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Jour Fixe on the Iconic Status of Gandhi and Mao

May 10, 2016

How can flesh-and-blood men be transformed into globally recognizable, transcultural “bio-icons” through the work of visual imagery? This is a question that Prof. Barbara Mittler and Prof. Sumathi Ramaswamy discussed in the Jour Fixe on Thursday, May 19th at 4 pm under the heading “Death Becomes Them: The Fate of the Fatherly Corpses of Gandhi and Mao”. The event was chaired by Prof. Christine Brosius, who gave an introduction along with Prof. Patrick J. Geary.

The joint and comparative presentation focused on the funerals of two of the most iconic men of the twentieth century, Mohandas K. Gandhi of India and Mao Zedong of China and examines the posthumous fortunes of their fatherly bodies. In Gandhi’s case, the assassinated body literally vaporized as it was cremated in early February 1948, while the event itself came to be immortalized in stunning photographs. Countless art works visually transform him into the nation’s paradigmatic martyr, a man who suffered for Mother India and surrendered his life for her. Contrary to Mao’s wishes to be cremated, his body was embalmed and encased, and since 1976, has been on exhibit in one of the largest memorial halls in the heart of 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 can be learned from a juxtaposition of the radically divergent posthumous careers of these two fatherly bodies. Is Gandhi’s symbolic capital decreased because his material body is no longer available for consumption and affirmation or is Mao’s ever-present body a much greater risk for his posthumous reputation? In this presentation, the visual record produced around the funerals of these men were used as well as the subsequent imaging of their posthumous lives, to arrive at answers to these questions.

The Jour Fixe took place as a part of the workshop “Materials on the Move” which was held in honor of Anneliese Maier Research Award Winners Sumathi Ramaswamy (2016) and Patrick Geary (2012). The Workshop took place prior to the Jour Fixe at the Heidelberg Academy of Science and Humanities as a cooperation of the Cluster and the Department of History at Heidelberg University.

Prof. Dr. Barbara Mittler
is a director of the Cluster of Excellence "Asia and Europe" as well as a Professor for Chinese Studies.

Prof. Ph.D. Sumathi Ramaswamy is a Professor of History at Duke University as well as an Advisory Board Member at the Cluster.

The Jour Fixe takes place at the cluster regularly and is organized in turns by the four research areas A "Government and Administration", B "Public Spheres", C "Knowledge Systems" and D "Historicities and Heritage".

Get more information about the Jour Fixe here.


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