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Lecture: "Absent Presences: Death of a Father"

May 29, 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

This talk, culmination of the lecture series "No Parallel? The Fatherly Bodies of Gandhi and Mao" — and its pièce-de-resistance — is a comparative exploration of the funerals of Gandhi and Mao and the posthumous fortunes of their fatherly bodies. In the Mahatma’s case, the assassinated body literally vaporizes as it was cremated on January 31, 1948, while the event itself came to be immortalized in stunning photographs. Meanwhile, material remains of his blood-spattered dhoti are enshrined in the National Gandhi Museum in New Delhi, even as countless art works visually transform him into the nation’s paradigmatic martyr. Mao as well desired to be cremated and wished his ashes to “fertilize” the soil of his beloved country. Contrary to these wishes though, his body was embalmed and encased, and since 1976, has been on exhibit in one of the largest memorial halls in Tian’anmen Square in Beijing, the focal point of a personality cult that has all but divinized him. If nationalism is a “somatic” formation, what lessons do we learn from a juxtaposition of the radically divergent posthumous careers of these two fatherly bodies? Is the Mahatma’s symbolic capital decreased because his material body is no longer available for consumption and affirmation, as is Mao’s? Or does the very (ever more deteriorating) materiality of Mao’s ever-present body, as opposed to Gandhi’s vanished torso, in fact produce much greater risk for his posthumous reputation, as iconoclastic pieces of contemporary art suggest?

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:

The 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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