Seeing You Seeing Me: Gaze Politics and Intersubjectivity in Anti-British Political Iconography of Mid-20th Century India
Scholars of art history have theorized that the act of looking at an image, typically called “the gaze,” is inherently masculine and objectifies the feminine representation. These theories are constructed through the context of European “high art” and have never been extended into the study of Indian art, particularly productions of Hindu iconography. Opening the theoretical models of the “gaze” by examining different modes of looking such as darsan, the ancient portion Hindu devotional ritual involving representations of the divine, would give the broader context for exploration of the phenomenon. In the case of Hindu devotional art, darsan, the act of seeing (and being seen), is a reciprocal action that negotiates between heaven and earth and between eminence and transcendence. My paper explores the polity of the gaze in the context of Indian nationalist representations of Hindu deities and devotees from the period of Indian Independence, especially those that depict ideal martyr-devotee offering severed heads to the nation-as-Goddess.
Through a discussion of such images, the “Western” academic’s theoretical approach to gaze politics is nuanced by the interactive nature of images of the goddess accepting the severed heads of devotees while simultaneously offering a blessing through darsan to the on-looking spectator. The images transform the power structure of the object and subject. It constructs a broader worldview that situates identities — gender, humanity, nationality, etc. — within a perceptible field of understanding — the image. I argue that the theory of the masculine “gaze” falls apart when exported outside of the constraints of the Euro-American contexts and reveals a tradition that allows more latitude when considering gendered possibilities.
Keywords: India, Hindu, Gaze, Iconography, Goddess, Gender, Religion, Bhagat Singh
Department of Religion, University of Florida