Prabuddha Das Gupta is blessed in that his igniting neurons can explode into beautiful, tangible images. This is a wonderful book. Not because it is a monument to the Indian woman—which it is not—but because it makes a splendid case for reinstating the nude to its rightful place in our cultural discourse. This has been reiterated to the point of cliche, but it bears reassertion that through the centuries sexuality and the naked woman have been a seamless part of Indian lives. Ironically while the cloak of prudery, less than 200 years old, flung over us by a Catholic-Victorian sensibility, has been shed in the country of its origin, we continue to struggle with it ineffectually, shoving in our feet where the armholes beckon.
Books like Prabuddha's can only help us untangle ourselves. In particular, it is terrific that a pioneering volume like this has happened at the premium end of the market: bearing the imprimatur of a leading photographer and a prestigious publisher. This is not yellow-cellophaned sleaze, to be grubbily devoured in a corner. This is a handsome book, combining the aesthetic and the erotic—both impulses of a high order—to generate pleasure. Not of the sweaty palms variety, but a quiet reflective kind, which grows and ramifieswith each perusal, as the eye follows curves, discovering new patterns, stirring old memories.
There are aspects of the book one can carp about. For one, many of the nameless women are also faceless. There is something particularly distressing about a body that has no face: yes, you can see a mere body as a design, a landscape, an exotic suggestion, but it is in the face that all animation resides. Without a face, a body has the slightly soulless air of a tree without leaves. One leafless tree has stark beauty; pages on end reek of devastation. But here again the benefit of doubt ought to go to Prabuddha. Combating a mind-scape as repressive as ours takes time and resolve: this time many beautiful women have fought their demons to celebrate their bodies; next time, hopef-ully, many will also put their faces to them.
Then there is the fact that most of the women are of a physical type, the lissome, model variety, variations on the western prototype. There is virtually no placein Prabuddha's book for the classical vision of the Indian woman, voluptuous, swollen at breast and hip with the ripeness of her special bounties. Perhaps that is not the kind of woman he likes; perhaps that is not the kind of woman who lives on the further frontiers of emancipation from where his subjects come; perhaps that is the kind of woman whose intrinsic concupiscence can tilt the book's balance into the trough of erotica, something the artist may not want.
Whatever be the case, Prabuddha and his subjects need to be toasted for their courageous, pathbreaking effort. It's a pity that the half-witted gendarmes of morality should deny us a natural celebration of life. The immorality of the nude body is a weird concept that defies rationality. Our lives are far more obscene:in public we take bribes, oppress people, dig our noses. What Prabuddha has done is positively ethereal in comparison. For, to misquote Paton again, a woman's body is beautiful beyond all singing of it.