Primly demure, she leans back on the sofa, lost in thought, while the lights in the South Delhi living room flicker—it is a bad electricity day—and the candles make her sari in various shades of white appear all the more elegant, stately. Conversation turns to what is exciting on the art scene: this is a small crowd of art aficionados, and the petite lady is an art connoisseur of no mean sensibility. Suddenly, she lurches forward, clutching the edge of the sofa, eyes aglow, and blurts out rather loudly: "When I saw Brootaji's show I was sexually aroused." Having said this, she relapses into her original pose amidst twitters and raised eyebrows. Conversation stops—until painter Rameshwar Broota, sitting at the other end of the room, says sotto voce: "She is right, it is there in my paintings, the sexual energy, it is about male sexuality."
Contemporary Indian artists have essentially played coy with eroticism, with the unabashed exception of artists like F.N. Souza, Laxma Goud, Jogen Chowdhury, Bhupen Khakar, K.H. Ara, A. Ramachandran—and M.F. Husain intermittently—in their sexually explicit works. Concerned about the reaction of parents, children (particularly daughters), society and the state, many artists put a leash on their erotic imagination—sublimating it in suggestiveness and allegory (much like two birds cooing or fountains bursting forth in Hindi films) or limiting it to private circulation amongst the initiated few.
Lately, though, several artists seem to be shedding their inhibitions, both about exploring sexuality and more significantly, about exhibiting their erotic fantasies. At an auction (Osian) in Mumbai a few months ago, a bidder was determined, at any price, to possess a work by Ranbir Kaleka, titled Two Women with a Lizard. The painting, which looks like something out of a luridly-coloured dream, shows two women playing with a lizard that has a penile shape. Kaleka's earlier work, shown in Delhi a few years ago, is even more erotically charged and far more explicit. He doesn't mince any paint depicting states of arousal in both men and women in his complex and layered work. Erect penises and swollen pudenda people his paintings; he also depicts post-coital states, especially in his painting Family. A similar boldness and de-romanticised notion of sexuality, though not nearly as erotic, has informed the work of a few women artists. "You do see reveries of feminine sexuality, which range from feminine sexual suggestiveness to the homo-erotic," says art writer Gayatri Sinha.
The works of women painters like Nalini Malani and Anupam Sud hint at sexual possibilities and contain elements of erotic suggestiveness. Sonia Khurana uses video art to turn the conventional notion of the erotic on its head: naked and not exactly thin she rolls and moves in front of the camera for 20 minutes. The principle of pure pleasure—vilas—and the erotic impulse is usually missing in the work of many women artists. It is feminist discourse that has, according to art historian and curator Dr Alka Pande, led several women artistes to explore the female body and sexuality.
The proliferation of thematic group shows, combined with curatorial boldness, has also encouraged artists to unleash their erotic imagination. For Vilas, a group show curated by Gayatri Sinha two years ago, painter Subodh Gupta dropped both his palette and his clothes to do a huge nude photograph of himself. He sprawls in a chair, his legs slightly apart—and without the proverbial fig lea—his gaze directed provocatively towards the viewer. Another group show: in Paresh Maity's diabolically witty painting Shringar, a young woman with an overflowing bosom holds a mirror, her expression more smug than coy. The erotic charge of this work lies in the fact that she is not holding the mirror to her face, but to her stomach, and her hand appears to be between her legs.
While some artists have become more liberated, their work—with a few exceptions—is less erotic than that of classical Indian art. Art historians believe the imposition of Victorian morality sounded the death-knell of eroticism amongst Indian artists. Says author and art conservator Rupika Chawla: "The double standards and hypocrisy still affect society and artists, motivating our social behaviour and our artistic responses." Interestingly, folk art didn't need any subterfuge but individual artists have to be far more reticent, erring on the side of subtlety. No wonder Ramachandran's eroticism is more diffuse. In his monumental Yayati series he was, as he says, "showing an old man dreaming about the sensuous world that slipped out of his hands. He has lost the physical strength to enjoy life". In his paintings redolent with sensuality, erotic fantasies are realised in the ripeness of nature, especially in his flowers and foliage. However, Ramachandran's drawings are unequivocally erotic: they are not meant for public consumption. Less is left to the imagination, yet the masterly control of his lines keeps his work way above the level of obscenity.
Husain is equally timid about exhibiting his more erotic work in India. In fact, he even prefers to paint his erotic watercolours when he is abroad, as gallery owner Dadiba Pundole of Mumbai's Pundole Gallery reveals. His human-animal combo appears in several permutations, including women coupled with beings that are part-men, part-lions. Like Husain, Jogen Chowdhury does erotic work in the Indian tradition of painting, says painter Krishen Khanna. The erotic lies in the organic nature of his lines. "Jogen Chowdhury shows curves and bends and outlines of a woman's body much like a fjord, enhancing the feeling of a potential penetration. He also suggests breasts in the roundness of the fruit, reinforced by a slithering line of a serpent," says Chawla.
The bolder painters eschew the reticence. Souza's paintings are arguably the most frank, leaving little to the imagination. The late painter lived overseas and that perhaps was the reason for his being so uninhibited. Goud's paintings and etchings are erotic in the extreme, teetering on the pornographic with their woman-and-beast themes, even though the artist has always lived in India. The eroticism in Kaleka's work is far more complex, as is the artist's treatment of male sexuality and vulnerability. Khakar's homoerotic paintings are explicit. Yet, like the others, his wit and painterly skills save them from being profane.