Imagining an Ontological Strip-Tease

“Nudity” as a Discursive Space for Ideological Contestation in Three (Anti-)Colonial and Postcolonial Bengali Texts

Term Paper 2012 69 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature




1. Clothed/Naked: Civil/Savage

3. Dress Fetishism

4. Desire as Clothing

5. Shame

6. Woman, Envelope, Nudity

7. The Strip-tease

8. Patriotism

9. Towards an Ontological Aesthetics

10. E Amir Abaran/ The Veil of This “I”

11. Masonry without “Master’s Tools”

12. Absence of Orgasm

13. Ontological Strip-tease and the Postcolonial Subject

Notes and References

A Special Note



In the East-West dialogues initiated in the colonial era, ‘nudity’ occupied a problematic discursive space where a plurichromatic intersection of and confrontation between antagonistic approaches to nakedness became possible. In the context of colonial Bengal, the colonized intellectual’s “reply” to the colonizer’s approach to nudity often broadened the conceptual horizon of nudity itself. Nudity became both a trope for ideological contestation and a figurative topos of philosophical, metaphysical speculation, in effect producing a densely textured discourse on ‘nudity’ that was not only subversive in terms of anti-colonial politics but also prophetic about the fate of the human body in the phase of late capitalism. Colonial India was inescapably embedded in the capitalist ‘world-system’ (a la Immanuel Wallerstein), and hence, many Indian intellectuals, during the period of the Raj, became capable of foreseeing the future developments in the capitalist culture. In short, the intellectuals of colonial India were not simply articulating an anti-imperialist politics, but also predicting the “postmodern” predicaments of the “world system” into which they found themselves to have been pushed by the Empire. While Lloyd Rudolph and Susanne Rudolph have seen Gandhi as prefiguring postmodernism1, I would like to see Tagore’s and Sarala Devi’s discourses on nudity as prefiguring a critique of the postmodern culture of late capitalism. Nevertheless, these intellectuals were also effectually drawing on the indigenous philosophical discourses of India to articulate a theoretical framework for contesting the all-pervasive colonial ideologies regarding the human body, those associated with categories such as clothing and nudity, the civil and the savage, the modern and the traditional. It was not a project of “writing back” a “derivative discourse”, but rather the writing in of a hybrid theory which was framed on the basis of a rejection of what Audre Lorde has called “the master’s tools”.

In this essay, I discuss in detail three (anti-)colonial and postcolonial Bengali texts centred on the issue of nudity – Rabindranath Tagore’s essay, ‘Abaran’ (The Veil), Sarala Devi’s essay, ‘Bigatambara’, (She Who Has Let Her Clothes Go) and Parashuram’s (Rajshekhar Bose) short story, ‘The Celestial Strip-tease’, the first two being produced in the colonial era, while the last one was published in post-Independence India. All these three are extremely complex and rich texts replete with multiple ideological implications and philosophical perspectives, and are unique in stylistic and formal terms. Sarala Devi’s and Tagore’s essays open up the possibilities of an alternative theoretical style that can ‘dismantle’ the ‘Master’s House’. It is wrong to see these essays simply as the specimens of anti-colonial or nationalist writing. Nor are they nativist discourses replacing theoretical Eurocentrism with an obscurantist Indocentrism. Rather, they show a true hybridity where Western and Indian conceptual paradigms crisscross in a productive way. Again, in Parashuram’s story, a beautiful and subtle critique of postmodern thingification is articulated from the perspective of Indian asceticism, which would remain unappreciated in any conventional reading of Parashuram that overlooks his utterly innovative reinterpretations of Indian myths and philosophies and in the name of celebrating his “scientific” orientation, erases the subtle borderline between scientificity and scientism which most brilliantly characterizes Parashuram’s imaginative landscapes.

Instead of dealing with the texts in isolation, I have chosen to place them on a comparativistic spectrum, without blurring their generic differences and formal specificities. I have divided the whole essay into several thematic clusters under which I would like to discuss the texts, offering a detailed discussion of the stylistic and formal features of each text in the course of the thematic explorations. In the concluding section I would focus on their relevance in our contemporary discourse and praxis of the culture of protest and resistance in the context of the insidious invasion of the “global culture”.

1. Clothed/Naked: Civil/Savage

In Space Oddities, Marie Lathers writes, ‘(Ruth) Barcan (the author of the celebrated Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy) points out … that western ideas of nudity are built on a legacy of colonialism, which saw “primitives” as uncivilized and savage persons in large part because of their lack of clothing in contrast to Europeans. Naked “primitives” were viewed at the same time, I would add, as hyper-masculine (their nudity a sign of power and violence) and yet somehow feminine (their nudity a sign of innocence and weakness)’.2 “Nudity” occupies a sphere of discursive ambivalence in Western thought, simultaneously being coupled with the ideas of innocence and barbarity, purity and wildness. As Lathers argues, ‘Indeed, although in western culture nakedness is identified with truth (“the naked truth”) there is a concurrent tradition of reading clothing as an indication of what lies within the body – soul, mind, or identity – much as physiognomy reads personality from facial features.’3 The equation of the naked/clothed binary with the savage/civil dichotomy is well exemplified in John Curtis’s account of the wreck of the Stirling Castle and the troubles suffered by its crew and passengers under the Aboriginals of Fraser Island. As Rod Macneil observes:

The dichotomy of being clothed and going naked was fundamental

to a ‘civilized’ identity: to be robbed of their clothes lessened the

distinction between the Stirling Castle survivors and their captors,

forcing them to confront the applicability of a social prohibition against

nudity that was inherent, and almost sacrosanct, within European culture.

The exposure of the body diminished discernible cultural difference,

creating a compromise of identity that significantly reduced the higher

moral ground from which the Aboriginal people could be observed.

Essentially, being naked made Europeans less civilized.4

It is in the context of such conceptual paradigms of western imperialism that I would locate Tagore’s ‘Abaran’ as an interventionist text. Tagore begins his essay with the trope of the bare feet. He suggests that, thanks to the invention of shoes, the human feet have lost their contact with the soil, thereby leading to a situation where we are compelled to fetishize the sole of the foot and “worship” it. With a brilliant humour characteristic of Tagore’s satirical prose, he comments that by being preoccupied with the “worship” of the sole of the foot, we, as it were, lodge a complaint against God for His having deprived us of hoofs.5 Even before the expository action of the essay begins, the highly figurative beginning sets the tone for the ideological contestation round the trope of nudity within the larger framework of the civil/savage debate. In order to eschew the savagery of naked feet, Tagore suggests, we have fetishized their clothing, in effect subjecting ourselves to a perpetual concern about the well-being of these organs, thereby, as it were, engaging in a lament for the loss of animality, the lack of hoofs. Interestingly enough, Tagore punctures the civil/savage binary at the very outset by inserting a third factor into it – that of animality. In this way the colonialist dialectic of civility and savagery is radically problematized, and Tagore dissociates savagery from animality to link the latter, through intricately ironic rhetorical formations, with “civilization” itself. Tagore thinks that the colonial Bengali middle class is getting more and more obsessed with dressing the naked body – an obsession that Tagore identifies as an aftermath of the cultural imperialism initiated by the Raj. The educated Bengali is suffering from a kritrim lajja (an artificial sense of shame) imposed on his psyche by the colonial masters.6 This pernicious sense of shame is being extended to the children for whom nakedness ought not to be an object of shame. Tagore places the children in the domain of nature. However, it is not a simple nature/culture binary on which he is harping. Rather, Tagore’s rhetoric destabilizes this very binary on which the western civilization is based. In the obsessive attempt to dress the naked child Tagore discerns a tension between civilization and nature which is totally undesirable – not because of the necessity to distance the “natural” child from the claws of civilization, but rather due to the very faulty nature of the binaristic conception of nature and civilization. He notes that, in nature, there is a ‘ puratan jnan’, a primordial wisdom which is not opposed to civilization but rather the bedrock thereof.7 To this primordial wisdom, we are like children. Thus, Tagore stages the nature/civilization drama from a radically different perspective, implying that the moment civilization loses its organic contact with nature it ceases to be civilization, and turns into a barbaric imposition. The abnormal prejudices against the body which Tagore sees as symptomatic of the ‘ bilater lok’ (the Europeans, more specifically, the British) are, he argues, indeed ‘ barbar ’ (barbaric). This barbarity is something one ought to be ashamed of.8 We can see the extent to which Tagore’s rhetoric radically subverts the imperialist binary of civility and savagery. He locates barbarity in the dress-obsession of the hegemonic European culture that has so far insisted on the barbarity of nudity.

Lathers writes:

Moreover, as Ruth Barcan points out, the clothed/naked opposition

not only divides humans into categories, but also creates a boundary

between humans and non-human others: “Most fundamentally, it has

divided the non-human from the human and has divided humanness

into ‘types’ or gradations: male/female; civilized/savage;

sane/insane; normal/deviant and so on.” To be clothed is to be,

fundamentally, human, and it is the type of clothing one wears that

identifies what type of human one is.9

Precisely, in ‘Abaran’, Tagore is critically focussing on the ‘gradations’ Barcan highlights. These gradations are inevitably connected with the capitalist culture that informs the essence of western imperialism. There is no competition in ulangata (nakedness), observes Tagore. The colonial obsession with clothing that percolates into the cultural universe of the Bengali bhadralok injects the essence of capitalism, competitiveness, into the world of the naked child.10 Again, Tagore is programmatically dismissive of the alienation of the human child from its ‘non-human others’, the elements of nature - ‘veiled by lace and silk,’ the Bengali bhadralok’s child is deprived of ‘ bataser sohag’ and ‘ aloker chumban’, the caress of the breeze and the kiss of light. Education, for Tagore, is not exclusively an affair of civilization – ‘ prakritik shiksha’ or natural education is the first step in the educational procedure.11

Lathers writes, ‘Nudity has both positive and negative meanings in western culture. At the root of this contradiction is a fundamental ambivalence toward nature, for being nude is being in a state of nature. Nature may signify goodness, purity, wholeness, and universality; on the other hand, it may indicate degradation, filth, chaos and the animalistic.’12 In some Indian philosophical systems too there is an ‘ambivalence toward nature’; but there are also alternative approaches free from this ‘ambivalence.’ In fact, Tagore draws on a millennia old tradition of celebrating the Mother Earth in India, which dates back to the age of the Atharva Veda.13 The child needs to enjoy a physical contact with the dusty surface of the Earth, which is not just a prelude to, but a part of, his/her education. Rabindranath is critical of that colonial mimicry which translates the colonizer’s trope of “civility” into the colonized’s ‘ bhadrata ’. While discussing the cultural sphere where the ‘bhadralok’ operated in colonial Bengal, Dipesh Chakrabarty writes:

As Meredith Borthwick, Ghulam Murshid, and other scholars have shown,

the eighteenth-century European idea of ‘civilization’ culminated, in

early nineteenth-century India, in a full-blown imperialist critique of

Indian/Hindu domestic life, which was now held to be inferior to what

became mid-Victorian ideals of bourgeois domesticity.14

This ‘critique’ was internalized by the emergent Bengali Hindu middle class, resulting in the arcana of the figure of the bhadralok. Tagore unhesitatingly promulgates that the naked body of the Indian is not at all an object of shame – the “civilized” person who considers it to be shameful has but a blurred vision.15 Tagore’s undermining of the civil/savage binary also includes a radical, satiric exposition of the mercantilistic basis of the civilization the British Raj boasts of. He says, sardonically, that he has not set out to preach and champion nudity in the British state in order to make Manchester bankrupt.16 In this short but heavily satirical sentence Tagore condenses the most radical critique of the “British civilization” – the clothing-obsessed civilization of the British is based on the savagery of the intense socio-economic exploitation of the colonized India which keeps Manchester from going impecunious.

Tagore’s observations on nudity also contain a historical documentation of the way in which the bourgeois values of Victorian England were mimicked by the colonial bhadralok. Tagore comments – again with his characteristic irony – that probably one day the Bengali bhadralok will even be ashamed of seeing unclothed furniture.17 Eric Hobsbawm, in The Age of Capital, observes:

The most immediate impression of the bourgeois interior of the

mid-century is overcrowding and concealment, a mass of objects,

more often than not disguised by drapes, cushions, cloths and

wallpapers, and always, whatever their nature, elaborated. No picture

without a gilded, a fretted, a chased, even a velvet-covered frame, no

seat without upholstery or cover, no piece of textile without tassel,

no piece of wood without some touch of the lathe, no surface without

some cloth or object on it.18

The very title of the Tagore essay, “Abaran” (the veil), is symptomatic of the ‘concealment’ Hobsbawm speaks of, while the ‘overcrowding’ Hobsbawm focuses on is also a critical issue in “Abaran”. Tagore says that we no longer touch the world with our mind, but with books. This is, for Tagore, an epistemological overcrowding that alienates us from the world, throwing us into a ‘very dense forest of texts’.19 Another dimension of Tagore’s critique of the civility/savagery binary becomes prominent through his differentiation between katha and mukher katha, the latter being associated with prana, life-force.20 The word that is spoken is replete with the life energy of the speaker, an energy that is lost in the frozen textuality of written and printed words. Thus, Tagore is also celebrating a pre-colonial oral culture as opposed to the much-valorized print culture that the Empire likes to see as emblematic of civilization. Speech and spontaneity are rhizomically (a la Deleuze and Guattari) linked in Tagore’s prose with the trope of nudity.

In ‘Bigatambara’, Sarala Devi begins with a reference to four types of nudity – that of the child, the nudity on the stage, the nudity (of the Indian ascetics) in the Kumbha Mela, and the nudity in the figure of Goddess Kali. She offers an anecdote – a female friend of hers went to a London theatre, on coming across the advertisement of “Living Statues”. This (presumably) Indian female spectator, though she had been enthralled by the nude figures in their stony stillness, was appalled the moment the figures were seen to be moving. The Indian woman readily left the theatre and went home, cursing the nude women on the stage for their impropriety. The memsahib who had accompanied the Indian woman was totally embarrassed and was at a loss regarding the possible justification she could provide. This ‘nari-pradarshani’ (exhibition of female body) went on for nights, uninterrupted by any legal restriction imposed by the parliament or police. No one was concerned about the way it might tell upon the moral health of the society.21 Sarala writes all these in an almost clinically detached, covertly ironic tone. Unlike Tagore’s, her tone is not explicitly ironic. Very interestingly, Sarala does not engage in any pompous rhetorical discussion on the impact of nudity on British society, or the immorality of the English women. Her tone is not judgmental at all. Though she is often seen as a ‘Hindu nationalist’ writer-activist, her rhetoric does not show any trace of an attempt to set up what Edward Said would call an “Occidentalism.” Rather, she engages in a clinical, psychoanalytical dissection of the behaviour of the Indian female spectator (notice that she is not focussing on the memsahib-companion), her “reaction” to the “living statues”.22 However, in spite of avoiding the flamboyant irony of Tagore’s rhetoric, Sarala’s essay does not fail to construct a profound critique of the civility/savagery binary equated by the western colonialist rhetoric with the clothing/nudity binary. If we closely look at the comparative spectrum in which I have placed the texts of Tagore and Sarala, we must acknowledge the historical change over the period of colonialism in the English society itself. ‘Abaran’ was first published in 1313 bangabda, while ‘Bigatambara’ came out in 1330 bangabda. At the time of the publication of Sarala’s essay, the British society has outgrown its Victorian morality, and an open exhibition of nude (“living”) female body has become possible. However, in order to grasp this historical transition we need to critically look at the Victorian perceptions of nudity and clothing which, as Tagore points out, were thoroughly mimicked by the colonial bhadralok.

Hobsbawm writes:

What would we think today of a Lewis Carroll whose passion

was to photograph little girls naked? … This very innocence, however,

allows us to see the powerful sexual element in the bourgeois world

very clearly in its costume, an extraordinary combination of temptation

and prohibition. The mid-Victorian bourgeois was swathed in garments,

leaving little publicly visible except the face, even in the tropics. In

extreme cases (as in the United States) even objects reminiscent of the

body (the legs of tables) might be hidden away [exactly what Tagore

satirizes in “Abaran”]. At the same time, and never more so than in the

1860s and 1870s, every secondary sexual characteristic was

grotesquely overemphasized: men’s hair and beards, women’s hair, breasts,

hips and buttocks, swelled to enormous size by means of false chignons,

culs-de-Paris, etc. The shock effect of Manet’s famous Dejeuner sur

l’Herbe (1863) derives precisely from the contrast between the utter

respectability of the dress of the men and the nakedness of the woman…23

What Hobsbawm is focussing on is actually a sort of reification of nudity itself, a dressing mechanism that makes nudity transparent. Interestingly, this complex approach to nudity in the capitalist culture of late 19th century England is not available in colonial Bengal, where the bhadraloks are struggling to clothe their children whose nudity Tagore celebrates. In other words, the Victorian society had already absorbed “nudity” into its capitalist “civilization”, while the nudity-savagery equation was being maintained carefully in the colonies. This civilized nudity gradually evolves into the nude “Living Statues” Sarala dwells on. Nevertheless, Sarala wonderfully structures a quasi-clinical critique of the colonial politics involved in the marketing of this civilized nudity. Sarala draws parallels between the artistic traditions of Europe and the spiritual procedures of sadhana in India, with respect to the dispassionate observation of nude statues. She observes that the European aesthetic traditions maintain that nudity in art can be properly enjoyed only by those spectators who can perceive it dispassionately. Thus, an aesthetic normativity is set up in the world of European art regarding the spectatorial eligibility for the artistic consumption of nude figures. Sarala says all these things in a dispassionate tone herself, thereby making prominent the difference in attitude between the Indian female spectator in the London theatre and herself. Her tonality is ostensibly analytical rather than polemical. However, the speculations on the points of convergence between European nude art and the Indian doctrines of asceticism are not merely an intellectual playfulness based on a creative associative principle of memory; they are part of a critical programme of exposing the imperialist politics involved in the artistic normativity the West builds up, a means of laying bare the colonial politics underpinning the normative framework for the cultural consumption of nudity. Sarala relates to us the account of a starkly racist decision taken by the British Raj regarding the determination of the ideal audience for the nude dance show of Maud Allan. The colonial British government considered the Indian audience to be unfit for such a show, as the Indians were, the British concluded, traditionally accustomed to lust after the body of the female dancer. In two pithy sentences that follow, Sarala radically challenges this colonialist equation between the Indian audience and lustfulness. She points out that there is no historical evidence guaranteeing that the common English audience is fitter than the common Indian audience for a nude dance show. On the contrary, she argues, it is in the Indian society that there is a direct, experiential relationship between nakedness and the control of the senses.24

Sarala’s critique of the colonialist equation of the nudity/clothing binary with the savage/civil binary is even more radical than Tagore’s. Bharati Ray comments, ‘Janakinath and the Tagore family were supportive of the Congress. Sarala’s heart was with the biplabis.’25 Her biplabi (revolutionary) consciousness is brilliantly manifest in her speculations on nudity in the essay I am discussing. While Tagore challenges the clothing obsession introduced by colonial mimicry, Sarala shifts her critical gaze to the issue of the consumption of nudity. The time when Sarala is writing is different from the earlier period of colonialism when the simplistic racist logic of a civilization – clothing equation was prevalent. Now, with the withering away of the Victorian socio-ethical normativity, the nude body of the “civilized” white performer has entered the global cultural economy where a fully clad, non-white native woman can enter a London theatre to see white living statues. In this changed cultural economy, the imperialist state needs to manufacture new paradigms of racist stereotypification. Placing the texts of Tagore and Sarala side by side, we come across – to improvise on Wordsworth’s celebrated phrase- two spots of colonial time. Sarala speaks of a time when the colonial government marks the native not as a naked savage, but rather as an inappropriate consumer of white nudity. At this moment we see the early beginnings of consumer culture, where the (de-) gradation of the native consumer is more important than the earlier stereotypes of nude savagery. Now we come across a phase in the history of colonial stereotypes when the native is stereotyped not as a naked body, but rather as a habitually lustful consumer of naked bodies. Bhabha says in ‘The Other Question’:

Racist stereotypical discourse, in its colonial moment, inscribes a

form of governmentality that is informed by a productive splitting

in its constitution of knowledge and exercise of power. Some of

its practices recognise the difference of race, culture, history as

elaborated by stereotypical knowledge, racial theories, … and on

that basis institutionalise a range of political and cultural ideologies

that are prejudicial, discriminatory, vestigial, archaic, ‘mythical’ … By

‘knowing’ the native population in these terms, discriminatory and

authoritarian forms of control are considered appropriate. The

colonized population is then deemed to be both the cause and effect of

the system, imprisoned in the circle of interpretation.26

It is this ‘circle of interpretation’, or rather the circular interpretation, that Sarala is challenging through her densely textured discourse on nudity. She goes on to present a group of liminal figures – the Naga sannyasis in the Kumbha Mela at Haridwar, who march like a stream of moving nudity - in order to shatter the “master’s tools” involved in colonial stereotypification. Now her critical consciousness transcends anthropocentrism, and she begins to critically investigate the cultural, ideological positionality of the spectator of nudity rather than nudity itself. She relates that although at first she was embarrassed by this stream of naked sannyasis, she became gradually accustomed to see this scenario as ‘natural’. As the animals, the so-called ‘sub-human’ creatures are outside the conceptual framework of “nudity”, man can also transcend that framework – and can leave his clothes to achieve a much higher ontological status, a state comparable to that of the child. Like Tagore, Sarala too draws on the figure of the child to construct her counter-discourse of nudity, but this figurative manipulation is much more nuanced than Tagore’s, because, continually dwelling on the spiritual dimension of nudity in the Hindu modes of Sadhana, she places nudity in a profoundly philosophical framework.27 In this comfortable movement between aesthetics and ontology, she foregrounds the absurdity of the colonial paradigms of nudity/savagery or clothing/civility, creating a counter-discourse of nudity (which is not ‘derivative’) on the basis of indigenous spiritual and philosophical resources.

Parashuram’s ‘The Celestial Strip-tease’ is a short story replete with superb humour and gentle satire. Parashuram is often seen by the “secular” Bengali intellectuals as a sort of Enlightenment figure, dedicating his intellectual life to the altar of Reason. In this attitude, what becomes problematic is the lack of a proper understanding of the profound implications Indian mythology and spiritual-metaphysical doctrines often assume in his fictional texts. The story under discussion was published in Parashuram’s Anandibai Ityadi Galpa, a collection of short stories, which won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1958. In this story, Urvashi, the celestial courtesan of Hindu mythology, becomes too conceited after “conquering” every male in Heaven, and wants to get down onto the earth to begin her game of amatory conquest de novo. Indra then arranges for the ‘celestial strip-tease’ where three sages are invited to see the nude body of Urvashi. This story strikingly resonates with echoes from the high philosophico-spiritual discourse of nudity articulated by Sarala in ‘Bigatambara’. Despite having an apparently simple narrative style this story is extremely complex and operates within a space of ideological contestation. This is a space where the postcolonial intellectual critically reflects on the emergent postmodern culture. The story also performs a symbolic function regarding the analysis of the savage/civil binary in the context of nudity. The svarga in Hindu myth, headed by Indra, is a perfect example of the fragility of “civilization” – the glittering opulence and ostentation of Indra’s heavenly court are only ephemeral; the emergence of any powerful asura can usurp and devastate this “civilized” universe at any moment. Nevertheless, within the mythological tradition, this fragility of heaven is not seen as a result of incessant external threats, but rather as an indirect effect of the luxurious life-style and conspicuous consumption of the celestial court. It is this radical potential of critiquing conspicuous consumption, embedded in the mythological accounts of Indra’s court, which is deftly manipulated by Parashuram in this story. Indra translates ‘strip-tease’ as ‘Nirmoke Nritya’; the implications of this translation I shall discuss in a subsequent section. But interestingly, Indra associates the practice of ‘strip-tease’ with the ‘people… in western countries’.28 The story can well be seen as an allegorical translation of the western postmodern modes (Parashuram’s story preceded the boom of global culture and India’s involvement in postmodern cyber-culture) of consumption, where the late capitalist consumer culture is figured forth through the elements from Hindu mythology, while the drama of ideas is staged by the hybridization of this allegorical space with the figures of Indian ascetics who are, like Sarala’s Naga sannyasis, liminal characters, positioned beyond the threshold of (both modern and postmodern) civilization. Kutuk, the sage whom I would not hesitate to call the hero of the story, is a naked figure, who ‘had no inhibitions at all. Besides, he possessed neither bark nor loin-cloth. So he calmly chose to wear nothing.’29 It is a thrilling encounter; a naked sage who has transcended civilization (a transcendence Sarala keeps harping on to show the colonial native’s ability to soar high above the civil/savage binary) is going to watch a strip-tease where nudity is absorbed into the cultural economy of “civilization”. In fact, here there is the confrontation between and juxtaposition of two sorts of nudity – transcendental and civilized nudities. In the postcolonial and postmodern contexts nudity is no more associated with savagery as savagery itself has become a seductive item of the postmodern civilizational subconscious. In other words, the nudity of the racialized Other is no longer outside civilization, but inside it. The ‘culture industry’ (a la Adorno and Horkheimer) has absorbed everything within its fold and yet never reaches a saturation point. In fact, there are intricate channels of liaison between postmodern culture and neocolonialism wherein postcoloniality inhabits a highly problematic zone. Unlike the modernist, rationalist versions of “civilization”, the postmodern culture indulges in an apparent savagization, thereby generating a lure of freedom for the postcolonial subject that the colonial subject could not conceive of. Hence, in a sense, Parashuram’s task of reformulating a counter-discourse of nudity after colonialism becomes much more difficult and problematic than that of formulating such a counter-discourse during colonialism, which both Tagore and Sarala had taken up. In the second half of the twentieth century, nudity becomes a fashion in western popular culture – and hence the clothing/civil equation is utterly jeopardized. However, even in postcoloniality, nudity does not cease to be a discursive space for ideological and cultural contestation. Rather, its implications are heightened and widened in the milieu of the resistance against neocolonialist corporate capitalism and consumer culture – now, the focus is not so much on nudity itself as on the forms of nudity. Sarala’s and Parashuram’s focus on the transcendental form of nudity may be taken as a significant contribution to the remonstrance against the consumption – oriented worldview that seeks to appropriate the postcolonial world(s) into the postmodern world of global culture, where the reigning principle is what we might call a many-voiced monologism.

3. Dress Fetishism

Tagore repeatedly argues that the fetishization of dress by the Indians is something that is the direct result of colonialism. Tagore celebrates the nudity of the human body, endowing it with the aura of natural beauty. He also shows an ecological and environmental consciousness in this critique of dress-related colonial mimicry, arguing that the climate of India has always prevented us from becoming enslaved to our garments.30 Tagore’s rhetoric here is reminiscent of the Hegelian master-slave dialectic but his focus is on the human subject’s slavery to things. Continually harping on the artificiality of our abaran, he focuses on the larger implications of our alienation from nature that is ensured by the preponderance of garments, or – to put it another way - ‘veils’. With reference to Hobsbawm’s book, I have already discussed the element of ‘concealment’ in the clothing obsession which Tagore, too, dwells on. Now I would link this Tagorean critique of “veils” with the larger problem of dress fetishism. Hobsbawm says of the nineteenth century European bourgeois world:

Objects express their cost and, at a time when most domestic ones

were still produced largely by manual crafts, elaboration was largely

an index of cost together with expensive materials. Cost also bought

comfort, which was therefore visible as well as experienced. Yet objects

were more than merely utilitarian or symbols of status and achievement.

They had value in themselves as expressions of personality, as both

the programme and the reality of bourgeois life, even as transformers of

man. In the home all these were expressed and concentrated. Hence its

internal accumulations.31

If we closely look at Hobsbawm’s, Barcan’s and Lathers’s observations on ‘objects’ and ‘clothing’, we can understand that the nineteenth century European bourgeoisie, whose values were extended to the colonies through the process of colonialism, invented a peculiar way of grading humanity, i.e., a gradation of humanity through things. This thingification of humanity was more blatantly manifest in the context of colonialism. Aime Cesaire’s comment that colonization was the other name for “thingification” becomes relevant here.32 Hence, it is interesting to notice that both Tagore and Sarala are focussing on the category of the inanimate, jada, rather than merely speaking of the human and the non-human. What they are resisting is a colonialist thingification of the colonized human body. Subhas Mukhopadhyay, in his Sahitya Akademi Samvatsar Lecture on Tagore, upholds Tagore’s dress politics:

In 1890, Tagore visited England for the second time. This time, however,

he did not wear the usual European suit, but a golaabandh – a cross

between an Indian achkan and a Western jacket --- Back home (in Calcutta);

at a dinner party thrown by an Anglophile elite, Tagore appeared in a

simple Bengali dress, and sang:


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Title: Imagining an Ontological Strip-Tease