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How the sacred and the erotic are connected in art

The art in Alka Pande’s new books is a subtle, critical comment on our times

Sculptures at the Kajuraho temple complex.
Sculptures at the Kajuraho temple complex. (iStockphoto)

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In her new two-part book series, Indian Erotica in Art, noted art curator Alka Pande has collated paintings from museums and private collections to emphasise the symbiosis between the sacred and erotic. She grapples with issues such as whether we respond to creative work—one which defies the lakshman rekha of morality—in knee-jerk fashion, and about who gets to draw the boundary. When the law tries to do it, for instance with the three-step Miller test, it invites a host of subjective inferences that further complicate the problem. In most instances, though, this “line” seems to be drawn arbitrarily.

Hindu philosophy propagated the idea of four Purusharthas—dharma, artha, kama, moksha—for blissful living. Kama is thought as a cosmic celebration of life. Texts like Kamashastra, Ratirahasya, Koka Shashtra facilitated our learning of pleasure. The abundance of murals on the outer complexes of temples at Konark, Hampi and Khajuraho testify to the fact that ancients thought of sex as an important milestone in our path to moksha.

The front cover of the book. 
The front cover of the book. 

In the introduction to one of the two books, Yoga And The Kama: The Acrobatics Of Love, Pande says that Shiva was both a yogi (celibate ascetic) and bhogi (master of pleasure). Quoting a famous Shiva-Parvati tale, she argues that sex and yoga are intricately related: Shiva taught Parvati all the 84 asanas of yoga before beginning the cosmic dance of love on the night of union, and it is in this context that these words were spoken: yujyate anena iti yogaha (That which joins is yoga). When taken literally, some of the paintings can look slightly outlandish —lovers entwined in maithuna contort their bodies in a variety of animal and flower poses, and there is a woman trying to kill a tiger while in the throes of passion—but Pande writes that they should be read, rather, as motifs of uninhibited delight. The novelty, as some of the paintings reveal, was also derived from the permutations of the number and gender of people involved in the act.

The collection in the second book, Al Fresco Kama: Love Under The Open Sky, might find even more resonance with readers in these times of the anti-Romeo squad. Gardens like the dolagriha, kridaparvat, gudhamohanagriha, and nagaropvana specially constructed to facilitate love-making, and replete with aphrodisiacs, flowers, ornate ivory fans, scented water, and swings are described in texts. Radha-Krishna’s raasleela, according to locals, continues every night in Vrindavan’s Nidhivan, and so, to disturb the rituals of love, nobody is allowed there after dusk. “A lesson that many in India appear to have forgotten,” Pande notes.

The front cover of the book.
The front cover of the book.

“Whether the nayak and nayika be mortals or gods, love is also erotic, and its most beautiful expression happens in the lap of nature, as the lovers give themselves to each other beneath the open sky,” Pande says.

With the arrival of Victorian prudery and Abrahamic rigour, the otherwise liberal and forgiving Hindu philosophy acquired a rigid stance on most things. Further damage has been caused by the mendacious, self-serving notions of religion propagated by right-wing extremists. I am reminded of a friend’s comment from a discussion on such incidents: “Let’s go to Khajuraho soon. Who knows when they decide to demolish the temples.”


Kinshuk Gupta is a poet and writer from Delhi.

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