Fig leaves off for a real eyeful

Representing the Body
February 13, 1998

Western theories of art, gender and spectatorship have a distinctly secular flavour, which is all well and good if you are looking at western art but comes doubly unstuck when applied to Indian art. First because the images themselves may be of a religious or sacred nature, and second because concepts such as darshan (literally "seeing"), so central to Indian spectatorship, are alien to those particular discourses. Central to this collection is how western theories and Indian art forms meld or clash, contradict or support one another and how in the process new dimensions to Indian art are revealed beneath the surface of the paint, under the skin of the sculpture and in the ideologies behind the text. Vidya Dehejia and her contributors are quick to point out the slip-ups that can occur, when eyes used to John Berger's or Laura Mulvey's ways of seeing and unfamiliar with Indian religious concepts like darshan, gaze on the erotic sculptures of Khajuraho, the delicate miniatures of the Mughal court, or the garish film hoardings of Tamil Nadu.

Joanna Williams's all-too-brief essay on the rock paintings of Sigiriya in Sri Lanka gives a tantalising glimpse into the imagined lives of those who painted and first viewed them. The poetic graffiti left by visitors between ad 700 and 1000 form a kind of archaeological visitors' book, in which the sheer diversity of reactions to the luscious women who adorn the walls - from lyrical to lewd - points to a much more complex view of gender politics of spectatorship than one might at first assume.

Vishakha Desai also tackles the written commentary to which visual art gives rise in her analysis of Buddhist male sculptures of the Kushan period. Their prominent male sexuality is veiled by subsequent scholarly writings, which form a kind of gender-selective fig-leaf. If one major contribution of feminist scholarship is to uncover hidden histories, and look unflinchingly at what is not talked about as much as what is, Desai succeeds admirably where many a male writer has stumbled.

Dehejia and Daryl Yauner Harnisch contrast the yogic body ideal in Indian art with the athletic body of classical Greek sculpture. The flowing lines and lack of defined musculature that to imperial eyes suggested effeminacy is shown to symbolise inner vigour and mental calm of quite a different order.

Preminda Jacob's fascinating discussion of the transition of Tamil Nadu's chief minister, Jayalalitha Jayaram, from film star to political leader to deity through an analysis of the immense images of her on hoardings in Madras, is particularly good. The other essay on film and censorship by Lalitha Gopalan seems theoretically naive and an odd inclusion.

In a concluding piece, Geeta Kapur offers a subtle and revealing analysis of four women artists: Amrita Sher-Gil and Frida Kahlo from pre-Independence days and two contemporary painters, Arpita Singh and Nalini Malini. It would have been interesting had Kapur chosen to look at Sher-Gil's Bride's Toilet (1937) in the light of Molly Emma Aitken's earlier piece on Kangra paintings, since Sher-Gil's bride almost exactly mirrors the poses of the nayika of the Mughal court, yet the politics of spectatorship are poles apart.

Dehejia and Annapurna Garimella in particular fall into the cultural trap they are so eager to point to in their western colleagues, by characterising western thought as a hegemonic bloc, which it clearly no longer is, if it ever was.

The grand old man of Indian art, Ananda Coomaraswamy, haunts the text. His work contained the seeds of many of the critical insights that have flowered after his death.

It is a shame the pictures are not better, but, in a field as wide and as relatively undernourished as this, Representing the Body is a work to be welcomed with open arms and opened eyes.

Anita Roy is commissioning editor for cultural studies, Oxford University Press India.

Representing the Body: Gender Issues in Indian Art

Editor - Vidya Dehejia
ISBN - 81 85107 32 7
Publisher - Kali for Women
Price - Rs230
Pages - 205

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