In the Intimacy issue of Varoom Ritupriya Basu investigates new approaches to ancient Sanskrit text the Kama Sutra, a guide to pleasure and living well, talking to Malika Favre, Akshita Chandra, Joe Schlaud and Victo Ngai.
On the cover of Kama Sutra A – Z by French illustrator Malika Favre, the bodies of two lovers trace a sinuous circle, their fingers just an inch apart. In a sense, the book – curated and compiled during lockdown – was in the works for nine years; the idea for the project first took root when Favre was commissioned by Penguin Random House to illustrate the cover for a modern translation of the Kama Sutra – a 2,000-year-old treatise on erotic pleasure – published in 2012.
Drawing notes and inspiration from the ancient Indian text, written by philosopher Vātsyāyana, Favre created 26 typographic artworks, a complete alphabet. The illustrations that capture couples caught in a sequence of yoga-esque sexual positions, create a play of negative space and light and shadow, imagined in a vivid red and sunny yellow. “For the first commission that sparked the idea, the cover was to be the only illustrated part of the book, so it felt natural to explore the most visual aspect of it, which were the positions,” says Favre. “When I delved deeper into the text, I was actually surprised by how extensive and detailed the themes were. We tend to reduce the Kama Sutra to a purely sexual guide, but it covers all aspects of a relationship, sexual and spiritual. I was also amazed by the overall tone of the text, which, far from being sensual, felt more didactic.”
The themes of intimacy, pleasure and sexuality first discussed by Vātsyāyana in the Kama Sutra some thousands of years ago have since inspired creatives across the world. While Favre translated the threads of eroticism into sensuous alphabets, illustrator and designer Joe Schlaud created a series of ‘unsexy’ portraits of couples, combining “ancient Kama Sutra positions with mundane everyday activities.” Here, the sex was ludicrous, and the humour palpable. With wiry arms and mottled skin, his couples are caught in outlandish situations, like feeding the cat, hoovering the house or in the midst of a dance lesson, while also getting off.
For decades, the pleasure tome of Kama Sutra has served as a lens on life in ancient India, and especially its bedrooms, that called for impressive flexibility and nimble theatrics. However, today in India, where the text was imagined and composed, conversations about sexuality and intimacy are swiftly swept under the rug, which is emblematic of a culture that still hasn’t got comfortable with sex. This dichotomy of the celebration of sexuality in India’s cultural past, and its censorship in the present is at the heart of of ‘Being Censitive’, an illustration-led project by Allahabad-born and Baltimore-based designer Akshita Chandra.
While referencing the past, Chandra contextualised the present. In 2015, more than 40 unmarried couples were taken out of private hotel rooms in Mumbai, booked for public indecency and taken to police stations. “Reading about that incident was upsetting and bothersome. It made no sense to me and made me angry. This was a while before I came up with the project but it stuck with me and fuelled the concept later on,” says Chandra. To visualise the incident, Chandra illustrated a series of windows with tactile paper panes, which when opened revealed couples in a heated embrace.
While the Kama Sutra is mostly reputed as a sex manual – especially in Western popular culture – only one of the seven chapters in the book is dedicated to sexual union, while the rest outlines other societal concepts and ways to lead a wholesome life. “Hinduism is more human-centric, whereas the other religions I was familiar with focused on the afterlife,” said Victo Ngai, in an interview with Glamour in 2018; the LA-based illustrator became the first woman to ever illustrate the pleasure tome, when London-based publisher Folio Society commissioned her for a new edition of the manuscript, titled The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana. “I like the idea that it teaches you how to have a good, full life, not in heaven, but here. To me, it’s modern—the whole idea of practicing Kama Sutra is that men and women should enjoy their married lives, including the sex part. I think that’s pretty cool and runs counter to a lot of patriarchal ideas. The book is focused not just on men’s pleasure, but it talks about women’s pleasure too.”
While painting a vivid picture of life in India many centuries ago, the Kama Sutra swiftly steps out of the realm of sex and intimacy, and offers ideas on how to lead a rich, fulfilling life – both inside and out of the bedroom – many of which are still surprisingly relevant today.