Immigrant Bengalis

Nudity As An Art Form: Bengali and Western Art

Basab Dasgupta

Almost every artist in the Western world has painted or sculpted nudes in their work but nudity is largely absent in the works of famous Bengali artists. This is, of course, consistent with the traditional conservative Bengali culture where the women in the past not only used to be covered up when appearing in public but resided in the interior of home behind a curtain.

I am not a professional artist, but I have done hundreds of images using various media throughout my life. Painting is a favorite pastime during my present retirement life. I was always intrigued by a nude female body from my childhood and wanted to draw nudes. I accidentally saw a woman, probably in her thirties, taking a shower when I was six years old. I was captivated by how beautiful her figure was even though her face was not that pretty. The curves of her body and the glistering smoothness of her soft skin made me feel an urge to capture that image on paper. I did not know anything about sex at the time.

I wondered if any Bengali artist felt the same way and painted nudes?

Upon internet search, I came across only one name: Hemen Mazumdar. He did some nude paintings in color such as, “Dilli ka Laddu” and pencil sketches such as, “Study of Young Nude”. However, he was famous for his own unique style known as “Wet Saree Style” as a new genre in Bengali art. These paintings showed ordinary women clad in wet sarees after taking a bath in the river or in the bathroom looking at a mirror. The uniqueness of the paintings was that they showed a glimpse of the body and muscle tones through the folds of a wet saree -- images that were both erotic and artistic. Also, the depiction of regular women engaged in their daily activities, as opposed to models in an art school, offered its own allure.

Not surprisingly, his work was frowned upon in Bengal, but he received widespread recognition from outside of Bengal, especially from Nawabs and Maharajas.

Although Rabindranath Tagore did not do any nude paintings himself, he appreciated nude paintings that he saw during his visits to Europe, especially in Paris. He described them as pure beauty and a source of joy, not adulterated by sexual thoughts. He even wrote about them in his “Europe Jatri’s Diary”. However, his admiration did not translate into encouragement to artists in Shantiniketan such as Abanindranath Tagore and Nandalal Bose to engage in similar paintings.

I was touched by the movie, “Rang Rasiya '' which depicted a largely fictionalized story of the 19th century Indian artist Ravi Varma’s passion for female figures and his struggle with the conservative society of his time. I was surprised to see the Bengali actress Nandana Sen appearing nude in one scene which was very artistically done. Her healthy views about nudity in art are worth quoting: “My body is as much a part of my humanity as my brain, my morals, my heart, and I will never be ashamed of expressing it with the dignity and self-respect it deserves”.

One reason for the absence of nudity in Bengali art is that art is really a reflection of our life. During my youth in India, I had no exposure to any nudity in books, magazines, and movies -- not to mention strip clubs. We did not even have TVs. Exposed skins of Bollywood cabaret dancers, highly censored Hollywood movies, and scantily clad women on magazine covers gave me a glimpse of that forbidden world.

Unfortunately, many Bengalis associate nudity with pornography because their knowledge of nudity probably comes from images in books like “Kamasutra” or erotic sculptures on the exteriors of temples such as those at Khajuraho and Konark. However, those images are intended to depict sexual unions and not to promote art.

When I first came to the US, my roommate hung a picture of a Playboy playmate in our apartment. It left no mysteries about female anatomy, but it was too clinical, too cold; it was neither pornography nor art. I never felt an urge to paint a picture of a playmate.

My appreciation for artistic nudes developed from trips to Europe and visits to famous museums in Paris, Rome, Florence, London and Vienna. The paintings and sculptures in Italy from the Renaissance period were mesmerizing. It was a new experience for me to see how a female body can be visualized from so many different angles and in so many different poses and moods.

European art is full of nudes, but I do not recall many depicting intimate coupling between a male and a female, and certainly nothing as explicit as ancient Indian art on temple walls.

I believe that there are two key reasons why an artist gets interested in nudes: a) an undraped female body is one of the most beautiful objects in the world. (The famous French sculptor Auguste Rodin expressed it best. When someone once asked him why he was obsessed with nude female figures in his artwork he reportedly responded, “what else is there?”); and b) painting a living, breathing naked human body is one of the most difficult tasks for any artist and is a challenge. (It is certainly a lot easier to paint a landscape, a still life or a religious icon.)

The difficulty of painting a human body is due partly to skin color and partly to muscle tone. Skin color is not just some mixture of yellow, brown, white and pink. It has shades of all the colors in a rainbow. It is not an easy task to mix them and reflect a realistic looking human figure compared to painting a woman wearing a saree, skirt, or some ornate royal outfit. Then there are various curves, folds, smoothness of skin, muscle tone and shapes of various parts. Even when one draws a pencil sketch, shading becomes a critical part of the effort to reflect these delicate aspects of a female body.

The Bengali artists do not get exposed enough to nudity to appreciate the first point. There are not many who have been to Europe. There are certainly not many women interested in posing in the nude for them in Kolkata or any other town.  Perhaps they also just do not want to accept the challenge involved in painting a nude, not only because of the difficulty but also because of the lack of opportunity to display their artwork.

The walls of my home are full of paintings, many of which are replications of artwork by masters like Michelangelo, Leonardo, Botticelli, Rodin, Gustav Klimt, Dali, Picasso etc. showing nudes in various poses.

My daughter who herself is now a mother of two preteen kids, a boy and a girl, inherited her mother’s conservative puritanical perspective. Before every visit to my home, she has insisted that I cover the private areas of all of my nudes. I complied.

However, the kids are not stupid. Despite all precautions taken by my daughter, my granddaughter asked me out of the blue during one visit, “Dadu, why do you paint so many naked women?” I was honest with my answer. “You see”, I said “I am just replicating works of famous artists. Also, painting a nude is much more difficult than painting a woman wearing a dress and I like that challenge”. She is a good artist in her own right; she understood. I hope that she will not be inhibited in painting whatever appeals to her creative urge.

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(Posted January 1, 2024)

Coments received from Pinaki C. on January 7, 2024: 

It is true that nudity is much less in Indian Art.
However, I have seen many nude paintings by Indian artists.
1) Krishna stole all the clothes of the milkmaids while they were bathing, and he climbed on a tree, and watching them.
2) Some gods and goddesses are painted nude (and many sculptors too).
3) Mother Kali is mostly painted nude, in some cases Shiva too.
4) There is a book, by Dr. Pratapaditya Pal on Indian Goddesses. Many are nude. In some sculptors
     they have shown detailed sex organs (symbol of source of creation).
If one considers sculptors, Konarak, Khajuraha - "surpasses imagination" .... said by (do you know who?).

Response from the author on January 9, 2024: 

Thanks for bringing this to my attention.. My essay is not about nudity in INDIAN art but in BENGALI art. Of course, everyone is aware of nudity in Kamasutra, Khajuraho etc. I was not aware of the book by Pratapaditya Pal but even there it sounds like (I have not seen the book) it has some pictures of nude statues, sculpted by unknown artists, as opposed to Bengalis.