Gandhi as Absence: Indian Middle-Class Nationalism and the Politics of Elsewhere

Event status:

This talk is part of the commemoration of M.K. Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary, and happening in a year that marks his 72nd death anniversary.

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Thursday 27 August 2020 04:00 pm until Thursday 27 August 2020 05:00 pm (Add to calendar)
Asian Smart Cities Research Innovation Network (ASCRIN)
Presented by:
La Trobe University and the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur
Type of Event:
Public Lecture; Public

This talk is part of the commemoration of M.K. Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary, and happening in a year that marks his 72nd death anniversary.  The act of remembering him today is therefore inevitably framed by our having to engage with the lack of his physical presence. However, even in his active years as a politician and social reformer, a sense of absence crucially informed Gandhi’s public life.  This talk attempts to unpack this close association between Gandhi and the notion of absence by focusing on two different phases of his career.

The first part of the presentation will situate the emergence of Gandhi as a political leader within the context of the Indian middle-class led nationalist movement and what Sayan Chattopadhyay refers to as its “discourse of elsewhere”. By the early twentieth century, the primarily male, city-based, western-educated Indian middle class had constructed a hegemonic idea of the Indian nation that was associated with the feminine, the village, and the formally uneducated peasantry.  Sayan will argue that Gandhi’s appeal within the Indian nationalist movement chiefly derived from his ability to stand in lieu of these elements of “Indianness” which were absent from the urban public sphere of the Indian middle class.

In the second part of the presentation Sayan suggests that while representing for the Indian middle class this absent locus of Indianness that was feminine and rural, Gandhi himself gradually became a figure of absence even as his stature grew as a political and social leader. Thus, as Gandhi became the larger than life figure of a “mahatma,” he also transformed from being an individual who could be physically encountered and engaged with to a cluster of mythic narratives and myriad versions of localized Gandhi’s emulating and preaching what they considered to be the salient features of his ideology.  Sayan explores this phenomenon through Raja Rao’s 1938 novel Kanthapura which is one of the most powerful narratives that bolstered the image of Gandhi as a mahatma and at the same time is a significant critique of the Indian middle-class desire to mythologize an absent Gandhi.


Sayan Chattopadhyay is an assistant professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur where he teaches English literature, critical theory, and communication studies. He received his doctorate degree in 2014 from the University of Cambridge and his master's degree from the University of Calcutta. His research has been primarily in the area of Indian middle-class self-fashioning and its literary manifestations. His forthcoming book, Being English: Indian Middle Class and the Desire for Anglicization, explores three twentieth-century Indian writers, Cornelia Sorabji, Nirad C. Chaudhuri, and Dom Moraes and their quest to fashion themselves as "English". He was the 2017 Baden-Württemburg research fellow at the University of Heidelberg.



15th Jun 2021 8:13pm

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