Ajay Joshi*

Abstract: There was a lone chair against the backdrop of a blank wall. A young man sat on it. We, the audience, sat around in a semicircle facing him. He was smiling at people, making small talk. This went on for a while till all had settled down. Actually, this pause was kind of unsettling, as no-one knew what to expect. But the stage had already been set, the play had already begun. Slowly, a hushed silence fell upon the viewers. Then, the performer (a young, Brazilian man) got up and started removing his clothes until he was completely naked.  For the next half-an-hour he was there in front of us, unmindful of his nudity, telling his story of angst, frustration, desperation and claustrophobia, as experienced by the youth of today.

Keywords: nudity, tolerace, intolerance, art, exhibitionism, sexuality, gaze, East, West

This performance was part of the students’ production section during the ITI (International Theatre Institutes, 2017) world conference (hosted by the scenic and mesmerising town of Segovia in Spain, which has been bestowed with World Heritage status by UNESCO). The audience was mixed: young Europeans, Eastern representatives, theatre novices, grey-haired professors and senior theatre practitioners.

Photo: Ajay Joshi

I am unsure how I would define my reaction. I may seem prudish, but, yes, initially I was taken aback. But, as the performance progressed, my mind was besieged with questions. I wondered what nudity meant to the young Brazilian and how he perceived the body in space, sans the ornamentation of clothing? What was his sense of the aesthetics of nudity? And, as the other audience members seemed to be asking, “Was it necessary to go nude to say all this”? After the show, I did quiz him on this concern of mine. He was evasive and did not seem too able to justify his action. What he said at the end of our conversation triggered off my own introspection.

He said: “Sir, were you shocked to see me perform nude? I did this because I felt like doing it. It’s no big deal in my country to walk about in the buff. Maybe sir, you coming from an Eastern orientation, were shocked, because your culture prevents you from viewing nudity in performance.”

His reply did not answer my question, but I wanted to scream out that my concern was not about him being nude, but about how he understands nudity, how he perceives the body in a performative space. Interestingly, he was denied permission to perform nude in the second performance. He had two choices: either to cancel the show or find another way. He did perform, but with his underwear on. I saw that show too. His concern and what he wanted to say through his act carried through to this audience too. I confronted him again, to ask what had happened. Nude or not nude, he could say it in both instances. Then, why the need for nudity?

This time he was stumped and quiet. He was thinking and so was I.

  1. What does nudity mean? Is simply disrobing and baring the body, being nude? Is there a sense of nudity in thought, emotions, and perception?
  2. We associate nudity with the act of sex. Can there be nudity devoid of sexuality?
  3. What exactly do clothes do for the body? If nudity is a shameful act, what then is shame, decency, etc.?
  4. Does culture define sexuality? Who decides what is decent and what is not?
  5. Concepts of nudity change across Indian society, including the tribal peoples, their beliefs and rituals.
  6. Can an actor argue that it is the character that is nude and not the actor himself?
  7. Does the West look at nudity differently than the East, and, if so, why?
  8. Will the Indian audience be able to accept nudity on stage, even if it falls within the themes of the plot? Will we be able to look beyond the naked body?
Photo: Ajay Joshi

He asked me whether I was shocked. Had being “Eastern, Oriental,” made me ashamed to watch this nude performance? But, looking back, nudity is not new to us. Our paintings, sculptures, literature, epics, scriptures, have it in abundance. We have seen some brilliantly portrayed bodies on stage, performances which, though nude, had aesthetic qualities. One instance is the disrobing scene, by noted actress Sabitridevi Heisnam, in the play Draupadi, in 2002; a commentary of the exploitation and rape of women in Manipur.

Indian theatre not only has a long tradition, but we see a lot of experimentation being done. The performers are travelling globally, being exposed to varied stage shows. They return to India with their sensibilities altered and they try out different things on stage. But nudity in any form is a big “no-no!” Many issues pertaining to the complexities in Indian society intersect with this taboo, including matters of gender, class, caste, culture, aesthetics, politics, societal norms, etc.

The younger generation is raring to go on, but something is holding them back. There was the recent incident in which Mallika Taneja walked nude on stage, in a scene depicting rape, at the Kerala International Theatre Festival, to a shocked audience. There is also the new wave of performance art, including the recent controversy raised by Serbian artist Marina Abramovic.

When she submitted her body to the audience, who could use the 72 props laid on a table close by, as they please, on her, it raised many eyebrows in India. Speculations were rife, whether this could classify as a performance in the first place, and what it meant to the female body?

Marina Abramovic whose performance raised many eyebrows in India. Photo: Youtube

At one end, we have a mature and intellectual audience which has been exposed to a lot of theatre and, at the other end, a polity that draws a line of what is and is not “decent” enough to be shown on stage. The arguments are endless. Noted journalist, cultural critic, performer and scholar Sadanand Menon has a whole argument about this issue which I quote at some length:

Nudity is an aspect of ancient “naturalism,” which saw the naked body as a “beautiful body” and an integral part of nature without “moral” restraints and restrictions. Greek sculpture, for example, worshiped the naked body as a divine gift. In older Indian concepts too [say, Ajanta or Chola bronzes], the representation of the body was unfettered by restraints.

Sexuality is a way of looking, an attitude; it comes up only in specific contexts where nudity is being deliberately objectified—for example, you do not look at the exquisite, sixth-century Pallava bas relief sculpture of Devi as Mahishasuramardini at Mahabalipuram, or the ninth-century Chola bronze icon of Parvati and impute sexuality there. Sensuality, yes; but sexuality is not imputed to those “texts.” However, the eighteenth-century miniature paintings of Radha and Krishna in amorous contexts are imbued with sexuality.

There is also the example of the “Digambara” Jaina Sadhus who do not believe in covering the body, in the belief that the sky is the sole cover they need. Similarly, the Naga sadhus demonstrate control over their indriyas [sexuality] by staying naked. There are strong cultural connotations that define the “gaze” or the “drishti.” Of course, Western visual theory, since Laura Mulvey in the 1980s, has worked around the idea of dominant patriarchy, within which all “gaze” is a “male gaze” (nature, landscape, body), everything seen through consuming male visual constructs, so everything outside the “male self” is “feminized,” and, consequently, “sexualized.”

The body is, anthropologically, at the centre of a given social order. If that order privileges being covered over being uncovered, then the uncovered body can be subject to several taboos and censorious devices—including being deemed “lunatic” or “abnormal”; nudity, then, signifies unacceptable deviance.

Many examples can be cited, where severe reprimand and violence has been unleashed in response to exposure of the body. Nudity aside, even participation of women in certain male constructs is looked down upon. This spells the mindset and hardened patriarchal practices that have rusted any provision for looking at the “Nude body” as anything other than “sexual.” “There are hardly any references to ‘nude’ performances in the Indian context until the bold Manipuri play Nupi/Draupadi role by Sabitri Heisnam in 2002,” Sadanand Menon says.

There it struck like a whiplash and triggered popular political resistance on the ground, in spite of the fact that this “Nudity” has a profound sense of aesthetics in the way it was portrayed and performed. In Western theatre, there seem to have been a few instances in the early twentieth century, but they stood out as a protest against narrow morality and conservative bourgeois values only with the performances, in the 1970s, of musical stage productions, such as Oh Calcutta and Hair. It certainly made its point at that time and shocked middle class morality and became part of the new “sexual liberation.” Later, repeated and gratuitous use of this device merely turned it into a cliché.

In the past thirty years, there have been attempts to work around the strong taboos related to nudity in India, but on a very small scale. The matter is also complicated by “non-official” street censorship to which, for instance, artist MF Husain was subjected for an alleged act of painting Saraswati in the nude—an accusation that had little basis in fact. Filmmaker Kumar Shahani has judiciously tried it in his landmark films Maya Darpan and Kasba, and Shekhar Kapoor in Bandit Queen. But, in a film environment, where even kissing is taboo, it is not usual. Some solo performers, such as Arko Mukhopadhyaya, have recently tried it on stage; but these are small performances before small audiences.

Moral policing and political interventions have often lamed any attempts to artistic understanding of the “Body,” thinning prospects of giving a different hue to the “Gaze.” “Primarily, the Damage is caused to our native good sense and aesthetics and morality by Victorian morality and prudery over 150 years of British domination in India,” Menon claims. And he goes on to say:

The Indian audience has got increasingly Talibanized over the past couple of decades; they are not looking or experiencing any more; they are only reacting; for example, Chandralekha’s choreographic works that sought to restore to Bharatanatyam its lost eroticism, while generally well received, was [sic] also attacked from a moralistic viewpoint; even elite audiences and voices in the media seem to have lost the capacity to “see.”

Nudity cannot be whimsical—as in nudity for the sake of nudity. Many contemporary dance performances I have seen in Europe over the past decade are marked by almost instant nudity, some from the moment the performance begins. While not at all offensive, it is also not at all provocative. The body is reduced to banality. Perhaps, that is the idea: to look at the body without the filter of value judgements on a moral scale.”

Kalyanee Mulay in Nude. Photo: Youtube

According to actress Kalyanee Mulay, who has experimented with challenging roles, as in her play Unseen or the movie Nude, the

aesthetics of nudity is about being nude. Nude in every sense—physical nudity which is accompanied by mental nudity, no masking and adding nothing extra on that front as well. It has very close ties with vulnerability. Nudity puts an end to differences by bringing us back to the core fact, we all are same, curious nude babies trying to explore the world before us.

Allow me to also quote her at some length because she raises a number of interesting points:

Nudity is not vulgar in itself. We are all born nude. How we present it, what we intend to provoke, are the most important parts of the aesthetics of nudity. Bodies are essentially houses for our internal organs, and we as a society need to stop constantly sexualizing them. You’re born naked, you shower naked. You’re naked under your clothes. What we are actually choosing to do with it makes or breaks its relationship with sexuality.

Though this argument by Kalyanee Muley is justified, as is also an apt angst felt by the artistic community, the viewer is burdened by “social restrictions” and “cultural inhibitions.”

Kalyanee Muley in the solo performance Unseen. Photo: Ajay Joshi

According to Muley,

The “gaze” plays an important role. We may agree or disagree but we have conditioned our gazes. What is “okay” in private could be offensive in public. We live in a society [in which] we have marked our private [and] public places. Every situation, its time [and] space, and its social, cultural [and] personal relationship with our body, [involves] changing our costume/manmade cover. This example pertains to urban life. If we look at tribes who choose to be away from this “urban human, covered world,” their concepts of nudity are different. It is intriguing to understand the ownership of the body in a particular time and space, where the actor transforms into a character, to transcend the idea/story/concept/meaning.

An actor can definitely keep herself/himself away and safe from body-shaming, dislike, hatred, because nudity is not a “usual” thing in public space, by saying “hey it wasn’t me, it was my character.” But I feel, as an actor, I need to be in my own body comfortably before making it the character’s, I need to be closer to the neutrality of my presence before letting it be my character’s body.

Nudism has been a controversial issue in art through the ages. As we, human civilization, have come up with the concept of morality and its does and don’ts, the “keepers of morality” have argued on the corruption of the human mind with art that is dubbed “indecent.” The Ajanta and Ellora have an element of nudity, as does most temple art in India. The Lajja Gouri is one Indian deity that is always depicted nude, so is Goddess Kali in some instances. The miniature art of painting that is a legacy of the Mughals also has many examples of nudity. Indian spirituality also sees the human body as a tool to reach enlightenment. The body is not obscene here, rather it’s a microcosm.

Kalyanee Muley in the solo performance Unseen. Photo: Ajay Joshi

In art, an artist has no gender, but, when the artist’s body is part of his/her art, then does it change the dynamics of the performance/performance art? In India, I have seen nude performance’s on stage mainly at Bharat Rang Mohotsav, Khoj Live Art and at Kochi-Muziris Biennale; [including works by] to name a few artists: Inder Salim, Neha Choksi, Mallika Taneja. Nothing is actually stopping us from exploring nudity on stage.

For myself, as an actor and performer, if I am on stage or on screen I try to see my body as a tool of expression, a tool which is going to be an essential part in this process of getting the point/idea/concept/story across.

As an Indian audience we are yet to be trained to see such work with nudity. Until and unless we understand that nudity is not always sexual, we will not be able to accept it in performance work. One needs to know the purpose of creating a new performance work and only then consider working around the aesthetics of it.

Kalyanee Muley in the solo performance Unseen. Photo: Ajay Joshi

Then there is the censorship board, with some states in India making it mandatory for each play to be scrutinized and certified, before staging. This is more prevalent in cinema, so as not to hurt the sensibility of the people, even if the demands by the board seem irrational at times.

This is a tricky situation. At one end is the thought of the freedom to express in whatever medium the artiste chooses and in any form that s/he deems suitable, and, at the other, is a strong cultural binding which shouts a “Fatwa” of what is right and what wrong, what should be seen and what not. Overpowering pressures of religion and politics; multifarious and varied beliefs within the Indian social structure; many, often conflicting, perceptions, issues of morality and definitions of decency: all of these contribute to a social and cultural nexus which gets murkier as we probe deeper, but which takes us no closer to answering the basic question, how should we perceive and receive nudity on stage?

Kalyanee Muley in the solo performance Unseen. Photo: Ajay Joshi

NOTE: I conducted personal interviews with both Sadanand Menon and Kalyanee Mulay, which are incorporated into the text.


*Dr Ajay Joshi is a practicing dentist, with a PhD on Theatre Criticism and a Masters in Journalism and Mass Communication. He has been writing on theatre and culture, freelancing in major Indian and international newspapers, magazines and journals for the past 22 years, while travelling extensively as media person, theatre curator, festival organizer, jury, workshop facilitator, research scholar, performer, compeer, professor and resource person. A published author of two books, he has also translated many plays from Marathi to English. He is a visiting lectures on journalism, theatre, media and gender studies, at various institutes in Pune.

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Nudity in Performance—Boon or Bane?
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