Artist Mihir Srivastava talks about drawing nudes

May 07, 2014, 08:55 IST | Fiona Fernandez

Why does Mihir Srivastava sketch nudes? How do his subjects relax? Do such sessions end with sex? Questions abound, and the answers will surprise, and make you think, too

Q. When and how did you get inspired to take up drawing nudes?
A. I used to make portraits but felt faces lie. I graduated to doing anatomical drawings. Human bodies fascinate me — they are aesthetically beautiful. I met a French couple 10 years ago. They volunteered to pose for me in the nude. I had many sessions with them. When they left Delhi after a few months, I didn’t miss them as much as sketching them in the nude. They left me in me this potent need to sketch live models — I call them subjects. I began to request people to pose for me.


Q. What were initial reactions at home, among friends (including girlfriends) and colleagues?
A. My family was bemused. My mother told me to get married. I replied: ‘What if I don’t stop sketching nudes after marriage; will you get me married again?’ We had a good laugh. She is an ardent supporter. She tells me: ‘pursue your hobby — sketching and painting.’ My family is cool about my tryst with nudity.  I don’t draw people I am intimately involved with; sketching them would be such a waste of time! When I am about to leave office, a close friend and colleague often asks: ‘to sketch?’ Some friends take offense that I never asked them to pose. They accuse me of not finding them interesting enough and insist that they would have refused to pose had I offered them. 

Q. You write about how your sketches reflect you and your subject. Tell us more.
A. It’s a collaborative project of art. One of my subjects described it aptly when he said, ‘I want to see how I look from your eyes.’ To answer the second part of your question, nudity to me is a great leveller. The qualification that clothing adds to our being is shed when we are naked. Also, the distinction between a familiar face and a stranger dissolves because, in any case, I will see them in a new avatar. People look different when they are naked. Distinctions based on complex identities of caste, creed, religion, sexuality and gender, blurs. Friends and strangers feel I know a lot about them, because they are naked in front of me. They are like flames, metaphorically. Their trapped aura is realised for me to witness. I relive the emotions of my subjects as if I am connected to them with a chord. There is a huge trust factor involved.

Sketches courtesy/Mihir Srivastava, author-Conversations in the Nude

Q. ...and how much does familiarity affect these sessions?
A. Familiarity with the subject is a factor, and it pans out in a unique way with each individual. Some discussed personal issues, which they never did before. Others felt that if they pose nude it gave them the liberty to probe me. They felt I am frustrated, a pervert or gay. Often, I’d have to tell them that if they got fixated about me, they would lose the larger picture. My experience of sketching over 100 people in the nude tells me that there are no stereotypes, just individuals. It’s untrue that gay men are more likely to pose or that city girls are more comfortable with their bodies. On an average, one in three people agree to pose.

Mihir Srivastava. The artist, who is also a journalist, deals with nudity passionately, and yet insists on calling it a hobby. Pic courtesy/ Jan Peters

Q. Given a choice, is there a subject prototype that you prefer?
A. Some people are predisposed to nudity, but I have no means of knowing them. I have no idea who will pose and who will not. Also, of how people will behave at the session. Often, gregarious people are quiet, while introverts find inspiration to talk about random things. I make an offer to a prospective subject, intuitively. I don’t refuse if someone offers to pose for me. I’ve seen a mild pattern, of the kind of people I sketch: I am drawn to contradictions: effeminate men and macho women. I look at pushing boundaries of my subject to see what happens. Two uncertainties surround my subject. They are unsure of dealing with being the centre of attention in the nude. Secondly, I am an enigma to them, and this makes the session engaging. My sessions are a private space for public nudity with no set agenda, and open to possibilities.  

Q. When sexual tensions surface, how do you focus on sketching?
A. As I stated earlier, I don’t sketch those I have an intimate relationship with. ‘Sex is inevitable’ was the opening remark of a few subjects. Many make it clear that they are at the session not just for sketching. On very few occasions, I had sexual liaisons with my subjects. It happened because those sessions couldn’t have ended in any other way; it wasn’t premeditated. I mention those moments in my book as ‘black holes of fulfillment in my memory.’ We met again on some pretext, now premeditated, but the magic never happened again. On other occasions, when we met with a tacit understanding of having sex, I ended up sketching; this wasn’t premeditated either.  If my subjects aren’t at ease, I am uncomfortable. When they get concupiscent, I get a bit jittery; I tell them they to show signs of boredom. At such times, taking short coffee breaks help; mostly, at the end of the session.

This and that
Subject feedback >
I draw badly when I make special effort to draw well. Each sketch has an element of me. I have been lucky that my subjects have liked at least one sketch in every sketching session. They mostly keep the sketch they like. I usually don’t like the sketch that’s my subject's favourite. We look at the same sketch from our perspectives. 

When people shed their clothes > People wear their complex identities for public consumption. Clothes are the most potent instruments to project foster identities we carry. So when my subjects remove their clothes, they also voluntarily relinquish layers of those identities. Nudity is an assertion of selfhood: this is who I am. Deal with it. It is like the Indian philosophical truth: dispossession is the way to ultimate possession: enlightenment.

Most intense session > It was while sketching an 83-year-old woman. It changed and shaped me a bit. She preferred her solitude at the session to the loneliness she experienced in her busy sons’ households. The session vindicated the fact that she existed; it ended the long phase where people around her ignored her. She had never been anyone’s centre of attention since she lost her husband nearly 30 years ago. 

Future plans > I want to travel all over the world and write a travelogue of a nude artist.

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