Of naked gods and the cover-up jobs

Another nude portrait, another outcry.

The Hindu Janajagruti Samiti forced artist Nitai Das to withdraw a nude portrait allegedly resembling Lord Shiva from an exhibition at Jehangir Art Gallery.

We are back to the same old argument about freedom of expression. The artist has gone on the defensive saying that his untitled oil and acrylic painting was not of the Hindu God but just an anthropomorphic image of God. “My thoughts have been expressed through these paintings. People have a right to disagree with my work but my right to express my views cannot be curtailed. The work is untitled because I want people to interpret it on their own.”

With this statement he is handing over to the protestors a long rope to hang himself with. For, by his logic, their interpretation is valid, too. I don’t understand how giving a title can prevent people from interpreting a work as they wish. Do artists assume that if they title their works, then only their interpretation must prevail?

People have already commented on how the cult of Shiva has nude images, including the blatant worship of the Shiva lingam (Shiva’s phallus). These have mythological, and symbolic, meanings. No one is going to destroy the temples because of these depictions and no one has a problem that the works are titled or understood to be clearly what they are.

There is this rather silly notion that because India has given the world the Kama Sutra it is a more liberal society. These texts were written in ancient times when tribalism was the only culture. The refinement of material aspects of life has led to a different sensibility. The sculptors of temples were not thinking about metaphors the way contemporary analysts do.

Interestingly, the same analysts will see a real nude on the centrefold differently, perhaps even with disgust over how gauche it is, quite forgetting that a real woman or man has posed for it. Therefore, what does freedom of expression really mean, then?

Artist Atul Dodiya’s words, “India is a country with diverse traditions which is why certain people may find some things disturbing. But as long as the intent of the artist is correct, it must be understood. Artists, on their part, must not paint to offend, shock or provoke the viewer” are completely off in this context.

Who is to define the intent of the artist and its correctness? And what does he mean by an artist “must” not offend, shock or provoke the viewer? Are the viewers a single body of people with identical thoughts and ideas? What is wrong with provoking? Without provocation there can be no further exploration. Must the viewers be spoon-fed and swallow only the artist’s version?

Even calendar art makes people react differently as does the concept of beauty.

If the artists owe any responsibility to, it is to their idea of aesthetics and their ability to stand by it. There ought to be no room for scurrying away with a weak ‘untitled’ and use that as an excuse.

Had Das been upfront and said, yes, his work could be seen as Lord Shiva, he would have made more sense.

No one has seen god and god ‘creates’ us naked. So, is god offending, shocking, provoking the maternity ward, the first viewing gallery? Is god exploiting the human?

- - -

Image 1 is of Shiva in the Nataraj pose in the bare miniumum

Image 2 is a sculpture from the Chitragupta Temple


  1. FV,
    People in India need to study the pre-occupation Indian History .Before the Mughal and British invasion, India was a very open society, there is a mutitude of evidence on temples, male and female polygamy being widely accepted.There is no evidence of Purdah in Aryan India and concept of Nagar Vadhu, we should be proud of our history rather than being guilty of ot ....the west went this way much much later .....

  2. FV,

    When there are so many topics on which to write about and so many different muses that can be used, I am at a loss to understand why people choose the Prophet and different deities for exercising their "artistic freedom".

    Quite asking for it, isn't it?

  3. 1. Oh come on, that's no god there in those works of art. I doubt god can be represented by an idol.
    2. That's just an opinion, like this one, isn't it?
    3. Let those who are 'hurt' do as they please.. Just be ready to bear the consequences, as the perpetrators of the art probably are.
    4. But the question is who gets away with what 'crime' and who doesn't?

  4. Wow Farzana, that temple carving in the middle belongs right in your 'vexpert' section.

    (What happened to that by the way?)

  5. These pseudo-protectors of the Hindu heritage have conveniently forgotten about Vatsayana and all the other thousands of sculptors and artists. ..do they deny Khajuraho, the Shiv Lingam?

    It seems like a sad plot to denigrate and subjugate freedom of self expression using arm twisting tactics.

    It doesn't make any sense..how can someone insult without the intent to insult? If at all, the worst Das and his likes can be accused of is.. resorting to sensationalism to draw buyers for their art. In that case, the decision should be left to the discerning patrons.. not to self-absorbed 'NGOs' like the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti.

    We all know their modus operandi to bring about this so called 'Jagruti' in the Hindu 'Jana'..
    Someone once aptly said..
    " The Gun is not an argument."

  6. Anon:

    I understand what you are saying but I'd much rather we also used contemporary yardsticks to evaluate society and art.


    As I said, the artist should have been more assertive. I don't think we can say topics are taboo; the way they are treated may be questionable. Again based on subjective POVs.


    For idolators, god is represented by an image.
    Of course, each is an opinion. But none is an island.
    Those who are hurt will and have responsed.
    The crime is again a subjective thing here, so is the punishment.


    Thanks for giving my vexpert series the stamp of ancient heritage approval!

    (Will be back soon to kick butt)


    You raise the pertinent point about how one can insult without intent to.

    Many a time it is a matter of perception and conditioning. Also, political motives are always prevalent.

    The gun is often used to settle arguments.

  7. Certainly, now, we only have hearsay to to tell us what the symbolism in these two images "must" mean. Though even contemporaneously, the intentionality of an, as yet, living artist -- Nitai Das, say, who is around to tell us what his piece (or performance) means -- can, nonetheless, be called into question.

    Artists have been known to affect a certain "playfulness" on occasion, lol.

    With respect to the two works from antiquity you offered, I found what symbolism as may be present in the Chitragupta Temple sculpture to be more accessible. On the one hand, certainly, one might argue it as part of a marketing strategy on the part of crafty priests to increase temple traffic, thereby filling temple coffers. In such a case, the interest is strictly pornographic, with whatever symbolism offered being strictly a veneer. Anonymous' take above, then, suggesting the work as being reflective of a more "open society" seems valid -- even by contemporary (albeit popular or stereotypical Western) yardsticks.

    On the other hand, I'm figuring that, at the time, there may not have been much need to compete for devotees. In such a case, then, it seems to me, there is room to suggest a much more meaningful symbolism. Perhaps a fairly standard agrarian "seed in the plowed soil" motif. However, this can and has been symbolised fairly subtly (and legibly) in other locales and cultures elsewhere without a need to resort to the graphically obvious. Likewise, I was initially thrown by the male and female sort of "attendants" (assistants, participants) on either side of the couple.

    After some thought, I concluded that they were likely meant to symbolise the girl's parents. Which raises -- indeed provokes -- some interesting trails of thought.

    Thanks, Ms. Versey.

  8. Mstaab:

    You raise some thought-provoking queries. Regarding symbolism and intent there is always room to manouevre a counterview, irrespective of the presence of an 'explanation' or not.

    The playfulness of the artist you talk about is indeed a possibility and sometimes a prerequisite. Now, one can get into a moral twist over the intent of the playfulness. Is it to portray the sheer abandon of social mores or to break their stranglehold or is the motive limited to merely grabbing attention? I may further as myself - did I put up these images to draw attention or to illustrate a point? I may aver it is the latter but my intent would still be suspect. Or playful!

    Your sharp observation that perhaps the crafty priests were merely good marketeers sounds plausible but most temples were constructed on the instructions and munificence of the rulers of the time. The open society argument could be either a literal manifestation or a projection of interpretation. Using gods was most likely to legitimise societal repression that might have begun to creep in later.

    Fertility is a strong symbol is most ancient cultures and you are right about the lack of subtlety in the second image. It might also be notes that the craft itself is crude and lacks finesse. The rawness is manifest even in the facial expressions which seem to be devoid of emotion. I wouldn't venture to suggest that the two attendants flanking the couple are parents! The likelihood of 'sharing' is there in an egalitarian system as also the possibility of the carnal orgy representing an agrarian bonanza. A sort of green revolution from back then :-)

    Pardon the long response but couldn't resist the lurking need to 'interpret'...

  9. Mstaab, FV,

    Very interesting discussion.

    I would agree with FV that the two attendants are not parents. You would note the male figure on the right massaging his penis waiting for his turn.

    I would think it's an orgy - Caligula style, for no esoteric or any other nobler reason than that. Fair enough I guess.

  10. FV, Zeemax,

    Well, while I'm not completely sold on the flanking pair being her parents, if we might linger on the possibility a bit longer . . .

    In the context of an artist's playfulness, one of your queries, Ms. Versey, was whether the intention of the work is "to portray the sheer abandon of social mores or to break their stranglehold or is the motive limited to merely grabbing attention?" I would offer, along the same lines of the ambiguity you note respecting your own intentionality in posting these two images, that it's a tough call to make. For example, I tend to doubt Michelangelo Buonarroti's sculpture of "Moses" was commissioned to depict him with horns. Here's a link:


    Nonetheless, there is a biblical reference that Moses grew horns, depending on whether the passage is interpreted literally or figuratively. Certainly the Church could have coerced Michelangelo to remove them; but their having insisted -- their having interfered with an artist's creation -- may have invited more questions than would have been stimulated by leaving artist's portrayal untouched, not the least of which would have been questions related to the reasonable consistency by which the Church elects to interpret scripture literally versus figuratively.

    I thought your suggestion that the construction of temples then being dependent on the munificence of rulers a valid one and certainly underscoring of an historical relationship (and, now and again, a tension) between temporal authority and those stewards of matters more eternal, with artisans or craftpersons oftentimes serving to give expression -- to translate, perhaps -- certainly to memorialize and re-enforce -- the bases (and meaning, perhaps) of their society into terms easily apprehended by the much larger work-a-day class.

    Hence, at its most simplistic, an expression of comparative bigness (big palaces, big temples, etc) works most effectively to validate the participation and sacrificial labor of the moms and dads comprising that latter class. Now, while I did mention the idea of the flanking pair being her parents led to more than just one interesting trail of thought, do consider the pair at the center in this context, note the apparently restraining, cautionary hand the mother places on their lord (Shiva or ruler), note the difference in size between him and them (he is sitting or at least with knees bent), and, Zeemax, while certainly the depiction of the male figure on the right massaging his penis (your screen resolution is better than mine, lol) might suggest an order to their collective encounter, the placement of his other hand near the girls shoulder might just as easily suggest the penis massage as symbolic of a father's impotence to intervene.

    Similarly, in the Western tradition, there was something called "primus noctis" . . .

  11. Zeemax:

    If only you had left some things unsaid, I would not have seen a bosom in the lady's chignon!


    Before I go on to your parents theory, let me briefly hold forth on Michelangelo's Moses with horns. One version says it was a misinterpretation of a Hebrew word. There is also the dispute about who really was god's messenger.

    Re. The Church's non-interference, isn't it possible that there were political disputes and art was being used to make a point? Also, as in Hindu mythology, where Ravana, despite being the villain and satanic, was imbued with high intellect. The horns of Moses might have symolised such special antennae that could receive the Word. I am aware this is stretching it but it is intentional.

    Re. the image under discussion, I have tried to see your POV. Where the artisans were concerned, it is likely that not only did they inflate the figures but the idea of a larger than life existence. On the other hand, we must also accept, that in most societies the 'lower classes' have fewer inhibitions, mainly due to lack of privacy. It is possible that they worked by instinct and royal gratification enhanced it with metaphor to give it sanctity.

    Re. the fatherly impotency in not being able to intervene, it contradicts the position of protectively keeping vigil. This theory would have been valid had there been any hint of the male and female being from different social backgrounds and the father then expressing emotions of protectiveness and helplessness. Would the craftspersons have sneaked in a social message of sexual exploitation? But, then, the woman appears in a fairly dominant position (and one can see that even with an inadequate screen resolution!)...

    This has been a most enligtening exchange and I wish I were more equipped and in a better position to elucidate further.

    Excuse typos, and the posting works in different time zones.


  12. Cheers, Ms. Versey. :)

  13. you must hire me to make nude portraits of your mother, i am bloddy best at this


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