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The male gaze and the human image - A. Ramachandran

As an embodiment of the MCP (male chauvinist pig), I suffer from an occasional bout of a disease called the male gaze. This may be a hereditary one of Kerala origin coming down from Raja Ravi Varma to myself or one acquired under the tutelage of my teacher, Ram Kinkar. But I often wonder why from time immemorial, the artists throughout the world have chosen to depict the human form, specially the female one. An overall survey of the works of art in our own tradition also reveals the emphasis on the subtleties of the woman's body. From Mohenjodaro to M F Husain, the artists have continued the search of a perfect visual code to define the enigma called the female form.

Unlike animals and birds, the female species of Homo Sapiens are far more fascinating than their male counterparts. Although created from his own ribs, the image of the nude woman, Eve must have stunned Adam, thanks to the special lighting effect by God, the Creator, saying, “Let there be light.” That first impact of seeing the opposite spectrum must have awakened in man the eternal urge to catch the glorious splendour of the woman's body. In India, the Mother Goddess and her various manifestations preoccupied artists and writers through the centuries. Even the hymns addressed to the Mother Goddess meant for prayers contain explicit topographical description of her body emphasizing the exuberance of the erotic zones. As an artist, I am no exception to this trait and admit with modesty that I am a natural member of the multitude of admirers of the female figure. This statement may sound banal to some art lovers as a steep fall from Mother Teresa to Madhuri Dixit.

Today, in this cyber-age, the art activities have become unusually cerebral and the complex hieroglyphics produced by the post-modernists can only be decoded by the knowledgeable and the learned. Against this background, leave aside preoccupation with the female form; even painting of human figures seems outmoded. Any art without commitment to the higher objectives of social reforms or political statements is regarded as redundant. My only hope is that if creativity in art of representing human figure again and again could survive thousand of years, it can surely stage a comeback at some point of time. After all, acquiring botanical knowledge of the flower does not take away its beauty and fragrance.

Depiction of the human figure has varied from artist to artist and period to period, covering the entire range of art history. It is interesting to note how the best artists in different ages have responded to the opposite sex in their creative works. Thus the slender, lithe dancing girl of Mohenjodaro blossoms into the full figure of Yakshi at Didarganj. One cannot help marveling how stylized forms and not the natural proportions of Venus can succeed in conveying all the sensuousness and voluptuousness of the woman’s body. A broken torso of the Sanchi Yakshi in the Boston Museum conveys great sensuality of form, the slight forward incline of the figure suggesting heavy breasts and the fold of the belly. But the more Indian art moves towards complexities and refinement, the originality and freedom of the male gaze diminishes. The intricate carvings of Hoysala, despite their technical virtuosity, cannot compare with the directness of Kushana art since there was no codified iconography.

Figure in art has been inspired by an artist's observation of others or himself with a certain amount of emotional involvement. The kind of perception each artist distills out of this process to arrive at a convincing visual image has been the secret of creativity. Whereas Michelangelo’s aversion to the female form led to masculine characteristics in his female representation, Ruben’s fondness of the exuberant silky and rosy flesh extended even into his male figures. Similarly, the gods of Ravi Varma are, in fact, his female models with beard and moustaches. The present day calendar art is the continuation of this trend. That is the reason why all the gods and goddesses have the prettiness of Hindi film heroines. In fact, gods in Indian sculpture, unlike the Greek counterparts, have always been a little effeminate in character. Perhaps the Indian artists missed the male characteristics due to their total preoccupation with the nuances of the female form.
In our time, an individual way of looking at oneself is clearly demonstrated in the self-portraits of Amrita Shergil which were painted as if directed by the male gaze probably because this was the way she wanted herself be looked at. In contrast, Frida Kahlo brutalised her image emphasizing her moustache and the battered body fractured by an accident, taking away all the sensuousness associated with the female form.

Stylization to the extreme may not eliminate the male gaze. Even the stylized women of Picasso’s Cubist period have their emphasis on the erotic zones. A seemingly innocuous image of Ram Kinkar’s ‘Harvester’ reveals his involvement with the woman’s body rather than his so-called sympathy for the working class. The ‘Harvester’ is a modern icon of Mother Goddess. Cleverly concealed in the monumental stance of a woman holding paddy and a sickle, an almost headless torso shows the protruding breasts and forward thrust of the hips. The widely outstretched legs, arms arching backwards holding the stack of paddy makes the sculpture a tripod of great stability. In spite of extreme simplification, emphasis is on erotic elements, symbolical fertility and motherhood. In the final analysis, Ram Kinkar’s ‘Harvester’ is reminiscent of the iconic representation of the Devi in Tantra art - a headless torso with legs spreading wide apart.

Ram Kinkar’s painting of a woman holding a cow and calf, in the collection of the National Gallery of Modem Art, is one of the works I have witnessed taking shape from the first reference of watching the scene to the final product. One morning when I was sitting with Kinkarda in the front verandah of his house in Santiniketan, a hefty Santal woman who worked in the opposite house took the cow and the newly born calf out for grazing. She was literally dragging the unwilling cow who was anxious about her calf that ran around with unsteady steps. Kinkarda drew my attention to the scene saying, “See the mother's concern for her young.” I did not know that in this was the germination of an idea of a canvas that he was going to paint a long time after. However, seeing product, I became aware of the process of his work. Kinkarda must have been observing and studying this well-built woman over a period of time, as her figure appears in many of his paintings and sculptures transformed into a Yakshi image, with her strong sculptural body, heavy bosom, slender neck and Mongoloid face. In the painting mentioned earlier, the calf is the central motif with the cow and the woman in the background. But emphasis is on the woman's stance of dragging the cow with her breasts projecting out as if the mother image of the cow has been transferred to the Santal woman. I have witnessed Kinkarda working and reworking, structuring and restructuring the moment with great animation, capturing endlessly the three motifs of woman, cow and calf. This quality of capturing the warmth and pulsation of life makes Ram Kinkar’s works so unique.

Many people feel my obsession with the female form is too explicit in the present day context of art language. Since my images are very much moulded by a culture I inherited, it is necessary to understand the overwhelming abundance of sensuousness expressed by the poets, wood-carvers and the mural painters of Kerala. There was never any inhibition in them to express their admiration for the female form. The physical body has been viewed and felt through a series of similies and comparisons with other forms of nature. Thus, the satin feel of the woman's abdomen with its throbbing pulsation has been compared to the fresh sheath of an arecanut tree or the fair complexion to freshly cut golden yellow turmeric. This extraordinary variety of usage of colours was aimed to create an equivalent sensual and tactile experience in the mural paintings rather then allowing it to be a mere aesthetic use of colour schemes. Moreover, the artist’s identification with his forms was often so intense that one could feel it flowing out of his vein to the tip of his brush as seen in the drawings of Kumara Sambhava panel at Mattancheri palace. Close observation of this great masterpiece of Indian drawing reveals a unique area where Vishnu’s hand holding Lakshmi’s left breast is drawn in such a sensitive way that the perfect roundness and heaviness of the soft breast can be felt on the tip of his fingers. An oft-repeated theme in the Kerala murals is Mohini playing with the ball. The reference is to the story of Vishnu transforming himself into an enchantress to seduce Shiva. Each time an artist painted this theme, he tried to interpret the erotic suggestion of her girdle coming loose, revealing her private parts with explicit details of pubic hair. It is interesting to note that despite all the frankness and full- blooded sexuality, these great paintings do not fall into the muddy terrain of pornography. This is due to the highly sensitive awareness of the artists that they were walking on the tight rope of the real and the unreal. But in the fag end of Kerala’s mural tradition when the artists started adapting western realism, a contradiction to the semantics of the mural language, the same Mohini paintings fell from the high aesthetic standard to vulgar display of eroticism. The Mohini panel of Kottakal Shiva temple near Calicut is such an example.

Constant study and observation of living forms provide the key to a visual code, which can be effectively put into use, evolving into an individual style. Santiniketan emphasized this aspect of art teaching during the time of great teachers like Nandalal Bose, Benode Behari Mukherjee and Ram Kinkar. While taking us for sketching and studying Santals, Ram Kinkar used to point out the subtleties of the human image and ask us to comprehend the anatomy even when the figure was in motion. The Santal women working in the field, constantly moving from one position to another absorbed my attention as a young art student. The challenge was to capture the gracefulness of the figures in motion, and that too in a few lines drawn within a few minutes. This rigorous discipline itself gave birth to a visual pattern of the female image, which could be restructured for both painting and sculpture. The obsession with the woman's body became more and more intense in the effort to capture its mysterious contours that seemed to change every time one looked.

The training of sketching and studying the Santals and their way of living has made such an impact on my methodology of work that after shifting to Delhi I had to look at similar kind of people to study. During my stay at Jamia Nagar, which was in the outskirts of the city, I had enough chance of sketching the villagers in their daily chores in the seventies. My Nayika series of paintings resulted from this encounter. At the end of the Seventies, I was fascinated by the Gaudia Lohars, who were camping close to the colony where I now live. After a series of sketches and studies, an awakened knowledge of the similarities between their physiognomy and the classical images of Ajanta, Bagh and Kerala murals led to the creation of Yayati.

In the Bhil villages around Udaipur, I found the images I was looking for and an ideal world that satisfied all my aesthetic needs. My interest in the peasants and the working class is not born out of any ideological commitment. Since I am not a social worker, I have no illusion of changing their life through my art. But to know them and their life in their own environment has been a rewarding experience for me. Their necessities are few and they do not hanker for material wealth and comfort that urban people crave for. They are born in the soil and they grow up with the dust, sand, wind and rain. They move about in the wilderness of nature like animals in their natural habitat. Their rigorous life of climbing trees for firewood, carrying the produce of the field and collecting water from streams down below the valleys, make their bodies slim, agile and strong. But the most beautiful images of the tribals are the young boys and girls in their adolescence. At Baneshwar, near Udaipur, a sacred place for the Bhils, handsome boys and girls gather once a year, to choose their future partners. I have not seen a more beautiful sight elsewhere than in this tribal festival at Baneshwar.

It is known that most of the dry areas in Rajasthan have very little rainfall throughout the year. But during the very short monsoon of about a month, the whole landscape suddenly changes and becomes green and lively with many varieties of plants, creepers, insects and butterflies. This transformation is a great contrast to the year-long parched landscape beaten by the scorching sun. The Bhils in adolescence are like this short monsoon since they change from childhood and blossom into slender pretty young women and strong, handsome men. They move around singing and laughing like hundreds of Gopis and Krishnas. But to my great dismay, like the drying up of the plants after monsoon, these youthful boys and girls transform into middle-aged men and women after the birth of a few children within a short period of time. The beautiful girls I had sketched and studied at the end of the eighties are no longer recognizable because of their premature old age brought about by the harsh realities of life. I paint these Urvashis who blossom and wither away in a short span of time. In them, I find the immortal grace and beauty of classical Indian art and my male gaze is riveted on this small green patch of monsoon.

A great authority on children’s books once said, “A good writer of children's books need not be a lover of children.” Unlike the artists involved with noble ideals of philosophy and social commitments, the male gazing artists are comparatively harmless dreamers since they live in their own world of fantasized reality.

* First published in Celebration of the Human Image, thinking eye, 2000