Retrograde. Bamboozlement! More Bamboozlement!

'Women' by Prabuddha Dasgupta, 1996

The book has an introduction by poet-writer Dom Moraes. He drops lines about India's rich erotic past - the poems, the paintings, the books, the sculptures et cetera. It reads almost like a plea that goes - a book like this should not be seen as an anomaly.

In year 1996, a book of nudes featuring Indian women could have been nothing but an anomaly.
For most of the late 90s much of India India was suffering a Saffron tinged moral panic about culture and tradition. But the fact that this latest 'attack' on 'culture and tradition' should have come from photographer Prabuddha Dasgupta was surely  no anomaly. After all he was the man behind the camera for Richard Avedonic Kamastura (the one with Pooja Bedi ) and Tuff Shoes advertising campaigns [Some of these controversial ads here]. He even did the stills for Mira Nair's Kama Sutra (1996). So this book was no flash in a pan. But it did create quite a stir.

'Women' by Prabuddha Dasgupta, in B&W, has portraits and bare images of urban Indian women - lithesome all of them and some of them cigarette smoking. The book has no central theme -in some images it is the shadow play and in others it is a body part. The images were picked from various work by the photographer without keeping a book in mind, in fact some of the images (like the one featuring Madhu Sapre) seem to be part of the work that contributed to those infamous advertisements.

As one flips through more than hundred pages of this book, one gets to see some familiar faces like Malaika Arora (a lot of her), Mehr Jessia, Sushmita Sen (just one portrait), Amrita Arora, Madhu Sapre, Laxmi Menon (Photographer's girlfriend), Kamal Sidhu,  Namrata Shirodkar, Shyamoli Verma and some more who are a bit difficult to place. But as you flip through the pages, the anomaly hits you, for most of the nudes, the images are shot and then forcefully cropped in such a way the face of the model is barely visible, in some cases the head if not turned away, is in turn totally missing. So even if it may not the motivation of the book to send the reader's mind into an instinctive (or just perverse) jigsaw solving exercise - 'Who might this be? This part belongs to whom?', but some images from this book end up doing exactly that. And then on the last page of the book, reading the acknowledgments, you realize that the models have been thanked but not credited at all, no names, reason: the 'obvious'. And on top of that you are essentially warned that if you recognize some famous face on one page, the derriere on the next page may not be essentially hers at all.

In an interview given to Better Photography magazine , even the photographer acknowledged the anomaly and explained the reason:
The making of the book was wrought with angst—it is one thing for a woman to be photographed in the nude and quite another to have it published in a book. So morally and ethically, I was bound to hand over the editing to the subjects. The result was what you got. Most times, persons were turned into formal sculptures—headless and anonymous. Not how I would have wanted to show them, but the way circumstances dictated that they be shown.
And so women had the last say. And yet India got its book of Nudes.

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Image: Some photographs from WOMEN (Viking books, Penguin India, 1996).

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