This article originally appeared on VICE India
Imagine sitting in the nude with someone squinting at you for hours, looking at each of your curves, valleys and rolls as a perplexing series of circles, triangles and lines. The removal of clothing and nudity may be sexualised for most of us, but for a nude art model, the idea of being undressed is a mere part of the job. And while nude art may have existed in India for centuries now—with the tradition immortalised on the walls of our temples and palaces, and in the sculptures that fill our caves—the custodians of our morality have made sure the art form that helps amateurs understand human anatomy and the play of shadow and light, is now looked upon as shameful. The negative connotation attached to it means that today, few art schools are advocating for it and even fewer museums are open to patronising it. It also means that art models like Tulsi have to keep their work a secret, with her husband and his family believing she’s a sweeper at one of India’s most prestigious art schools.
VICE: Hi Tulsi, so how did you become a nude art model?
Tulsi: My mother was a nude art model. And her mother before her. My sister is a model too. She’s the one who got me into this. I was extremely hesitant at first. I used to think of it as something bad; I was a child and didn’t understand it. When my mother would bring me along for sessions, I would run to the other end of the building and avoid being anywhere near her. In fact, even when I modelled for the very first time, I cried for hours before. But after that, I got comfortable with it. I forgot all my inhibitions, and now it doesn’t bother me at all.
Considering the job description heavily involves staring at one spot for hours, how do you get through it?
It definitely gets boring. Sitting for hours in one position is tough and if I move around or reach to scratch an itch, the artists can get annoyed. But I don’t hold back and if they say something, I tell them I am a real person and not a katputli (puppet), which usually makes them give me some leeway. It’s easy to get lost in what you are doing. What goes through my mind is just my family, my husband and my children. The fear that they will find out is strongest during the sessions and I can’t help but worry. I know I am not doing anything wrong but I also know they won’t see it that way. It makes me really sad but I don’t let it show on my face, ever. I just do my job.
Are you a nudist in other parts of your life too?
No way! My family has no idea I do this. The day my husband finds out, he will divorce me. I have told him I work as a sweeper at this art school. Once, he mentioned that he’d heard that this place employs nude models. I told him I’d never heard of such a thing. I can’t tell my children either. There’s no way they would understand.
Have artists who paint you gotten turned on during a session?
I don’t think so. The artists look at me from a study point of view. Like a doctor would look at his patient. I have never felt their gaze to be sleazy or sexual in nature—they do what they do for the sake of art. A layperson won’t understand but the painters’ way of seeing is completely different. I have a great relationship with the students. We are constantly laughing and joking around. They’ve never made me feel uncomfortable—even the men.
How do you feel about how your body has changed over the years you’ve been doing this?
Well, I do think I've become quite fat over the years. When I was younger, I was fitter but now, there are rolls of fat everywhere. But that doesn't make me conscious. Any body is a body and every painting of me makes me happy. In fact I even joke about it with the artists. Some of them say, "Tulsi, you've become so big you aren't fitting in my canvas anymore!" I tell them, “Don't blame me if you don't know how to paint!”
What’s the weirdest pose you have had to hold for long?
Weird poses are actually better; you get to hide the important bits if you're not feeling it that day, especially if you get to sit. It's standing that's the worst. All the weight is usually on one leg and after a while, it starts to hurt. Once, I almost fainted just from standing. It might look easy but any standing pose is the weirdest.
Can body hair get in the way of your work?
It depends on the artist. If they have any request, then I comply. Otherwise I come as I am. There's no preparation as such. I feel anybody can do this.
Have you ever been slut-shamed?
If my relatives and neighbours come to know what I do then I probably will be. Some people have the wrong idea about this profession. Thankfully, they haven't found out. On the other hand, my artists have never shamed me. They treat me with a lot of respect. They talk to me, make me laugh, make me feel like I am doing a big thing.
Is this a way to make good money?
Not nearly enough. I get just Rs 1,000 ($14) for a day, in which I would have one or two shifts of three hours each. Also, work is seasonal and scanty. I could have bookings for a few weeks, but then not get work for months. I have to keep going to different colleges and art schools. But not enough places are open to nude art, so this isn’t enough to sustain me. I have to do other work like washing dishes to sustain myself, but I still like doing it because the students get to learn. I feel happy for them when they make a good painting and get a commendation for it.
What’s the funniest thing that’s happened to you during a session?
Once I was in the middle of a posing session, and I got a call from my mother-in-law saying that they were at CST (the railway station right next to the college). They had come down from the village to roam the city and surprise me—out of nowhere. I literally had to drop everything and run. I've never worn my clothes faster. When I finally got there, they asked me why I looked so stressed and I told them I was doing so much sweeping at work I was tired. They believed me and even sympathised. I couldn't help but laugh about it later. But if they came to know I was butt-naked in the middle of a classroom less than an hour ago, there would be anything but sympathy.
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