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Cover job

LiveMint logoLiveMint 19-05-2014 Dhamini Ratnam

In 1954, Akbar Padamsee’s exhibition at the Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai, created quite a stir—a painting titled Lovers depicted the nude figures of a man and a woman, with the former’s hand on the latter’s breast. A police inspector took great exception to that gesture and filed a case against the painter. Luckily, Bombay Presidency magistrate M. Nasrullah ruled that there was nothing obscene about the painting and defended the piece saying, “The object of art is not to deprave or corrupt morals, but to elevate the mind.”

But the publishers of Mihir Srivastava’s new book, Conversations In the Nude, seem keen not to take any chances. It may be moot to ask whether the book, based on the journalist-author’s experiences of sketching nudes of strangers, can be called art, yet HarperCollins Publishers India has added a black square on all front-facing sketches.

The New Delhi-based author isn’t too happy about the patch. “Of course, the publishers have played it safe,” he says over phone. “It’s also highly counterproductive, as the squares draw attention to the genitals. Visually, the patches spoil my sketches.”

However, Ajitha G.S.,commissioning editor, HarperCollins India, said that the black patch is a “political statement”. “We could have chosen images that had no full frontal nudity, or delicately pixellated the book so that it didn’t jump out at you when you browsed it. Indeed, Mihir could have touched up images on Photoshop or cropped them imaginatively. Instead, we used big, black squares as a sign of resistance. You cannot read this book without thinking about what we were not allowed to show you,” said Ajitha.

There have been a number of cases in the recent past where the argument of hurt sentiment has led to texts being withdrawn, pulped or dropped from syllabuses. In February, Penguin Books India agreed to withdraw from sale and pulp all existing copies of American academic Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, as part of a legal settlement with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh idealogue Dina Nath Batra’s Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti. His six-year-old organization which, as the name suggests, aims to “rescue” Indian education, also ensured that scholar A.K. Ramanujan’s essay, 300 Ramayanas, was taken off the history syllabus of the University of Delhi in 2011. The essay explored the idea that the mythological text doesn’t so much emerge from a single version, but from several retellings.

The Capital’s famed university wasn’t the only one to succumb to such nationalist rescuing. In October 2010, the late Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray’s grandson, Aditya Thackeray, gave the University of Mumbai vice-chancellor 24-hour notice to drop Rohinton Mistry’s novel, Such a Long Journey, from the syllabus, because it contained “anti-Shiv Sena” passages that hurt the sentiments of Maharashtrians. The university complied and the 1991 Booker Prize shortlisted novel was dropped.

Nudity, too, has had a chequered history, notwithstanding Padamsee’s early win, which was also upheld by the Bombay high court. In February 2013, the Delhi Art Gallery held a retrospective show on the representation of the body in modern Indian art, The Naked And the Nude. It had to be shut down for a brief period after Vishwa Hindu Parishad activists protested against the works, which included pieces by Raja Ravi Varma, F.N. Souza, and A.P. Bagchi, among others.

However, Srivastava is happy that the book has been published. The writing, he says, achieves more than the innocuous patch. “I didn’t draw people to showcase their genitals. It was important for me for the book to reach people. Of course, nudity is an assertion of self, but no freedom is absolute,” he says.

The author also points out that he wasn’t keen on a confrontation. “I didn’t want to confront the government with the issue of nudity. The idea of the book is to show the reader that they are like the people I have sketched. Nudity allows us to push boundaries,” he adds. The vulnerability of his models transformed into empowerment, and afforded them “a natural state of being” that threw up all sorts of interesting situations, adds Srivastava.

Conversations In the Nude, published by HarperCollins Publishers India, Replika Press Pvt. Ltd, `599.

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