Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program Events

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Thursday, April 5, 2018
Diane Weiss '80 Memorial Lecture
"Bare and Spare:  The Charisma of the Skeletal?"

Sumathi Ramaswamy
Professor of History
Duke University

Daniel Family Commons

Among moderns to whom he has been most compared—like Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela—Mahatma Gandhi stands out not least for his willingness to appear consistently in public partially or barely clad, even famously showing up at Buckingham Palace in 1931 to have tea with the British monarch in this state, as indeed with the Viceroy in New Delhi.  His admirers loved him for his bare simplicity, while his critics ridiculed him for the same reason. While scholars in South Asian studies have speculated about his “body politics,” there is very little investigation of the aesthetic regimes (both Indian and global) to which Gandhi’s androgynous and ascetic body connected in its bareness and spareness.  In this presentation, I explore the myriad ways in which Gandhi is pictured in the visual arts (photography, chromolithography, painting, cartoons, advertisements, and film) as a bare-bodied male personage. In exploring how his bare and spare body is transformed into a work of charismatic beauty and virtue, I suggest that our reception of such images is informed by how we have learned to look at the (male) ascetic body in many of the world’s great religious traditions. At the same time, the image of the Mahatma’s emaciated body resonates with another kind of body that became visible in the visual culture of colonial India, and also globally: the starving victim of one catastrophic famine after another. How then does the Mahatma’s charismatic body negotiate the risk of not being contaminated by such images of the famine victim, even while drawing on their obvious power of abjectness? In exploring this question, I hope to draw on theorist Giorgio Agamben’s powerful analysis of bare life to explore its heuristic potential and limits in understanding such questions. 

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Symposia Sponsored by FGSS Program (click to learn more)

Diane Weiss '80 Memorial Lectures (click to learn more)