Actor Ranveer Singh’s nudes have been a topic of public debate and national concern in India since they appeared in Paper magazine last month. An FIR against the actor claims that he hurt the sentiments of women and insulted their modesty through his photographs. A lawyer said that young girls in her family were advised not to access social media.
In this world of facile binaries, we believe that female nudity caters to a male audience, and therefore, Singh’s nudes are most certainly for women, whether to tease them or to offend them. Some say Singh’s nudes are for the female gaze and how he has allowed himself to be an object of female desire. But the act of looking, which has unfortunately become a gendered process, is less straightforward than that. Our conversation around nudity is so entrenched in controlling sexuality that we forget that the nude may have nothing to do with sex.
Since his nudes, Singh has been compared to a Greek god (a status formerly held by Hrithik Roshan). Actor Huma Qureshi praised him as “Adonis”, the most beautiful youth in Greek mythology. Given his physique and swan-like grace in the photoshoot, the connection to ancient Greek sculptures is an easy one to make.
The ancient Greeks celebrated the male body as the pinnacle of discipline. It is rumoured that competing naked in the Olympics started when an athlete finished first in a race after he lost his loincloth. This harder-better-faster-stronger win led to publicly acceptable nudity in Greek societies. Male nudes of athletes, heroes and gods in sculpture, such as the Discobolus of Myron or the Artemision Bronze, deliberately sported small penises because sexual desire was seen as a hindrance to personal cultivation. On the other hand, mythical satyrs often featured huge penises, to indicate intellectual deprivation and their bestial nature.
This regulation of the body’s sexuality in ancient Greece is ironic because male athletes had a culture of homosexuality and homoeroticism among them. Not all were in favour of these sexual behaviours, including Plato, and only pederasty was largely accepted as part of one’s gymnasium training (the word gymnasium, for that matter, has its roots in the Greek word for naked). In Singh, gym bros may have just found their latest #goals on social media.
The nude can therefore exist as distinct from erotica. It can inspire and not arouse. And this aspect is attributable to Singh’s nudes, which largely come across as formal studies of the male physique. His postures make him seem like a contrapposto model for a Renaissance master than a sexy muse for a secret admirer.
To be fair, in a couple of shots, Singh is outstretched on a carpet, as one may expect a lover to be. He follows in the footsteps of actor Burt Reynolds, whose nude was the first-ever male centrefold in 1972 (Kabir Bedi and Akshay Kumar did something similar but not sans underwear).
The male gaze, among other things, rests on the idea of gratification. If a viewer desires the female body, he has full access to it, whether as a painting, a film or a novel. It’s the idea behind the odalisque—the problematic Orientalist and misogynistic nudes painted by male artists, once regarded as the highest achievement of female beauty but were actually receptacles of the male fantasy. The odalisque is usually shown in some state of disarray, reclining on a bed, charged with eroticism. The underlying message is that she is inviting the male viewer to have her.
Artist Richard Hamilton once said, “It is the Playboy ‘Playmate of the Month’ pullout pin-up which provides us with the closest contemporary equivalent of the odalisque in painting.” The situation was so bad that, in 1989, the Guerrilla Girls used a famous odalisque to ask the question, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?”
Singh’s nudes barely invert these gender roles. He doesn’t seem like a lounging odalisque but like a reclining study of the male form. He lacks the laidback-ness and ease of Reynolds and always looks in charge. He is too aware of his beauty. An element of surrender is involved in the erotic, and there is none here.
It’s a reiteration of what nudity can be all about. To shed your clothes doesn’t mean you’re vulnerable and to be nude doesn’t mean you are naked.
It is worth asking if Singh’s nudes have added any dimension to his public persona. The actor is notable for his eccentric fashion, his complete disregard for gender norms or for compatible patterns. If we are able to have a more mature conversation about nudity than the one we have currently, we can realise that Singh never set out to break gender barriers or the male gaze with this shoot. Nudity is yet another garb he wears, in his constant, deliberate attempt to surprise and provoke.