Artistic representation of the naked female body at an ongoing exhibition in the Capital celebrates the ‘body’ while critiquing commodification

Even as women’s groups and civil society engage in the discourse on sexual violence against women, the debate around ‘commodification’ of women’s bodies often takes the shape of discomfort with any forms of celebration of the body.

An ongoing exhibition at the Delhi Art Gallery titled “The Naked and the Nude” has brought to the fore the diverse forms in which the naked body is represented in modern Indian art; the body emerges as a potent form of protest against and comment on unjust social practices. The exhibition comes at a critical juncture when ‘gender sensitivity’ and ‘commodification’ tend to be used as a plea for moral policing of artistic representations of the body.

Speaking to The Hindu, Kishore Singh, head of exhibitions and publication at the Delhi Art Gallery, highlighted the significance of the naked form, “Nakedness is a state of being, when an artist brings a certain perspective into it and uses the naked body to narrate a story, it becomes a nude. In this exhibition of (paintings of) 60 very important modern Indian artists, we have tried to bring out the ways in which the body is portrayed to depict social inequities, patterns of feudalism and as a mode of critiquing commodification. I absolutely deny anything to do with commodification. Instead of terming any form of representation of the body as commodification, we need sensitisation about the body as an inherent part of human nature which we do not need to be ashamed of.”

Mr. Singh further added, “In some instances, the unclothed body is central to the narration in the artists’ work. Clothes act as a marker of social class, rural, urban divide; the subject becomes subverted.”

The representations of the body in the exhibition trace diverse social processes. Anupam Sud’s painting titled Darling Get me a Baby talks about the phenomenon of the test-tube baby in the 1970s and the woman’s increasing assertion of the ownership of her body. Bikash Bhattacharjee’s portrait of a young woman who has been widowed emerges as a stark symbol of vulnerability and helplessness. Ved Nayar uses the iterative image of slim bodies posing for advertisements to talk about a consumerist culture of selling and marketing.

Gogi Saroj Pal’s work brings out the woman’s role as the nurturer using the image of kamdhenu. Chittoprasad’s work uses the image of the emaciated woman to highlight ills of the Bengal famine. V. Nageshkar’s painting uses the naked body of the black woman to depict the helplessness of the colonised subject. Jogen Chowdhury’s work depicts women affected by riots and sexual violence.

Artist and painter S.V. Rama Rao, who was visiting the exhibition, said, “Nudity is not just sexual expression. This is a historically significant exhibition.”

Speaking about the representation of women’s bodies and sexuality, Karen Gabriel, associate professor of English at St Stephen’s College, Delhi, who is also with the Centre for the Study of Gender, Culture and Social Processes, said: “The mainstream women’s movement often steers clear of talking about sexuality and the woman’s body. There is no comfort level with the idea of a sexual woman and there is a certain degree of hesitation in saying that women are sexual beings. Thus the debate around commodification has to be carried out responsibly to ensure that sexuality can be claimed without being a forced choice. While the pornographisation of a woman’s body has to be condemned, any form of representation of sexuality should not be termed commodification. This will only encourage a degree of sexual protectionism and moral policing.”

The exhibition had stirred a controversy earlier when activists of the Durga Vahini, the women’s wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, had staged a protest against the nude paintings. The exhibition is on till March 15.

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