Richard Davis’ Picturing the Nation is a superbly edited book conceived as a conversation and written passionately as a collection of stories. There is a formidable armature of scholarship, with footnotes providing an esoteric world of their own. But beyond all that there is passion for an idea.
The argument is that nationalism often conceived itself as an imaginary community whose medium was print. It was a Gutenberg world that failed to recognise the importance of visual communication as map, poster, mural, painting or architecture. It is this world of visuality that is adeptly conceived and lovingly explored in one of the finest studies in semiotics in recent times.
The canvas is wide. It covers the colonial and national periods — Hindu and Muslim visuality, North and South get a balanced emphasis. All the finest suspects in the field are present. The roll call includes Christopher Pinney, Ajay Sinha, Sandria Freitag, Sumathi Ramaswamy, Kajri Jain and Christian Brosius.
In a literal sense, the book argues that nationalism is not a cliché, clichés being a typeface from the world of print. Second, it shows that there is no hegemonic representation of the nation. One is in fact greeted with a happy bazaar of prints, photographs, comic books, films and advertisements.
The book is an obsession with nationalist imaginary, which produces a rich diversity of perspectives without any sense of scholarly finality. It will be difficult to single out all the efforts, but I will stick to a few I found personally fascinating.
Christopher Pinney in his Body and the Bomb compares Bhagat Singh and Tilak as central tropes in the iconography of the Nation State. Usually one would emphasise the difference between the orthodox Hindu and the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary. By emphasising the resonances, Pinney playfully and disturbingly shows the emergence of a different set of metaphors.
He also answers the semiotic question of why Bhagat Singh was at times more popular than Gandhi. Part of the answer lies in the fact that Gandhi as a semi-naked ascetic saint was not always the semiotic answer to the sartorial power of the Imperial British.
Gandhi’s experiments with the body were not symbolically satisfying to Indians of a later period, while Bhagat Singh mimicking and subverting of British costume provides a more satisfactory answer.
Pinney contrasts on the one hand Gandhi surrounded by men in pinstripe suits and jaunty hats, with Bhagat Singh on the other hand dressed like a British Sahib to foil the British. There is a sense of mimicry, mastery and a subversion of mastery which is potent here. Bhagat Singh appears as a Trickster whose handling of the body is at times more semiotically convincing.
Agree or disagree, the visual anthropology of nationalism does produce some new and playful ideas. Also one is clear that there are two subversive forces working. One is Bhagat Singh, but the other is the author himself urging us to look at visuality creatively.
Ajay Sinha’s analysis of Binod Bihari Mukherjee’s Medieval Saints is a study of a great mural located at the Hindi department at Santiniketan. Others critics like Geeta Kapur and KG Subramanyam have studied it but Sinha brings to it a satisfying thoroughness.
One only wishes he would not display the scaffolding of Jameson, Barthes etc as “legitimation exercises” and flow easily into the story. The fresco, 8-feet tall and 70-feet long, is in the form of a procession of medieval saints.
Sinha shows convincingly how the symbolic nature of this procession of saints absorbs a whole range of conversations on nationalism and colonialism and its competing ideas are captured symbolically.
Text and context are woven skillfully in the procession which depicts a landscape of small towns, artisan neighbourhoods, religious sites, market places and fair grounds. Sinha shows how these places negotiate competing values, colonial and national, orthodox and Bhakti.
The making of the mural is described in fascinating detail. I only wish the pictures were in the form of a pullout. One could have enjoyed the narrative structure and the story even more.
Space does not permit a discussion of the other essays. All one can ask is buy it, borrow it, read. Even at Rs 795, it is a steal. A paperback would be friendlier.
Shiv Visvanathan is a sociologist