In a recent interview after the release of her new book, Body Sutra: Tracing the Human Form through Art & Imagination, Alka Pande asserted that it is not a coffee table book, and is “not only meant to be seen but has to be read diligently”. From an academician like Pande, who is a renowned art historian, curator, and author, such a clarification is almost expected. Because, for all their gloss, beauty, and bulk, coffee table books are still only the Salman Khan films of the book world – no earnest reader or academic takes them seriously. Often meant for bored people at hotel lobbies, these books now are mostly produced and bought for their token worth. If they once served a purpose for clueless travellers, now they stand little chance against the mighty smartphone.

There might yet be a good reason that Body Sutra is in this format. It is, after all, a book largely about the representation of the body in the visual arts. In its generous spreads are scores of gorgeous images that make up for its literal and somewhat artless title. Strangely enough, the captions of these images do not have dates nor artist credits. These important details appear in an appendix at the end of the book, not along with the images, where a serious reader would want them.

That is why it is a curious thing for a scholar like Pande to do – write coffee table books, even if she doesn’t want to call them that.

Shaping the narrative

Notwithstanding the format, the subject of this book is an intriguing one. Drawing a long arc from the ancient, through the medieval and the modern, right down to the contemporary, Pande tells the story of the human body as it appears in the arts of India. She notes how this narrative is not just about what is considered beautiful but also what isn’t. “The anti-aesthetic is also a crucial part of the concept of beauty – how can appreciation for one exist without the other?” she asks, rightly.

These questions are tackled in this book, which is divided into two main sections – “Body and Art” and “Body and Literature”. Each section is further divided into four subsections – Ancient India, Medieval India, Modern India and Contemporary India.

Although such temporal classification is almost a cliché, it is both useful and necessary for a work like this because of the tremendous diversity of artistic and literary traditions in India. It keeps a reader from losing themselves in a labyrinth of genres, and also defines the respective overarching stances of religion, eroticism, resolution, and rebellion across these four big chunks of time.

The perfect in the past

The Vedas and allied Vedic literature are often considered the starting point of “Indian culture”. Thus, the cultural history of this region is invariably linked to religion. Pande demonstrates this with some early examples from the Vedic period. Through Vedic and epic myths and gods, she talks about the symbolism of the body and its many parts.

Shiva in his linga form is a focal point in this section, and understandably so, for these divine genitals form the mytho-philosophical bases for much of the religion that is now known as “Hinduism”. Yet, in a book about the body, Pande paradoxically seems to want to look the other way. She prefers the euphemistic interpretation of the linga as a shaft of light rather than the phallus embedded in the yoni of the mother goddess, effectively denying the corporeality that is the theme of this book.

Further, she takes us through several textual traditions of ancient India – including the Brahmanic, the Tantric, the secular, the Buddhist and the tribal. She introduces the reader to the idea of the body in the Shilpa Sutras and Shastras and Agamas treatises on religious art and practice, the epics and the Puranas, the Natyashastra and the Kamasutra, and classical Tamil and Sanskrit poetry and drama. In these texts are found the diktats and standards of beauty.

The author also invokes certain illustrative stories in this section. For example, the Sati myth is told with reference to the “yoni temple” at Kamakhya, Assam, to establish the idea of the body divine. However, she makes some of these assertions in ways that are uncomfortably literal, as if myths were indisputable truths.

The uncomfortable and the profound

Is this one those cases of academic compromise to accommodate an increasingly touchy faith? Or is it simply a case of conventionality on Pande’s part? Certainly, when she deals with the quintessentially erotic art of medieval India, her use of typically sexist terms betrays a force of old school habit.

Consider the repeated use of idioms like “ample bosom”, “slender waist”, or “pendulous breasts” while describing the feminine aesthetic of stone sculptures. The author falls into the objectification trap, borrowing some of her language, perhaps inadvertently, from her older male counterparts. This is at least true of that section of the book where the most definitive and erotic temple complexes of Khajuraho, Konark and Bhubaneshwar are being discussed. The relief in her tone is palpable as she moves on from the erotic to the esoteric – like a biology teacher having finished the first sex education class for a bunch of giggly teenagers.

Pande then details out the bhakti movement and concepts like shringara rasa, under which the union of two bodies became the metaphor for the soul’s union with god. She delves into the tradition of miniature paintings, Mughal and Sufi cultural influences, and a steady stream of literary talents and mystics like Kabir, Lal Ded, and Akka Mahadevi, who contributed to defining the concept of body and beauty in the medieval period. Through an array of expertly curated illustrations and literary excerpts, she is able to train the spotlight on some of the most beautiful traditions of medieval Indian art and literature.

The narrative of the now

Pande continues this in the modern and contemporary period sections too. As India lives through, fights against, and frees itself from colonial rule, there is a definite shift in its moral and aesthetic structure. The author highlights these changes in aesthetic expression from the ancient and medieval periods through the work of many modern greats. “Contemporary Indian literature and art both witnessed a major shift from the spiritual and erotic to the social and personal…postmodern, post-colonial writings and a Marxist ideology shaped the art and culture of contemporary artists. The body is represented as autobiographical material and the ‘self’ becomes more and more present,” she writes.

The paradigm shift is reflected in the works of artists like Rabindranath Tagore, who led the enlightenment in Bengal, MF Husain and Tyeb Mehta among the Bombay Progressives, Raja Ravi Varma among the modern classicists, and Amrita Sher-Gil and Sarojini Naidu among feminist artists. More leaps are made as artists move on from poetry and paintings to photography, performance, and body art.

In the modern and contemporary periods, the rebels and trailblazers cited include Ismat Chughtai, Kamala Das, Akbar Padamsee, Jayant Mahapatra, Meena Kandasamy, and Akhil Katyal to name a few. “The contemporary understanding of the body has moved beyond its singular aesthetic appraisal and concerns itself with indigenous systems around the body and related constructs of otherness, masculinity and femininity, health and sexuality, cultural connotations and personal identity,” writes Pande as a succinct distillation of what the body has become for today’s artists.

In the end, Body Sutra becomes an excellent metaphor for its subject. Though sometimes unsure of its voice and unsteady on its feet, it is a marvellous constant. As a site of procreation and recreation, identity and loss, art and history, perpetuity and evolution, the body is, as Pande aptly puts it, “a flickering signifier of sorts…”

Body Sutra: Tracing the Human Form through Art & Imagination, Alka Pande, Rupa Publications.