforming to stereotypes at the same time, in order to capture the wide spectrum of how the ‘idea of man’ is subverted or sustained within queer countercultures. The book locates its images within an existing history of art, sexuality, and desire, mostly quoting from Keats, Maya Angelou, Rudyard Kipling, Paulo Coelho, or through references to Michelangelo’s fresco painting, “The Creation of Adam” or Caravaggio’s “The Crowning with Thorns”. It’s interesting how an eclectic mix of cross-references situate the book in a global culture of fine art nudes, it is a tad disappointing that apart from one quote from Vidyapati, the book does not explore local cultures of eroticism and nudity much. The aesthetics of high art, buttressed by several cross-references from both literature and art, is evident as one leafs through the book; the flip side is that it may alienate those not well-versed in the history of art. One can counter that though by arguing that in order to appreciate images one need not be literate in the arts, for, the images speak for themselves.

If one looks at the images very closely, it is difficult to miss the irony: The studio set-up within which all male bodies are shot appear like a closet, within which the photographer has found access, while the subject plays out its sensuousness not expecting to be watched. The irony here is how queerness which has been for ages performed behind closed doors, is suddenly drawn out to dwell under the public gaze. It is the photographer’s privilege, as it were, to find a passport to these private spaces and moments of passion or even misgivings, and capture the subjects, none of which actually look directly into the camera, as if caught unawares.

Most of the images use fruits related to passion and fertility – be it the pomegranate, the grapefruit or the half-eaten forbidden fruit. The first image (which could be called ‘the butterfly on the butt-cheek’) inaugurates the spirit of the book – the butterfly’s age-old association with marriage, copulation and fertility. The images gather deeper meaning if the viewer (or reader) is conscious of the props used. For instance, the use of mirror images: the conscious evocation of Narcissus, one who was in love with his own image. The queer body, for the longest time, being imprisoned in the closet, flourished under its own gaze – the mirror being the only friend which allowed the queer body to perform its queerness. Out of these mirror images, the alert viewer cannot miss the recreation of a moment from Rituparno Ghosh’s Chitrangada – the moment, in which Rudra, considering gender assignment surgery, in a state of delirium enters a surreal space and keeps gazing at a cauldron of water, while Tagore’s Chitranagada plays in the background. The book, hereby, pays homage to Bengal’s only queer icon, locating itself in local histories of queer representations in art.

The images individually and in correlation to each other tells a story, parallel to an epistolary love story between a certain Suranjan and Ramesh, who may or may not be real people. However, the story ends with the reading down of Sec. 377 of the IPC in September 2018, when Suranjan, ironically, has to leave his biological family not ready to accept their sexuality. The open-endedness of the love story is interesting in the sense that queerness continues to remain an anathema to the biological family, and, reading down of a draconian colonial law means nothing to many. In recent debates on decolonization, the reading down of Sec. 377 has been held up several times as one of the most exemplary moments of decolonization by a few ruling party spokespersons. Eventually, however, the marriage equality debates in the Supreme Court and its verdict in October 2023, underscored the impossibility of granting full citizenship rights to the queer citizen. The images in Myth, Mystery, and Men communicate a deep sense of longing and despair simultaneously, where the subjects barely ever smile – the pronounced absence of happiness in the images effectively brings out the unending battle the queer citizen subject continues to wage.

Myth, Mystery and Men, therefore, is much more than fine arts nudes. It encapsulates a nuanced history – both cultural and political – if one approaches the book with a certain degree of awareness of how the global LGBTIAQ+… movement has unfolded over the centuries. It’s a collectible too, for it appears at a particular historical moment, what makes Pawan Dhall say in the ‘foreword’ that it is heart-warming that “such depiction of queerness is possible in today’s Kolkata and India”. However, there are examples of celebration of the male body in Manavendra Singh Gohil’s projects, Fantasy and Fun, launched as early as 2010. The primary differentiator is that Arhcan Mukherjee captures male bodies of all shapes and sizes, without prioritizing the unrealizable beauty standards of the six-pack.

Dr Kaustav Bakshi
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