The National Museum, New Delhi, organized a public lecture on “Depiction of Feminine Beauty in the Art of India and Central Asia”, on the occasion of International Women’s Day, on March 9, 2012. An advertisement in the newspaper attracted my attention and I decided to attend this lecture to learn something about depiction of the feminine beauty in Indian art in the contemporary times of the 21st Century, especially the influence of the international women’s movement on art. The lecture, however, concluded before covering the trends in the 21st Century. It covered depiction of feminine beauty in art since the Harrapan civilization through the Gupta period. The Diardganj Ki Yakshi, of course, found a mention being an all-time creation of excellent art. Other images included those from the Ajanta and Elora. God alone knows whether the DidarGanj ki Yakshi indeed was as beautiful as the art work depicting her. The point is that the artist enjoyed fullest freedom to dream the feminine beauty in the days gone by and before feminism led to gradual restrictions on the artistic freedom of expression under fear of offending sensibilities or hitting the special laws promulgated after the women’s movement started influencing legislation or personal choices. The pinnacle of thought, expression and execution remains the depiction of the Ardhanariswar in art and literature. The journey of such artistic innovations is naturally a matter of great interest in modern times, which are decidedly an age of several new innovations – scientific, technological, social, political, academic including gender issues. My attempts to seek some information on depiction of feminine beauty in art in India in the 21st Century couldn’t get me anything. I feel the subject needs informed discussions.
Modernity means a revolutionary change in attitudes, resulting in rejection of many of the customs, practices, norms of social or personal behaviour, notions of morality, love, marriage, family, friendship etc. What used to be considered “perverse or unnatural” is not viewed exactly that way today. Morality is something of the past. Loss of innocence, chastity, virginity, integrity, commitment no more comes for adverse comment. Times are liberal, so are views. But can it mean loss of femininity? What would it be like to lose femininity? Will it be possible to create all those invaluable pieces of immortal art, where femininity shall ever be the same or age cannot wither her nor custom stale her infinite variety (to recall the poet Keats & Shakespeare)?
Sanskrit poetry celebrates feminine beauty in such wonderful lines that it carries the reader from the mundane to the sublime in no time. The Meghdoot or the Abhigyan Shakuntalam are two such melodious works of Sanskrit literature. Urdu poetry is unsurpassed in lifting the feminine beauty to such literary heights that it transports the reader to a different world altogether. The essential ingredients of such literary expressions are the eyes, hair, face, curbs, gait, looks, posture etc. It looks funny to recite such poetry in the changed composition of the audiences today. The body language has indeed changed. A cursory assessment of the Hindi film songs will prove the point : there is an abrupt break from the old style of popular songs, as they don’t fit in the contemporary films based on current cultural issues and characters. Femininity of films like Mughl e Azam or Sahab Bibi Aur Gulam or Pakiza will fail on the box office today, though they are some of the better known Indian Film classics. There is no trace of femininity in the exhibits either at the National Museum or the National Gallery of Modern Art or any publication by any Indian publisher, which leads to the only unpleasant conclusion that femininity has certainly suffered a loss in the women’s movement It has its effect elsewhere too.
Masculinity has equally suffered. Chivalry is gone. Romance has disappeared. Celebrating feminine beauty is considered no sign of maturity. As the habit and practice of writing letters has declined ever since email became the normal way of communicating, so has the thrill of writing or reading romantic poetry. It sounds rather funny and so out of place, judging by the audience response. In the course of our interactions at the public lecture, a seasoned woman member of the audience rued the displacement of femininity from the art by porn and gay parades etc. This comment was stunning, for the Indian artist imparted “art” to the sculptures in their famous Khajuraho temple creations (the tradition moved to several other places) depicting feminine beauty, lending such creations a grace that distinguishes them from porn, and made them qualify to decorate the temples, which are places of worship. There is nothing pornographic in the hands of an artist, whereas even perfect art can become pornography in the hands of the market forces. Alas! That class of artists has simply disappeared. Nobody can be blamed for it, but even an artist needs an object before his eyes or mind. Loss of femininity has robbed him of his raw material, his object, his idea, his obsession and above all his inspiration. The reward for works of art lies in the gesture of appreciation by the object of art. If on top of this loss of inspiration, statues are broken, paintings destroyed and music prohibited , how can the beauty of femininity be depicted in the modern world of the international woman?
Loss of femininity will prove costly in due course. One thing is visible- anger is overpowering people. Art sooths frayed nerves. It has a calming effect. Women are angry at men and men are angry at women. This is happening in an age when we are gradually moving into the knowledge society, whose members have respectable incomes and are enjoying greatly improved living standards. But nobody seems to be at peace with himself or herself. Perhaps it is due to adoption of a “cultivated” life style as opposed to the natural constitution. People have virtually no time for observing the infinite variety of beauty manifested by Nature or depicted by the artist for us. Left to themselves, they would like to increase the hours of the day to more than 24 hours, but they can’t do that. The explosion of knowledge after the IT revolution has changed the biological and mental age profile of the adult today: children are already adult nowadays by the time they leave school. It has direct effect on masculinity as well as femininity. The breaking of the Ardhanariswaram into two-man & woman/male & female- from the union of the two making it one ( the Ardhanariswar) is an optical illusion, as they complement each other. Whatever shape the gender debate might take, art will devise something unique to settle the issue. While realism might follow life as it is, artistic vision can look into the future and offer very satisfactory solutions to everyday life.
Let us hope to see the depiction of feminine beauty in art in the 21st Century as never before.