From time to time, there will be moments that will make you wonder about the idea of “modernity”. Going through Dr Prakash Kothari’s Erotica: The Art of Loving in your work place may be one of them. Back in the 19th century, it seems the aristocrats of northern India were coolly playing board games using marble pawns that were carved to resemble pert-nippled breasts and glans. And here in the 21st century, those who did glance at my desk while passing by choked because the book was open to a page that shows a woman being mounted by a stallion.
We live in an era that’s supposed to be hyper-sexual and yet, it’s also more conservative than we’ve ever been historically. Today, the PK poster is considered vulgar — even though the transistor ensures modesty is maintained — and the briefest glimpse of an actress’s pubes are enough to make the entire Indian internet salivate. To all those hating their Whatsapp friends because no one has sent them that notorious “bold” clip, get thee some ancient Indian art.
How about the image of a “playful-winged angel, sitting on his haunches and holding an exaggeratedly large erect phallus which reaches his own mouth”? Or a Pahari miniature painting in which the woman is suspended mid-air, as though she’s a mid-19th century Jonty Rhodes; only instead of reaching for a cricket ball, she’s being kept in that position by the grip of a lusty, thrusting gent? Another Pahari painting shows a spreadeagled man who has landed himself the task of pleasuring five women simultaneously and so uses his index fingers, big toes and one penis to do the needful. The mountain air in the 19th century must have been particularly bracing.
Erotica: The Art of Loving has many images like these, which are accompanied by captions that explain sights that arguably don’t need much explanation. Kothari is a sexologist by profession and a collector of erotic art. The pieces Kothari has collected span a vast period of time and range from adult toys to ancient ritualistic items. As private collections go, it’s quite an array he’s gathered and if he has it on display at home, then there must be a long queue to have dinner at the Kothari household.
Even if we’re decidedly uptight on the subject of sexuality, most people know that the erotic was a significant and important aspect of Indian art traditionally. In fact, one of the reasons that it was suppressed was the Victorian prudishness that British colonisers imposed upon India. It is one of the greater ironies of this world that so many who consider themselves proudly Indian and deride Western influences subscribe to a conservative morality that has its roots in the West. Traditional Indian art was anything but coy, as historical structures and paintings indicate.
Kothari’s collection reiterates the cheerful randiness of our ancestors, and it’s all quite delightful to behold. There are terracotta sculptures from as far back as 1st century BC and sculptures made from scrap metal in the 21st century. There are some items that may come a surprise to many. Ever thought of Jain erotica? Well, Kothari’s got hold of some; that too from as far back as the 16th century. There’s also a fabulous 18th century miniature showing two men having sex. The older man is wearing glasses that a 21st century hipster would love, and has an eyebrow slightly arched. His lover, on the other hand, has his brow furrowed. It’s very tempting to put thought balloons on top of each of their heads.
Although Kothari does have quite a few interesting pieces, it clearly isn’t enough to make a book. Erotica: The Art of Loving soon meanders into postcards, stamps and other random objects. Unwittingly, the book raises the question of whether just the presence of unclothed genitalia or nude figures is enough to make art erotic. Arguably, there’s a subtle difference that’s difficult to put to words between graphic art and erotica. When Kothari starts sharing with us postcards showing nude women and “pearl penises”, that distinction is palpable. These objects are at best novelties and are strikingly flimsy in aesthetic terms to the ancient erotica.
Most of the modern items in Erotica: The Art of Loving are forgettable. The examples from contemporary Indian art are mostly boring and occasionally bad. There are far better examples of sexual imagery by Indian artists than what Kothari has in his collection. In the middle of all this, Kothari throws in letters sent to him and a few sketches by Pablo Picasso that the artist had gifted to Mulk Raj Anand. Their erotic value is dubious given they show a dove, Picasso’s head, and Picasso’s head with a dove on it.
What Erotica: The Art of Loving sorely misses is an essay on the importance of sexuality in traditional Indian culture and how it shape-shifted over the centuries. Without that context, Kothari’s book feels more like a vanity project, which is a shame because there are enough pieces in Kothari’s collection to illustrate the changing attitudes towards the erotic in South Asia.
At a time when we’re struggling to figure out what counts as obscene, offensive, vulgar and even criminal in the context of sex and sexuality, we could do with a little perspective. Unfortunately, while it has some decidedly beautiful works and provocative ideas in its pages.
Erotica: The Art of Loving falls significantly short on that front.