Hassan is a small town in Karnataka, South India. And as one drives down south- east from here, after about fifty kilometers there would loom large on the left side of the highway the magnificent statue of Bahubali on the rocky hill at Shravanabelagola. These are the Indragiri hills and the statue of the Jain saint Gomateshwara (AD 981), carved out of a single solid rock, is said to be one of the tallest and most graceful statues in the world. The colossal figure stands 58 ft high, and is stark in its serene nudity. As one scrambles up the seven hundred odd steps, the top of the figure keeps appearing and disappearing and at last when one reaches the very top, the full figure stands so tall and is absolutely stately. Not one around the figure feels any sense of shame or awkwardness at this regal nudity; in fact, it is the total starkness that makes it even more kingly than had it been clothed.
Now, there are really very few male nudes that are remarkable in their stature and posture in the world of art. Auguste Rodin the French sculptor, who lived and worked during the turn of the last part of the nineteenth century delighted in the human form and cast many of his great works without any distractions of the raiment. When he was commissioned to do the sculpture of Honore de Balzac in 1891, he came out with several nude figures of the French writer which no doubt shocked his sponsors that later he compromised by installing a fully draped figure of the writer. What is intriguing is the fact that Auguste Rodin adored the human body and he greatly admired the work of the Renaissance sculptor Michelangelo. His masterpiece The Age of Bronze would appear almost like a tribute to the work of Michelangelo in its poetic evocation of the nuances of the male nude.
There is a whole lot of difference between the nude and nakedness. In the history of Western art, the nude—especially the female nude—had been a convention religiously carried forward from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century and even into the present. The male nude was also held to be of equal significance. Here the body is respected, admired, adored, and explored through lines, forms, colours, in all its dimensions. The painter or the sculptor attempted to evoke the existential aspects of the human body in its nudity and its physical essentialness.
In the case of Indian art the conventions were of course so different and removed. In classical and medieval art the human body does not appear as a physical entity separate from nature and environment—it is integrated into the pictorial space and the architectural vortex. Anyway, in its pan-Indian context the physical existence of life in its separate state is given less significance and the spiritual became more prominent. The pictorial and sculptural convention that the Indian artist drew from cared less for representation and three dimensional visual or felt experiences, while the totality of being and its integrated nature was the mainstay of all aesthetic experience. Forms of Devi-Devatas were either represented in their nudity without drawing especial attention to their nakedness, or unobtrusively draped in some form of ornament or accouterment.
The Indian artist who often worked from convention rather than life did never apparently find the human body that formed the basis for the divine or the spiritual beings in any way hampering in its sensitivity or sensuality. On the other hand the sensitive fingers of the Indian classical and medieval artist that shaped and perfected the divine forms and figures never appeared to caress the human form in its physical existence. The human figurine was more of a spring board to lead the eye away from the depicted and represented. Little wonder that the Renaissance sort of representative realism and three-dimensional depth and solid perception did not find any significant place in the contexts of Indian art history. The two streams had evolved on their own through various conventions.
However, when it came to represent the nude there is some sort of commonality of approach that is evidenced by the western classical and its Indian counterpart in art history. The artist appears to be suitably distanced from the model or object of contemplation and art becomes a meditation. No doubt there is this joy of celebration of the human body in its physicality but this celebration is not through a sense of possession but through a sense of participation. The difference is between nudity and nakedness—the former, calls for an aesthetic distance, while the latter reduces the distance and creates a spatial aberration. Nudity is art while nakedness is pornography. The figure of Gomateswara that rises tall and stately in all its glory is distinctly nude and does not call attention to its physical existence but leads the eye away from the worldly existence into the profounder realms of the spiritual. If in nudity one perceives the spirit, in nakedness only the mundane could be perceived. The figures and forms of Indian Devi- Devatas, the products of a spiritual convention in art, represent the glorious perception of the higher reaches of human achievements. The eye travels from the here to the realms of the spirit.
In the desacralised times like the present, little is perceived by the corrupted eye or received by the corrupted soul. The spiritual conventions in art as well as life have been so far removed by the inordinate compulsions of the mundane. We live in a world devoid of any spiritual or higher sense drawn into the vortex of a mere state of physical existence. The charm of art is the lure of the spirit; however, the charm has lost its magical spell and fallen into misuse. Sculpture and painting have lost their distinct and living connection with our everyday existence. We have misplaced our eyes, ears and senses let alone recognize the presence of the soul. There is no communication between the men and women and art—the nude has become naked. We see and sense only the body and dislocate it from its essential existence. Instead of the aesthetic of perception we have evolved an eye for the gaze— the eye that looks only upon the other sex. There is no participation, but only a reaching out for the possession. Instead of the softness of the touch there is this immediacy of the groping grasp. This is where Gomateswara becomes naked and the eye disperses without seeing, without perceiving, without relishing or celebrating.
In south Indian temples for instance, the deities, the creation of sensitive artists and artisans of a previous era (most of the temples of south India came up around the seventh to the eleventh century) have a distinct stylistic posture and stance. Each devi-devatas have their own finer differences and art-historians are able to identify separate forms through this language of posture, symbolic stance, mode of dress, ornamental decorations and gestural representations (mudras). Over the years when the sociology of religious conventions became more and more ossified and took over the entire Hindu modes of worship, there developed various rituals and ceremonies specific to the worship of each deity. The icons became idols, and art objects were deified into divine forms for ritualistic worship. While artistic perception should also have evolved parallel on a similar scale toward a heightened sense of the spiritual, what actually came to pass was a certain devolution of the senses. Instead of seeing the divine in the deity the human eye started seeing only the deity in the divine. This is the corrupted eye that deforms the stately nude into its desecrated nakedness and attempts to cover it up with clothing and garlands lest the worshipper gets distracted!
In Hindu temple ritual these days the priest drapes clothing, flowers, ornaments and sandal paste on the idol as though to cover and clothe a human form. Decoration and ornamentation one could certainly understand (the sandal paste and kumkum had definite symbolic overtones) but the covering up of an art object that calls for worship in its starkness for the purported intent of the corrupted human eye to stray away from its wayward gaze is a strange phenomenon indeed! This is an effete sense of morality that has evolved in the present with devolution of the aesthetic sense into a morbid physical turpitude! What a glorious fall of the aesthetic! The massive, larger-than-life monolith of Bahubali stands nude on top a rocky hill and appears to mock at our decrepit human condition. While we struggle to drape clothing and cover on our religious icons assuming to make them more religious in the process what we have mislaid forever is the unique sense of the larger-than-life human image that was physical, corporeal, and spiritual all at once at the same time. The proverbial child in the story needs to be brought back to life once more to scream at the top of its voice that we are all naked and stand revealed in the open sunlight – our effete morality our sole armor. But once decadence has set in the human mind falls further into depravity; the devolving aesthetic reveals the graph of the human condition.