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Lecture: "Producing Charisma: Clothing and Unclothing the Fatherly Body"

May 15, 2019 06:00 pm to 07:30 pm
Organiser: Völkerkundemuseum VPST, CATS
Völkerkundemuseum VPST, Haputstrasse 235, 69117 Heidelberg

Speakers: Barbara Mittler, Centre of East Asian Studies; Sumathi Ramaswamy, Duke University


The focus of this lecture is on the aesthetic charge of (un-)clothing the male body. We show how acts of dressing up (in the case of Mao) and undressing (in the case of Gandhi) built symbolic and moral capital or charisma for these men, especially among the vast peasant populations they tried to connect with through such sartorial acts.

While baring his body brought Gandhi some amount of global notoriety as the “half-naked fakir,” it also enabled him to tap into deep traditions of asceticism in the subcontinent that cemented his status as Mahatma. Artists of his time and since enthusiastically began to develop an aesthetic of asceticism around his body.  Comparatively, we will focus upon those images that throw into relief Chinese artistic representations of a fully-clothed plump and rather feminized Mao whose rounded body is produced through an aesthetic of corpulence. We argue that while Gandhi’s emaciated body seemingly reaffirms a dominant colonial stereotype of a starving Indian nation, Mao’s well-fed form contests prevailing notions of “the sick man of Asia.” In juxtaposing the clothed corpulent Mao and the unclothed spare Gandhi, we intend to show how both father figures radically transgressed governing norms of masculine charisma, redefining the terms of patriotic masculinity. Yet, importantly, the baring of the body is among the least imitated of Gandhian somatic practices, even among Gandhians, while Mao’s feminine bodylines and their remakes by contemporary artists and advertisers have caused outrage in China and amusement abroad.

The lecture is part of the lecture series "No Parallel? The Fatherly Bodies of Gandhi and Mao" held in the context of the exhibition "Envisioning Asia: Gandhi and Mao in the Photographs of Walter Bosshard", which takes place at the Völkerkundemuseum VPST Heidelberg from April 28, 2019 to June 10, 2019. For more information about the full program of the exhibit, visit here.

About the lecture series:

This lecture series "No Parallel? The Fatherly Bodies of Gandhi and Mao" focuses on the two hyper-visible men of the twentieth century, Mahatma Gandhi and Chairman Mao, who had also been the object of Walter Bosshard’s fascination. It considers how these men have been transformed over the course of the last century through the work of visual imagery and image-events into globally recognizable “bio-icons.” Situated at the intersection of the visual politics of masculinity and the cultural politics of fatherhood, the talks seek to illuminate how the corporeal is critical to the affective and ethical reach of such bio-icons within the imagined communities of their respective nations.

About the speakers:

Barbara Mittler holds a Chair in Chinese Studies at the University of Heidelberg and is Co-Director of the Heidelberg Centre for Transcultural Studies (former Cluster of Excellence—Asia and Europe in a Global Context) and CATS, the Centre for Asian and Transcultural Studies. Her research focuses on cultural production in (greater) China covering a range of topics from music to visual and historical print media in China’s long modernity.

Sumathi Ramaswamy is James B. Duke Professor of History at Duke University and Co-Director of Duke’s India Initiative, and President of the American Institute of Indian Studies (2018- 2022). She has published extensively on language politics, gender studies, spatial studies and the history of cartography, visual studies and the modern history of art, and more recently, digital humanities and the history of philanthropy.


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