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Gandhi, the Politics of Visual Representation, and the Art of Dying

There is but no question that Mohandas Gandhi remains, more than six decades after his assassination, the most iconic figure of modern India. A distinct and complex iconography began to develop around his figure in his own lifetime. He was one of the most widely photographed men of his time; an entire industry of nationalist prints extolled his life; and statues of his abound throughout India and, increasingly, the rest of the world. Gandhi has been a blessing to cartoonists; and nearly every major Indian artist of consequence, from M. F. Husain and Ramkinkar Baij to Ghulam Muhammad Sheikh and Atul Dodiya, over the course of the last half-century has engaged with Gandhi in his or her work. In this talk, Professor Lal will examine the life and work of Gandhi in the light of various forms of visual representation and suggest what kind of insights we might be able to derive from a study of these images. After offering an overview of the visual practices that have informed representations of Gandhi, he will provide a more extended analysis of ‘the sartorial Gandhi’ and, especially, ‘the martyred Gandhi’. And, in conclusion, as appropriate for a talk delivered on Gandhi’s birthday, what we may surmise from his life and visual representations of his assassination about the art of dying.

Vinay Lal earned his Ph.D. with Distinction from the University of Chicago in 1992 after undergraduate and master’s degrees in literature and philosophy from Johns Hopkins University. He has taught history at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) since 1993 and most recently was Professor of History at University of Delhi (2010-11). His dozen books include Deewaar: The Footpath, the City, and the Angry Young Man (HarperCollins, 2011); Political Hinduism: The Religious Imagination in Public Spheres (ed., Oxford, 2009); The Future of Knowledge and Culture: A Dictionary for the Twenty-first Century, co-edited with Ashis Nandy (Viking Penuin, 2005); Of Cricket, Guinness and Gandhi: Essays on Indian History and Culture (Penguin, 2005); The History of History: Politics and Scholarship in Modern India (Oxford, 2003); and Empire of Knowledge: Culture and Plurality in the Global Economy (Pluto Press, 2002). He has recently completed a two-volume anthology on the idea of the city in modern India for Oxford UP and is on the verge of finishing two books on Gandhi. His work has been translated into Hindi, Urdu, Kannada, French, German, Spanish, Finnish, Korean, and Persian. He is also honored to have been profiled at some length in David Horowitz’s book, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America (2007).