Of morals and the male gaze

The nation’s political climate is nowhere close to accepting any such Westernised ideal of education that hinges on embracing openness to the human form.
Representative Image
Representative ImageReuters

Sometime back, a battalion of India’s self-appointed moral and cultural guardians went on a policing overdrive. Their target was a popular Bollywood actor, who decided to pose for a photoshoot in his birthday suit. The controversy inspired us to dig deeper, and scratch the surface of what seems like double standards. A few years ago, a newspaper had reported on how the concept of drawing nudes using live models has all but disappeared in art colleges in Tamil Nadu. Here in Chennai’s Government College of Fine Arts, the idea of using live models to draw nudes has come to an end since the beginning of the new millennium, as attested by educators employed there.

It must be said that drawing nudes involving live models is par for the course in art schools around the world, but as far as India is concerned, it’s a subject spoken of in hushed whispers – this in a land where heritage sites are chock-a-block with works of art depicting nudity. A few years ago, Maharashtra increased the daily wages provided to live models employed by government-run art schools, from Rs 300 to Rs 1,000 per day. However, potential artistes today are compelled to rely on existing masterpieces by Rembrandt and Raja Ravi Varma for their reference images, or depend on the internet to hone their sketching skills.

The nation’s political climate is nowhere close to accepting any such Westernised ideal of education that hinges on embracing openness to the human form. Our discomfort with the depiction of humanity in its barest, sparsest form might be a fallout of hyper-sexualisation of the female body over many decades. For several years, our advertising, film, sports and media industries have depended on pushing their wares on consumers by employing suggestive depiction of women that are bereft of nuance or sensitivity.

You see this in the ads of deodorants, cars, innerwear, premier league tournaments, aerated drinks, credit cards, personal healthcare accessories and more. One might remember how for the longest time, trade shows around the world, and in India relied on employing attractive female models to parade around the expo halls, to add glam value to everything – tractors to video games, state-of-the-art personal entertainment systems, smartphones and more.

Things have changed for the better as in 2018, the Formula One management announced it would end the practice of ‘grid girls’ accompanying racers to the track, a mainstay of F1 Grand Prix for decades together. The management made it clear that the practice did not resonate with brand values and it was at odds with modern day societal norms. The international Consumer Electronics Show (CES) has also banned the ritual of showcasing ‘booth babes’ at the expo. Thanks to global outrage and women centric movements, such practices are nearing their shelf life in many first world economies.

Digressions aside, it is worth noting that the recent furore around the male actor’s photoshoot is noteworthy for one reason - it turned the narrative of the proverbial ‘male gaze’ on its head. For once, men found themselves disturbed by the idea of being objectified, a practice that continues unabated when it comes to women in workplaces, or just about any walk of life. And when the actor was supported by a few female colleagues of his, it only further bruised the sensibilities of those easily offended. The rest of us stole a glance, winked, and went on with the rest of our day, as if nothing had happened, and the world pretty much remained the same.

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