This was my first excursion outside the Indian Subcontinent. It was a month-long trip to visit friends in Europe who had been my flatmates in Delhi. I also happened to be writing my book Conversations in the Nude, about my nude-sketching sessions. This trip was a private one, but not devoid of business. It would herald another project, which, for want of a better name, I shall call ‘The Travelogue of a Nude Artist’.
My companions in this tryst with nudity were two level-headed men: Jan Peters for three weeks in Germany and France, and Paavo Yliluoma for a week in Finland.
Some people are more comfortable with their nudity than others. My experience of sketching nudes tells me that a person’s ability to strip in public has little to do with the state of his or her body—colour, shape or age—but more with the individual’s state of mind and considerations of body image.
But when you enter a public space that sanctions nudity or where nudity is a norm—a ‘dress code’ if you will—then personal whims are overwhelmed by the prevailing social construct. Nudity in such a set-up is sacrosanct. There was no way I could have been in such a place other than in the nude. For instance, in Finnish saunas, it is rude to wrap a towel or any other cloth around your waist. And to me, nudity is more acceptable than rudeness. I didn’t want to be a potato in a basket of apples.
Jan did not tell me that we were headed for a nude beach. He spilled the beans a little early, though, by saying “There is a surprise for you.” We were on the Western shore of the Darß peninsula on the northern tip of Germany, overlooking the Baltic Sea, and we reached the beach after a long walk through a forest.
The sun was harsh, almost tropical, and the beach was clean, with warm smooth sand. At first, we saw only a few naked people. Scattered here and there, they were exceptions. As we walked further, the exception became the norm. There were people walking without clothes. Some passed us, some we followed. There were others lying flat with their buttocks shining in the bright sun. Their bodies seemed relaxed, as if the sun’s rays were therapeutic.
We looked for a place where we could camp for the next few hours. The beach was like a nudist colony. Some had put up tents, others were helping kids build castles of sand, and a few just stared at the sea with their partners engrossed in books. We spotted a little natural enclave to make ourselves at home. It was a fallen tree with a hedge of dried thorny bushes around—a good place to shed our clothes. I struggled to get out of my last piece. My friend was already lying on the sand, stark bare. It gave me the necessary courage to shed my clothes. Once I was done, it suddenly didn’t seem to matter anymore.
I stretched my limbs, as if just awakened from a long slumber, lay down and wriggled on the sand like buffalo rubs its neck on a tree trunk. It felt good. I was glad. It felt like a kind of self-assertion made to a notional world. The cool humid breeze from the sea in the warm sun of the afternoon was soothing.
The soft sand took my shape. It was so comfortable that my eyelids grew heavy, tempting my eyes to close.
In this daze, I thought of inventing a sand- mattress—like a water or air mattress. Jan had turned immobile quite a while earlier.
To witness nudity in the nude, I went for a walk. There were nude people strolling pensively along. Women lay like seals on the beach to get uniform tans. I was conscious of my state, though not overly so. I was perhaps the only non-White person on the entire beach. People would lift their heads and give me a puzzled look before burying themselves in the sand again. After the walk, I stood facing the sea, hands on hips, elated, as wind gushed through my legs.
I had spent considerable time staring at others around me, even as they visibly tried to ignore my exotic presence.
I saw a trend. The older they were— men and women—the less conscious they seemed of their nudity and that much more relaxed. Without much to flaunt, and with a diminished sexual interest in others, the older lot seemed indifferent to the nudity of those around them. Those with overt sex appeal, I felt, appeared guarded. So, to put it simply, the elderly people were almost all naked. Among the middle-aged, there were several exceptions. And among the younger lot, there were many in beachwear.
Entire families were nude. In some cases, there were three generations, with parents and their parents helping children build sand castles. Mostly, it was the children who had coverings for what we Indians often call ‘private parts.’
“What is so private about private parts?” joked an elderly woman who stopped to ask—in Turkish—if I was Turkish. I replied in English that I didn’t know German. She said that privacy is not about keeping body parts out of view, but about space.
Jan went swimming twice after his extended sunbath. I followed him. Swimming naked felt novel, fish-like and liberating, with water passing freely through all the nooks and crannies of the body.
I was told people come and camp the entire day here, but staying overnight is not allowed. They take a dip in the sea, eat, sleep, go for another swim, and so on. They tend to stay with their own set of friends. There was hardly anyone who had come alone. There were no gawkers, though everybody was one in some measure. And when we left the beach with our clothes on, it felt burdensome. “We should have walked back naked,” I suggested.
Jan didn’t bother to reply.
I had followed the golden rule: when in Germany, do as Germans do. In my nudism, I had adopted a practice that originated in Germany at the end of the 19th century. “So what’s the big deal?” asked Jan in response to my suggestion that nudity is a family affair here. He had been visiting this beach since he was six years old. “I have seen my mother naked so many times,” he said. She would go swimming everyday in the summers at a small lake, Woldsee, adjoining the city of Oldenburg where Jan grew up.
We went there as well.
There were grassy patches along the lakeshore, where the naked lay soaking the sun. Compared to the beach we’d visited, it was crowded. Some were sitting up and looking around, me among them. Older couples walked along the shore, while younger folk ran to the lake to dive in with a big splash. Others, mostly over-fifties, sat huddled in a circle, chatting. Ageing women cared little for their appearance, quite at peace with their wrinkles and sagging skin. “I like to feel atmosphere on my surface,” one lady told me in English.
Nude beaches and waterfronts in Germany usually have signs that say ‘FKK’, which stands for Freikoerperkultur or ‘free body culture’.
Visitors are expected to be considerate and respect the privacy of others. People must not stare or take photographs without permission. Sexual activity is a strict no-no. In fact, it is illegal. And nudists are advised not to forget to dress before leaving such an area. There are nude enclaves within public parks like the famous Englische Garten in Munich, where sunbathers are seen on a large lawn called Schoenfeldwiese. In Berlin, the Tiergarten serves the same purpose.
In the days after that, we took a road trip to France. As we travelled south, we saw less and less nudity. In some places, it was almost taboo. On the Island of Noirmoutier off the Atlantic coast of France, there is a long beach where hundreds turn up to enjoy the sun, surf and winds. The waves are rough and thrilling for sea surfers. Nudity here was out of the question. It was like an unwritten code.
Finn, a friend who came to visit me in Berlin from Hamburg, is a naturalist in the sense that he loves being with nature in the nude. “I wouldn’t wear anything when I go to swim in [natural water]. It is convenient. That way one doesn’t have to carry a change,” he joked. But in certain places, such as France, he said, “You know almost immediately that this is not a place to do it.”
So there seems to be a north-south divide over public nudity. With its cooler climes, the north is ironically far more open to nudity. Sunrays are precious there and summers celebrated. But that doesn’t explain the divide, does it? I asked Jan. The cultural split is true of Germany, he replied, but wasn’t sure if that’s so of Europe overall. After all, Spain in southern Europe has dozens of nude beaches; in July this year, 729 people even tried to set a Guinness record for collective nude bathing on a beach near Vera.
Jan thought it over. “Nudity was the only significant way of self expression available to people during the GDR time,” he said, referring to East Germany before the country’s unification. It was a way to assert freedom and still is.
But while nudity may have become a norm, he acknowledged, it hadn’t lost its ability to arouse sexual tension. It depends on who one is with. The last time he went to the same beach we did, he went with a girl he was interested in. They didn’t strip.
My first Finnish sauna experience was at Paavo’s house. It was evening when we arrived at his place in Raudaskyla, in western Finland. The sauna was the last item on the day’s agenda, after dinner. It was just another part the family’s way of life, quite clearly. While Paavo’s mother did not come with us, once in the house, it was she who issued the invitation to the sauna.
We went to a room segregated from the rest of the house by a blinder. It had an attached bathroom, at the far end of which was a door that led to the sauna chamber. Inside was a wooden bench that could seat three comfortably, without squashing against one another.
Paavo pulled the blinder and started shedding his clothes as he entered the bathroom. His father flung his towel off and followed Paavo to the bathroom. I was supposed to do likewise. I was confused about where to strip, in the room or the bathroom.
I entered the bathroom to see Paavo taking shower while his father had entered the sauna chamber. I took my clothes off and tentatively entered the bathroom for a shower. A chilled can of beer was offered as I took the vacant spot on the bench. The beverage helped me tide over my awkwardness.
I was soon at ease, a picture of composure as we briefly stepped out into a garden wrapped in towels to cool down. Within a few minutes, we were back in the sauna with fresh cans of beer. We did this thrice, took a shower again and then got dressed.
In Oulu a couple of days later, we cycled around the city for a good part of the day and much of the night. We returned drunk at 2 am, after which Paavo and a friend of his accompanied me to the sauna.
We drank more beer. This time, it seemed routine to me.
That night, I talked about the emotional aspects of intense desire. It was a long monologue with no pause.
“Did I make sense?” I asked at the end.
“You did,” said Paavo.
The next day, we went to a small wooden summer home nestled in a forest near a lake near Raudaskyla. It had a sauna that took an hour to warm up. We were six men on a bench no longer than five feet. The chamber grew so hot that I felt I had high fever. By sauna custom, if the heat gets unbearable, one rushes out and runs to the lake close by for a plunge of relief. The water in the lake was cold, but I didn’t feel it—the sauna had warmed me to my bones. Once it started feeling chilly, we would return to the sauna, and then get back to the lake. We did several cycles of this.
We had fun. Saunas tend to make tightlipped Finns talk. Thank nudity, according to Paavo. They get witty too. Paavo asked me to sing that anthem of friendship from Sholay picturised on Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra: Yeh Dosti.
To Finns, it is a classic video of men in love, and when sung aloud with a local accent, its lyrics sound amazingly like Finnish: Jee, nussittiin Ainakin olen gay/ Olen gay, tämä käy Tero saatana, sä olet gay (literally: ‘Yeeeee, we’re fucking, at least I am gay, I am gay, that’s the way... you’re gay’).
Inappropriate though the occasion was, I sang the song on Paavo’s insistence in the company of five men sitting naked with me on a wooden bench. They burst out laughing.
We dressed up and barbecued thick beef sausages as the sun went down on the horizon. That is when I was brought up to date with some sauna gossip. It would be funny, I was told, to see one of our friends naked. Why, I would get to see for myself: he had a small penis. There were anecdotes told of nudity and its hazards.
And everyone had a good laugh.
My last sauna experience was in Tampere. A public sauna more than a hundred years old, it was heated by wood charcoal. It was an old building with separate chambers for men and women. It had a long changing room that opened into a room with a big tub of water to wet one’s body with mugs, and then a flight of stairs to a chamber with benches along three of the walls. It could easily accommodate ten men.
So there I was, naked, the only Brown man among White men of assorted sizes and descriptions. They looked like hairless pre-teens; I had more hair on my body than all of them put together.
It was so hot that I nearly scalded my skin. At one point, I felt as if my chest hair would catch fire. Despite the heat, I sat in there three times, always trying to sit few seconds longer than Paavo and his cousin who’d accompanied us. Paavo would pour a bucket of water on the stone slab heated by the furnace. It would draw a burst of steam. I had to get out each time I felt my blood begin to boil.
Later, while cooling ourselves in the nippy air outside, I imagined how good a sauna would feel in the subzero temperatures of Finland’s dark winters.
But segregation was a problem. None of my sauna experiences involved any women. That is why I don’t agree with Paavo that it’s an asexual space.
He said he’d been to sauna with women only twice after his return from India some four months ago: once at a graduation party of a friend where the guests ended up in a sauna, and then when he went to one with a friend and his wife. He could count only a few public saunas that do not insist on segregation. I did not get to visit any of them.
My tryst with nudity in Europe was very different from my experience of sketching nudes within the confines of my living room. In my sketching sessions, nudity was my focus of attention. But here I was naked in a place where nudity evoked only diffused interest. It was the norm. It was a trip that pushed me out of so many shells.