AAS Annual Meeting

South Asia Session 188

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Session 188: Signifying Gandhi: Representations of the Mahatma in culture, literature and film

Organizer: Ulka Anjaria, Brandeis University, USA

Discussant: Sangita Gopal, University of Oregon, USA

This interdisciplinary panel seeks to explore the cultural, political and aesthetic significance of images of M.K. Gandhi in India over the last century. Beginning with the birth of the ‘Gandhian novel’ in the 1920s, all the way through to the recent Bollywood sub-genre of the Gandhian film, the papers explore the deployment of Gandhi and his image throughout India’s late colonial and postcolonial history. The papers consider Gandhi simultaneously as a central figure in representations of nationalist history—an icon of anti-colonial resistance, self-reliance, spirituality and nonviolence—as well as as a widely proliferating image used to represent a range of often contradictory ideals, from a limited construction of national unity or an embodied environmentalism to a marketable brand. We see how Gandhi has veered from embodying certain values to being constructed as the bogeyman of others, in the process producing a conflictual terrain from which questions of modernity are rethought. Bracketing debates around the authenticity of these various images, the papers engage with this contradictory process of meaning-making to see how the image of Gandhi has been constantly redeployed—and, in the process, redefined—at various times in India’s recent history to represent new crises around modernity, sexuality, nationalism, the environment, communalism, consumerism, and globalization.

‘As Big as Gandhi’: Representing the Mahatma in the 1930s novel
Ulka Anjaria, Brandeis University, USA

Despite novels’ predilections for average, unremarkable protagonists, novelistic representations of Gandhi abound beginning in the 1920s. This paper asks what the novel allowed authors to do that other genres did not, in representing a figure whose being and modus operandi was so antithetical to the genre’s secularist, rationalist and individuated conventions. Through a reading of three Gandhian novels, Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable (1935) and The Sword and the Sickle (1940), and Raja Rao’s Kanthapura (1938), I show how the inclusion of Gandhi in the novel reflects an interest in experimenting with realism itself, as a means of considering the crises around modernity in these decades. I suggest that authors used the figure of Gandhi or his epic intermediary to consider modernity as an epistemic crisis along with a political, economic and social one. They did this not by explicitly advocating or rejecting a Gandhian politics, but by experimenting with the impact of his superhuman figure in a form more accustomed to average humans, individual interiority and complex motivations. In all three cases, the Gandhian protagonist threatens to profoundly transform the text that contains him. As one critic writes, “[Gandhi] is too big to be given a minor part. On the other hand, he is sure to turn the novel into a biography if he is given a major (or the central) part.” This tension defines the Gandhian novel and makes it a fascinating site from which to consider the larger implications for realism in the Indian novel at large.

The Mahatma Misunderstood: the novelistic career of the idea of Gandhi
Snehal Shingavi, University of Texas, Austin, USA

This paper seeks to chart two uneven and temporally disconnected processes as part of the history of Indian Writing in English. IWE really becomes a category in the 1960s during the national controversy about the replacement of English with vernacular languages (especially Hindi) for government employment in India. In that moment, a certain reading of the Anglophone novel became useful in making the case for the nationalist credentials of English, and those novelists who wrote about Gandhian nationalism became the mascots of the movement for an Indian English. But this procedure relied on a certain misreading of the anticolonial fiction of the 1930s and 1940s and of the kinds of Mahatmas that were imagined in their pages. Gandhi in the 1930s was a symbol for anticolonial solidarity at the beginning of a larger process of social transformation which, it was hoped, would outstrip the narrow, religious politics that Gandhi was understood to represent. By contrast, the Gandhi imagined by critics and the academic establishment in the 1960s and 1970s was not a beginning but an end—an already consolidated and concretized symbol of national unity. This reimagining of provisional solidarity as conscripted, necessary nationalism has even led later critics to misunderstand the rhetoric of possibility and contestation which animated representations of Gandhi for nationalist writers. This paper seeks to map the history of Gandhi as a novelistic idea from the perspective of the anticolonial movement.

Abusing the Mahatma: Reflections on Anti-Gandhianism
Lawrence Cohen, University of California, Berkeley, USA

The paper confronts what will be termed the work of insult in contemporary India by focusing on genres of attack and defense of Mohandas Gandhi over the past quarter-century. Gandhi has been most famously a subject of attack or ridicule by the colonial state, on the one hand, and the Hindu Right, on the other. But genres of anti-Gandhianism are far more widespread, and merit careful attention. Here these will be explored in relation to the figure of Gandhi's body and ethical work, to claims for Gandhian embodied (and especially sexual) difference, and to the question of to whom, within Indian public discourse from the regional to the global, the Gandhian body belongs.

Gandhi, Nature Cure and Ecology: Iconic, Enigmatic, Enemata
Joseph S. Alter, University of Pittsburgh, USA

Naturopathy is an institutionalized and thoroughly professionalized form of medical treatment in contemporary India. In large part this is because of Mahatma Gandhi’s opposition to biomedicine and Ayurveda, and his enigmatic synthesis of politics, hydrotherapy and diet reform. Building on the Gandhian legacy and the iconicity of the Mahatma, The Central Council for Yoga and Naturopathy, under the auspices of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, oversees funding for research at nearly 200 clinics, hospitals, centers and ashrams and supports ten certified training colleges throughout the country. Although Gandhi signifies many things, and is a complex sign within the structure of various discursive frames, this paper will examine the way in which his image is invoked with reference to an ecology of health and a politics of embodied environmentalism that is reflected in the practice of Nature Cure.

Gandhi, Our Father: Representations of M. K. Gandhi in Contemporary Hindi Cinema
Corey K Creekmur, University of Iowa, USA

A specter is haunting Hindi cinema: in the past decade the figure of M. K. Gandhi has made frequent appearances in popular Indian films, recalling his obvious historical importance as well as his complex symbolic status for post-Independence India. Recent Indian films depicting Gandhi have acknowledged his persistently controversial status in South Asia by specifically treating Gandhi as a literal or metaphorical father who exerts overwhelming Oedipal weight upon his “children” in contemporary India. This presentation will focus on the representation of Gandhi in three recent films: Hey Ram (2000), Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006), and Gandhi, My Father (2007). Although wildly different in style and popularity, each confronts Gandhi as a father figure whose lasting impact on his “sons” must be worked through as part of the ongoing process of Indian national identity. Whereas the first two invoke Gandhi as a world-historical figure with human limitations, the more recent film explores him as a flawed parent whose personal life does not align with his public status. This essay will sidestep debate over the historical accuracy of these portraits to consider their cultural function for contemporary audiences. I will consider the psychoanalytic approaches encouraged (and even parodied) by the films themselves before challenging these with an analysis inspired by Derrida’s late work on Marx and debt, two approaches that nevertheless emphasize the persistent tensions embodied by “our” fathers, whether for their own children or their countries.