I know the title of this post will get all kinds of visitors to this blog but everything has a price. Okay, so this is about sex in Indian art, something I might have touched upon mostly in my posts on M.F. Hussain.
One of the first cries in the defence of Hussain is how sex and nudity were “very much a part of ancient/medieval Indian art.” This is usually followed by the much-abused example of Khajuraho. And then the defence stops at that.
To understand the role and place of sex in Indian art in today’s context, it is important to examine our own attitudes towards sex. It is not entirely inaccurate to say these attitudes are shaped by the Christian orientation: as sin. It is everywhere. From a third-rate pornographic magazine to the more mainstream Cosmopolitan, we see, read, and listen to sex referred to in such glorious terms as carnal craving, dirty delight, and sinful sensuality. We certainly don’t interpret these words literally but what propels associating sex with those particular words? Any guesses which dominant world religion gifted us this association?
It is also interesting to trace the rough timeline when Khajuraho became famous as an erotic-art tourist destination. A safe estimate would be around the time when the West became “sexually liberated.” In other words, when Western women began to speak about sex publicly and demanded equal rights to have sex. As is the case in most other fields, a few years later, India followed suit and suddenly rediscovered the abundant sensuality lying in its own backyard: from Kamasutra to Khajuraho. Scholars furiously began a singleminded pursuit of digging into India’s past to unearth mountains of eroticism in prose, verse, music, mythology, drama, painting, and folk. Thus is preserved our glorious past.
So why then was sex so ubiquitous in Indian art? And why do large numbers of Indians find the sex as depicted by today’s Indian artists so offensive? And why has no notable artist emerged out of India in the last 150 years? Or no temple-architecture/scultpure bordering on the scale of India’s past? Thankfully, Indian regional literature or classical music is not this unfortunate.
I don’t consider as artists the likes of Raja Ravi Varma or Nandalal Bose or a host of other similar folks. Irrespective of what erudite art “interpreters” and academics say. I have rather hazily commented on these in the past.
With no further digression, we turn to Ananda Coomaraswamy. In his masterly and comprehensive Aims and methods of Indian Art, he says
By many students, the sex symbolism of some Indian religious art is misconceived: but to those who comprehend the true spirit of Indian thought, this symbolism drawn from the deepest emotional experiences is proof of the power and truth alike of the religion and the art. India draws no distinction between sacred and profane love. All love is a divine mystery; it is the recognition of Unity. Indeed, the whole distinction of sacred and profane is for India meaningless….
This is the answer as to why millions of Indians are offended by Hussain’s, and that Baroda brat’s masterpieces, but worship the nudity/eroticism depicted in Hindu temples. Popular opinion says it is the nudity that offends these people. Here is Monier Williams, quoted by Coomaraswamy, on how sex is regarded in Indian thought:
…in India, the relationship between the sexes is regarded as a sacred mystery, and is never held to be suggestive of improper or indecent ideas.
Followed by Coomaraswamy’s quip that as much could hardly be said for Europe. Followed again by further elaboration on sex symbolism in Indian art. The entire passage is gold standard stuff.
…the possbility of such symbolism lies…in the acceptance of all life as religious, no part as profane. In such an idealisation of life itself lies the strength of Hinduism, and in its absence the weakness of modern Christianity. The latter is puritanical; it has no concern with art or agriculture, craft or sex or science. The natural result is that these are secularised, and that men concerned with these vital sides of life must either preserve their life and . religion apart in separate water-tight compartments, or let religion go. The Church cannot . complain of the indifference of men to religion when she herself has cut off from religion, and delimited as ‘profane’, the physical and mental activities and delights of life itself.
As experience testifies, life is a unified whole broken into parts only by the mind. Indian thought assigns only a secondary significance to Mind, which is why spirituality, not psychology, left its lasting roots in India. The story of Hiranyakashipu and Prahlada is a classic illustration of this wholesomeness. Although a demon/evil incarnate, Hiranyakashipu is consumed with rage for Vishnu who he sees as his only foe. Prahlada, his son, is the opposite: he is a steadfast devotee of Vishnu. Both father and son are consumed by the same passion but diametrically opposite in nature.
Coomaraswamy then quickly evaluates modern art (around 1910).
Passing through the great galleries of modern art, nothing is more impressive than the fact that none of it is religious. I do not merely mean that there are no Madonnas and no crucifixes; but that there is no evidence of any union of artistic with the religious sense… Such art appears therefore, let us not say childish, for children are wiser, but empty, because of its lack of a true metaphysic. Of this the cries of realism and ‘art for art’s sake’ are evidence enough. A too confident appeal to the so-called facts of nature is to the Indian mind conclusive evidence of superficiality of thought. For the artist above all must be true, for the first essential of true art is not imitation, but imagination.
Indeed, this imagination animates all great works of Indian art. I dare not add anything more on the sex symbolism after Coomaraswamy. So I’ll part with an amazing sequence from the 1997 Telugu film, Annamayya on the life of the 15th Century saint-poet-musician, Annamacharya. Annamacharya is shown to be an ardent sensualist in his early youth. When the God Vishnu in human form takes him to a temple, Annamacharya points to a host of erotic sculptures at the temple, and asks Vishnu how he feels about it. In a sweetness that is specific to only the Telugu language, Vishnu says, in those sculptures I see the unseen parents of the foundation of the entire living Cosmos engaged in the Yagna of creation.
The true end of sex.