Hindu Modern: Considering Gandhian Aesthetics
A friend recounted what I believe might be an apocryphal story upon hearing about my interest in Gandhian memorials. The story goes as follows: during outbreaks of communal violence in Ahmadabad, a group of volunteers go around the city, blindfolding the numerous statues of Gandhi. This story circulated after violent attacks in Gujarat in early 2002 during which large numbers of Muslims were deliberately targeted and killed in Ahmadabad and other cities in Gujarat. The Gandhian legacy was repeatedly invoked in newspaper reports on the attacks, expressing surprise at the virulence and directed nature of the attacks taking place “in the land of Gandhi.” We might assume that the volunteers were blindfolding the statues in order that the great man may not witness the traumatic repetition of the very behavior that he fought against. In this case, the sculpted form assumes corporeality, turning into a body that feels pain and hurt, against which it must be protected. Or perhaps the blindfolds were a way of giving license to engage in the very acts of violence and sacrifice thought necessary to achieve a certain ideal of national purity, one that is in direct conflict with both Gandhi’s understanding of self-purification and the means he thought necessary to achieve it.
In both interpretations, the statue in this story represents an uncanny presence, of the absent but not yet dead figure of Gandhi, and the intrusion of this uncanny figure into contemporary public space. The story, an allegory for the haunting presence of Gandhi, unmoored from his proper place in the past, represented by the memorializing statue, serves to underline the peculiar legacy of Gandhi in postindependence India as a figure who is simultaneously revered and deemed irrelevant to contemporary politics. Although the memorial serves as a prosthetic device aimed at “not forgetting,” it also must function, paradoxically, to suppress the active intrusion of a past into the space of the present.
The memorial statue looms larger than life and is ubiquitous across India, found even in some of the smallest villages. On the one hand, the scale and spread of these statues proposes an extraordinary legacy, placed out of time by the formal nature of the object and thereby frozen. On the other hand, Gandhi’s image also inundates the everyday, lived space of the nation at the much smaller scale of the currency notes on which his iconic image is emblazoned. Simultaneously extraordinary and mundane, the blindfolded statues of the story simply mirror the increasing irrelevance of Gandhi’s legacy in moments of extreme crisis such as the Gujarat riots.
This abstraction of Gandhi’s iconic imagery from his own somatic practices and his methods of communicating philosophical ideas through epic narrative forms is the subject of much recent critical work on Gandhi’s legacy. William Mazzarella (2010) argues in a recent article that the abstraction and circulation of Gandhi imagery within the emerging consumerist public sphere of postliberalism India serves in fact to underline the “untimely provocation” that Gandhi poses to such a political formation. On his reading, the particular form of abstraction — namely, the detachment of an iconic image from Gandhi’s own somatic politics — mirrors the significance of somatic practices in the production of the consuming subject and can therefore be analyzed as a symptom of those processes of subjectivation.
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