The well-known Delhi Art Gallery’s capacious new space in New York’s prestigious Fuller Building brings Indian modernists to a Western audience. Featuring members of the Progressive Artists’ Group (PGA) of the 1950s, artists from the Bengal School in Santiniketan, and others making art post-independence in 1947, the gallery’s large repertoire focuses on work that was determined to break away from British academic training.
The current group exhibition, titled The Naked and the Nude, makes a distinction between portrayals of the “naked” and the “nude” body in Indian modern art. Traditionally, the bare figure was depicted in erotic sculptures on the facades of ancient Indian temples like Khajuraho and Konark in the 12th and 13th centuries. The culture celebrated nakedness as an icon of purity and the attainment of bliss as per the precepts of the Kama Sutra. But prudish Victorian norms tainted the act of looking, making the ancient Indian nude body a salacious voyeur’s delight. The catalogue essay attempts to separate the paintings in the exhibition into two categories: works that depict the ancient virtuous body and those with a vulgar slant. Yet the best artworks in this sprawling exhibition, which covers the years 1957–2006, are the ones that deal with the dilemma by combining the consecrated and the sacrilegious with a passion that’s collectively significant and singularly distinctive.
For members of the PGA like M.F. Husain and K.H. Ara, both of whom were both self- taught artists, the body finds a home between the two categories. In Husain’s early untitled and undated series of drawings on Conte paper, yellow angular lines resembling outstretched limbs suggest sexual coupling. Even his “Untitled” (1965) grisaille painting that recalls an abstract Cubist landscape reveals two men in sexual embrace. Influenced by the ideals of sexual union in ancient Hindu texts, Husain’s understated, subtle imagery captures the concept of physical intimacy just as well as Ara’s oversized, zaftig women representing fertility. Like the Venus of Willendorf, Ara’s female figures have large, childbearing hips and sumptuous thighs. Yet these goddesses of fecundity fill their frames without the prurience of Manet’s Olympia or even Titian’s Urbino. Situated in a strangely alluring but only partially sexual realm, both artists find a visual language that incorporates both chaste and licentious iconography.
Avinash Chandra similarly renders the corporal and the sublime together, here in two large, unique paintings replete with his unmistakable squiggles. In his untitled painting of 1963 made with acrylic, water color, pastel, and markers on linen, cartoon-like figures that recall the work of George Condo appear amid a frenzied swirl of lines. An abundance of oddly shaped breasts and phalluses can be seen within the curved flourishes, suggesting an environment of free sex reminiscent of the Beat Generation and 1960s Woodstock. Chandra’s highly suggestive imagery is both humorous and charged, and it embraces sexuality while forgoing overtly sensuous excesses.
Notions of beauty and sexuality are deeply entwined with intimations of human suffering in Jogen Chowdhury’s work. His contorted female figures drawn with pastel on paper are influenced by Indian tribal art and seem to harness the power of the goddess Kali, Grotesque and unappealing, his palpably raw forms emit an energy that feels almost destructive. Similarly, the twisted female body in an untitled 1975 work by Prokash Karmakar has large, pomegranate-like breasts and a distended belly; it is as suffused with feminine vitality as it is repulsive.
The dual aspect of the works that conjoin Hindu idealism with modern sexual potency becomes more complex in paintings by Laxma Goud and Sunil Das. Goud combines a sense of oneness with all creatures, derived from growing up in rural India, with an uncurtailed libido. His stirring animal forms in pen and ink are surreal, erotic, satyr-like shapes with muscular legs, tails, and multiple breasts (recalling Louise Bourgeoisie sculptures) — they exude the fearlessness and savagery of Greek mythological figures. Likewise, Das has a fantastical creature drawn with ink in 1972 that emerges from a profusion of curved dark lines resembling a nimbus cloud. With multiple limbs, udder-like breasts, a phallus, and bulging masses of flesh, this wild, headless creature exhibits a carnal force. By presenting the idea of sexuality through these unreal, imagined figures, both artists are able to more easily oscillate between the realm of the virtuous and the vulgar.
This discussion — and exhibition — would be incomplete without including F.N. Souza, the founder of the PGA and the bad boy of pornographic art. His explicitly sexual sketches and paintings of couples copulating, as well as his deliberately titillating renderings of the Kama Sutra, place Souza’s work squarely in the nude, raunchy category. However, the distinction between the naked and the nude in the exhibition mostly falls short. As much as one can argue to the contrary in theory, in reality the Indian modernists found their voices through their very ability to combine the tenets of ancient Indian iconography with more contemporary forms. In fact, the show’s triumph lies in presenting artists whose works attest to the vigorousness of this mix. With a smaller, tighter selection of paintings, the viewer might better understand the fallacy of this distinction and the great value of works that combine the two.
The Naked and the Nude: The Body in India Modern Art continues at DAG Modern (41 E 57th Street, Ste 708, Midtown East, Manhattan) through February 27.