Open’s staff writer Mihir Srivastava likes to sketch nude portraits of regular people—men and women, strangers and friends, thin and fat. Some are disgusted when he asks them if they would pose for him. But, surprisingly, many agree. Why?
How to make friends and get them to pose nude for you
Here I make a private hobby public. I convince all kinds of people to pose nude for me. Women and men, fat and thin, shy and bold, Indians and foreigners. I address them as subjects. Every third person I approach ends up posing for me.
People, particularly Indians, who are conservative in public can be fairly radical behind closed doors. I assure them their anonymity. You cannot identify people from my sketches, but you would be able to see what they are, what they are thinking. Their faces are usually blank, but their bodies are very expressive. What I dabble in is the language of the unspoken.
To me, sketching nudes is not an end in itself, it is part of a whole cycle that begins with shortlisting people. Then comes the tricky act—approaching them to pose, cajoling, persuading and pursuing them without coming across as a creep. Some have taken years to say ‘yes’. Then follows the process of drawing them, and finally gifting them some of their own sketches. This completes a collaborative micro-project of art. There is no exchange of money. I have done nearly a hundred such projects so far with reasonable success.
When I choose a person to sketch, I usually have no reason. It is intuitive. There is no method to it, no madness. Once, after I sketched a psychologist, he analysed my fascination for nudes with this conclusion: it is not a perversion.
So what is happening here? I am not doing this as a sexual kink (I really do believe that). I have no special like or dislike of drawing women with heaving breasts and men with rounded buttocks. I do not go hunting for a particular body type, or avoid people of certain physical descriptions. I draw women and men both, separately and together. They could be old, young, fat, thin, dark, fair, journalists, politicians or prostitutes, writers or photographers, anyone and everyone.
My fascination lies with the curves. I see curves all the time. The human body is a great composition of interspersed curves. These tend to tighten and relax to reflect deep-seated emotions, states of mind. I hate sketching bodybuilders; their curves are so artificial, they appear to me as though they are overstuffed baggage. There is a language of curves, a language that does not lie, and one that has simple messages: happy, sad, comfortable, and so on. They indicate the kind of life one has led: luxurious or penurious. Sometimes the curves hint at lineage as well.
I like drawing the fronts of women and posteriors of men. My subconscious mind does make certain choices, but it is not about the looks of my subjects but what they represent. I seem to be drawn to contradictions—men with clean bodies, hairy women, English-speaking Jats, Hindi-speaking expats, fat young women, old slim men, interracial couples, eunuchs. I also like to draw monks and sadhus, though when they are naked they do not appear to be monks and sadhus.
There is an element of sadistic pleasure involved here in disarming people so completely. To be face to face with nudity, to know people in a way that very few would ever know them, to make people lower their guard. But what is the big deal? And why do people want to take off their clothes for me?
They pose for their own reasons. And these reasons are independent of nationality, race, age, sexuality or religion. The reasons are inherent and different for different people. An articulate actress in her late thirties agreed to pose in my house in Delhi because she wanted to see how she appears in my eyes. Perhaps she was tired of looking at her photographs.
An 83-year-old woman posed for me a few months before she died. She told me that she had never been anyone’s centre of attention (barring, perhaps, of doctors attending to her) ever since her husband died some 30 years ago. This sketching session was a vindication of her existence, something that she complained people around her completely ignored.
Another woman, a politician of some repute, comes periodically to me to be sketched. She finds the process therapeutic. It declutters her mind while she struggles to come to terms with the demands of her ambition. Posing nude gives her the delusion of dispossession for an hour or so. It rekindles her energy to fight for her own pound of flesh in a world full of “hawks”.
Some pose because they like to venture into an uncomfortable zone. Some are generally bored with their lives; they want some excitement. Some want sex. They believe that is what even I am looking for. I disappoint them, though there have been some exceptions.
Then, there are others who are fairly aggressive about their nudity. Some women confront me by spreading their legs, thrusting their breasts up with their palms. Some come and stand so close that I can feel the warmth of their bare exterior hit me like vapours of water on boil. I want them naked; they bare themselves to me. They observe how their overt nudity impacts me. They play games with me, test my nerves, introduce palpable tension in the atmosphere. I tell them sometimes, “Don’t spread your legs so wide… you will not be able to hold this position for long.” We both have a big laugh.
Some insist on parity: so I too am naked while I sketch.
It all started some 10 years ago when a French couple happened to see some of my sketches copied from nude
pictures. They advised me to do live models and volunteered to be my first subjects. From passive copying of images, it was a giant leap forward. Now it was a live interaction of mind and matter. I could control light and shade; help people uncover their most interesting facets, the ones hidden even from them. I had seven sittings with them over the next two months. When they left Delhi, they left in me a potent need to draw people in the nude.
A lot has changed since. I somehow believe that nudity is truth. Clothing is deception. Clothes are a layering on the intellect that blur and complicate reality. Nudity is not just a shedding of clothes. It is the slipping out of insecurities, from the hangover of self-delusion, the pangs of being constantly on guard, the inherent need to project something all the time, something that may not be the truth. People look at it as an extreme state of vulnerability. But experiencing such vulnerabilities as this can actually be empowering. Clothing allows people to lead dual lives: one for themselves and the other for public consumption.
Clothes acutely make their presence felt in their absence. I see nudity as a loud assertion: This is who I am. Deal with it.
Over the years, I have developed a sales pitch. I show prospective subjects my sketches. Then say with a straight face: “I want to sketch you.”
“Like this?” they retort with emphasis on the word ‘this’, often pointing a finger at a sketch. I declare, “I draw nudes.” Those who say ‘yes’ immediately invariable say ‘no’ eventually. A ‘no’ remains a ‘no’, mostly. People who respond with a “will think about it” are those who actually pose.
When we are in the sketching room, I don’t ask them to pose. I tell them to do whatever they would have done if they were not naked. I ask, “Are you conscious of the fact that you are dressed?” No, because it is a given. Can nudity be a given? I pose a challenge: “Can you enter a mind space where you are indifferent to your nudity?” Or, “Can you forget that you are naked exactly in the same way that you don’t remember that you are dressed?” Is it asking for too much? Not really, because many slip into this state after a few anxious minutes.
That is why stripping is the most critical part. For a first-timer, this transformation from one to the other state evokes the most acute anxiety. So this is when I give my subjects privacy. I walk out of the room to make coffee, “Get ready, I will be back soon.” Some are wrapped in a bedsheet, some have a book in hand, some have their thighs clamped tight, some are in their underwear, some want some more time. “Give me a moment, I cannot do it in one go.”
Conversations take place on a different trajectory. People say things that are revelatory. A 30-year-old girl, a graphic designer, told me about her and her partner lying naked for hours together in bed, awake and silent. An environmentalist gave me a long talk about why nuclear power is not green. An author confided in me that she suffers from latent unrest within, and that she needs to do vigorous exercise to vent it. A 45-year-old widow discussed her relationship with her husband: “He was a bad husband but always my best friend.”
My sample space defies any stereotypes you may harbour. For instance, I have not met a gay man who would readily pose. Strange things happen: prostitutes waiting to be fucked refuse to pose. They find it odd, and turn strangely shy. The body of a prostitute, contrary to what most men think, is her private space. In contrast, girls from smaller towns and those in the NGO sector are very comfortable with their nudity.
I have sketched a man with his body literally stitched together after three separate life-threatening car crashes; his left leg shorter than the right, a deep cut, gorge like cuts across his body-escape, there were no usual reasons for him to pose. I have yet to find someone who celebrates nudity quite the way he did.
The people I draw could be strangers, acquaintances or friends, but never family. I never sketch somebody I am physically involved or in a relationship with. In that case, sketching seems to be such a waste of time. I did offer to sketch a girl I had just started dating. She accused me of trying to exploit her. We broke up.
I once approached a well-known author in a coffee shop. He did not know me. I introduced myself and asked for his email ID. I mailed him my intent that evening. Two days later, he read books sitting on my antique armchair while I merrily sketched him.
My longest sketching session was with a German girl who dozed off to sleep while I sketched her the whole night. She lay static for hours, absolutely relaxed, breathing easy. I couldn’t ask her to change position, so I changed mine—over the shoulder, side profile, top angle—and shifted the position of my single source of light, a yellow bulb I use for sketching mounted on a pedestal lamp, to illuminate the subject a little differently. I tried many permutations and combinations to get exciting results. Every sketch looked different, though her position remained unchanged. People confuse reality as subjective. I believe reality is fairly static.
There was one man who posed with complete disdain for my sketching session. He wrote me later that since he did not have much to do, he spent the session planning a tour itinerary.
By far, the most interesting part of what I do is asking people if they would pose naked for me. They instantly imagine I have ulterior motives. Very few take the offer at its face value. I get varied reactions—chiefly outrage, of course. I am told: “Are you out of your mind?” “Do you know what you are asking?” “You dirty pervert.” A 35-year-old working woman tersely said, “I am married.” “So bring your husband along,” I said. (She later posed for me, but not in her husband’s presence.)
Another friend did not know how to react. She just got up and left. Later she wrote back: ‘I can try.’ There are some who are fairly cool about it. “I knew this was coming,” a friend told me, but refused. I took out a writer friend for dinner and asked her. “You didn’t have to take me out to ask me this,” she said. She posed for me after a year. There were two subjects who smiled to tell me, “I am not coming just for sketching.” So I am tempted to believe that people who agree to pose are looking for some adventure.
I offered to sketch a girl in her late twenties, a fat-salaried employee with an MNC in Gurgoan. She agreed. Two hours before she was to arrive, she called to say that her boyfriend would accompany her. I would lie if I say I was not disappointed. I told her that my room has seating for six; she could get her boyfriend and three others as well. But she arrived with just her boyfriend. As I was sketching her, she kept discussing plans to redo her wardrobe. After a point, the boyfriend felt ignored. So he said he wants to be sketched too. He stripped, dropping all inhibitions in an instant; his girlfriend had a hey-you-were-not-supposed-to-do-this kind of expression on her face. I sketched them both.
On another occasion, I sketched a girl in the company of six of her friends (all clothed).
An interracial couple gave me a picture of a nude couple. They wanted me to sketch them in the same pose. I was serving out their fetish. Then, another girl, a photographer, preferred being sketched outdoors. I sketched her on the bank of the Yamuna just off Delhi’s Ring Road, near Humayun’s Tomb. We went early one morning in May to avoid curious onlookers. An Englishman insisted that he be sketched on the first floor balcony of his DDA flat in Sarita Vihar, Delhi, in full view of other flats. I declined; I didn’t want to draw attention. A girl got me to do micro-anatomical aspects of her body; the sketches looked surreal, they didn’t look human. An athlete stood on one leg, the other stretched back, while he bent forward with his arms widespread like the wings of a falcon. A photographer clicked pictures of me while I sketched him.
I have sketched a French environmentalist, a 34-year-old slender man, in his paying guest accommodation in Greater Kailash-I, Delhi. The landlady, a fat Punjabi auntie, kept knocking at the door for some reason. “Come out,” she would yell. The subject asked the auntie’s son, a college-going boy, into the room and explained what was happening, inviting him to sit through the session. They never knocked the door after this. The French environmentalist was asked to move out of the apartment the very next morning.
I wonder why the human species started wearing clothes in the first place. Perhaps to facilitate migrations to colder climes? To help insecure men conceal their penis sizes? Hygiene? Whatever the reasons, clothes were never meant to hide. Just protect.