We gaze at the Monolith, a tower made of human bodies, naked limbs and hair, entwined with each other, reaching for the heavens. It is 46 feet tall and carved out of a single stone, perhaps an ode to the noble, existential struggle of all humankind. There are more sculptures set on blocks of stone, flanking the huge monolith. A couple cradle their baby with tenderness, an old woman with shrunken breasts wants to get up and go somewhere, a small cluster of chubby babies play with each other. I put a hand on the shoulder of a baby and feel the cool speckled stone.
My family and I are at the Vigeland Sculpture Park in Oslo, Norway. It serves as a backdrop for the work of the Norwegian sculptor, Gustav Vigeland. More than 200 statues of human beings of all ages, engaged in all kinds of daily activities adorn the park. All the statues are naked. Gustav Vigeland created these over 20 years from 1924 to 1943 and then donated them to the city of Oslo. This is the largest park of its kind in the world. There are no restrictions on touching the statues or climbing on them unlike in a museum.
I have seen sculptures before: the writhing, erotic figures at the Khajuraho temples in Madhya Pradesh, the proud statues of heroes and horses that adorn the roundabouts of our cities, the cool marble figures scattered across Italy, including the magnificent David, with his fine lines and classic Renaissance curves. There is always something otherworldly about them, the bodies and poses bearing little resemblance to the unwieldy flesh that the average person carries around.
Indian society tells us that this unwieldy flesh has to be kept covered, hidden. This is what we are taught, across the world, in most countries, especially in Asia, in all religions, especially for women. We may protect it from the elements with cloth and fur, but we should never let our skin breathe fully, never let certain parts feel the sun.
I have seen my mother frown at my daughter’s shorts. The three of us have had unresolved debates on the appropriate length of her clothes. The woman who wore a short, cleavage-revealing dress to our parties in Delhi was labelled a slut. In Dhaka, where I live now, everyone dresses conservatively. I read an article in a local newspaper that condoned a harasser because the girl he targeted had stepped out of the house without an orna (dupatta). In the name of modesty and humility, the body is denied. It is gross matter, indecent, a traitorous thing, full of deceit and treachery.
The sculptures at Vigeland Park are not conventionally pretty. Here, the women have thick ankles and stout waists. The men are stocky, usually bald. The children are not always lovely little angels. The unornamented starkness, the uninhibited stance, the lack of self-consciousness in their actions makes them different. They seem so comfortable. But my discomfort with unclothed bodies arises unbidden, almost instinctively. There is nothing erotic or sensual about the sculptures, yet I want to shield my teenage daughter from the sight of the naked bodies, especially those of the men, and of women with exposed breasts. I want to gaze at the sculptures and also draw my eyes away from them. I become more aware of my own body and what I feel about it. Our relationship is complicated, veering between grudging resignation, violent dislike, and occasional tenderness.
Perhaps there is hidden symbolism, layered meaning in the stylistic arrangements that can be inferred by other artists, but to me there is a simplicity in these sculptures. There is freedom here to view the body as it is, celebrating its natural state without the artificial restrictions imposed by society. It gives me a chance to gaze upon another naked human being, even if in stone, without judgement, to endow the form with dignity. This trip is perhaps one step towards accepting my own body and allowing it a measure of compassion, perhaps even love.
Appeared in the April 2016 issue as “Body Beautiful”.