The struggle to represent and sartorial modernity: on a visual dimension of Indian nationalist politics
M. Madhava PRASAD
In The Nation and Its Fragments (1993), Partha Chatterjee describes a meeting between Keshab Chandra Sen of the reformist religious order Brahma Samaj, and Ramakrishna, the “Hindu saint.” The Samaj was an early product of the cultural encounter between “East” and “West” on the Indian stage, an attempt to develop an indigenous spiritual order cleansed of idol worship, superstitions and backward ritual practices. Like other cultures in Asia, India too, on encountering the new social and political discourses emanating from Europe, responded with a sense of shame about the prevailing practices and a determination to be rid of them. Being subject to the daily humiliations of colonial rule, however, elite Indians found it difficult to sustain unmixed enthusiasm for the new ideas. Thus Chatterjee says that in the 1870s, Sen had begun to feel that the Brahmo religion, with its “rationalist ideals” was unsuited to the Hindu temperament. He was on the lookout for “an inspired messenger,” a messiah or avatar, through whom religious reform could be once again brought into harmony with “Eastern spirituality” (Chatterjee 1993, 41-42). The very idea was in violation of the tenets of Brahmoism but Sen persisted because “he had become skeptical about the powers of the human intellect and will” (Chatterjee 1993, 42) He was also under fire from his colleagues for violating the Samaj’s code. That is when he meets Ramakrishna, then an unknown figure, patronized by Rani Rasmani, a wealthy widow who “was not a part of the culturally dominant elite of Calcutta” (Chatterjee 1993, 43). Chatterjee’s point is that Ramakrishna would not have become such a historic figure had he remained in those traditional Hindu surroundings. It is by stepping out of it and encountering the emergent but powerful world of the new elite that he became the saint who inspired many nationalists and a religious order that survives to this day.
M. Madhava Prasad teaches film and cultural studies at the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad. He is the author of Ideology of the Hindi Film: A Historical Construction (1998), Cine-politics:Film Stars and Political Existence in South India (Orient Blackswan, 2013), and numerous essays on culture, politics and society.