Tasveer Ghar: A Digital Archive of South Asian Popular Visual Culture   

Manly Matters

Representations of Maleness in South Asian Popular Visual Practice

Tasveer Ghar

Our Vision Statement:

Manly Matters seeks to move the focus of pictorial analysis to representations of maleness—both spectacular and mundane—as it proliferates in South Asian popular visual practice, especially in printed images produced for the mass market. At first blush, it may seem regressive to attend to men, given that they have been the very stuff of our scholarship for many decades as feminist critiques have so valuably demonstrated.  It is however the case that in the scholarship on South Asian visual culture over the past two decades, with the possible exception of cinema studies, little or no attention has been paid to masculinity as problematic or presence, the category of “gender” frequently being read entirely as “female” and as “woman.”1 Consequently, the male qua male has been taken as a given, glossed over as gendered subject, and hence paradoxically rendered invisible, even while being everywhere and across various media. There is indeed “a curious timidity when it comes to male images” that is widespread in the study of South Asian visual culture.2 As Todd Reeser writes in a recent assessment of the state of masculinity studies more generally, “One of the recurring features of masculinity—as opposed to femininity—is that men go to great pain to hide it and, by extension to hide the way that it functions and operates.  Hiding can allow masculinity to function without challenge or question.”3 This project pushes back against such attempts at “hiding.” Overcoming our customary “timidity,” we call to place men on full display and at the center of our visual analysis, as we consider a range of activities with which men are typically associated—like farming or soldiering— but also those that might surprise us and that challenge our normative assumptions, such as picnicking or child-rearing.  In so doing, we denaturalize assumptions about how men display themselves and are displayed in pictorial regimes, and destabilize prevailing stereotypes about manliness and masculinity more generally.  We also push back against an easy, even universal, binary which associates the man with mind and the woman with her body, especially so in studies of visual culture and practices of the region.  In contrast, we seek to bring the male body back in as a primary object of pictorial concern, and our visual attention.

There is no single—or singular—way in which men “look” in modern South Asia. All the same, we are keen to consider if certain somatic markers—such as the moustache, to invoke one instance—or activities or livelihoods are paradigmatically distinctive within the range of masculinities that circulate, including the feminized masculine, in the South Asian modern. Masculinity is intuitively associated with muscular power and virile strength, but are there are also contexts in which men appear vulnerable and fragile? Beauty has generally been associated with the female figure, but have artists across the region also attempted to produce the beautiful male form, and if so, what is the male beau ideal and how does it change over time and across ideologies?  Not least, we ask which sectors of society are invested in producing a particular masculine ideal, and who is looking at men as they put themselves on display or are displayed, sartorially and somatically? How indeed have men engaged with images about themselves, as Kajri Jain asks to consider?4

Even while we wish to attend to a range of masculine types from the spiritual and the religious to the sportsman and the soldier, the farmer and the “five year plan hero,”5 to name the obvious, a particular concern of the project is with the male political leader, especially men widely regarded as the founding father of the nation, be they Gandhi or Nehru of India, Iqbal and Jinnah in Pakistan, or Mujibur Rahman of Bangladesh. Rivaling father figures such as Ambedkar and Prabhakaran are also of interest. How have these flesh-and-blood men been transformed through the work of images and image-events into globally recognizable “bio-icons”? We borrow the concept of bio-icon from literary theorist Bishnupriya Ghosh for whom bio-icons are lives that have become the focus of visual and media saturation as social demands are placed on them. Ghosh’s analysis takes on female “bio-icons” such as Phoolan Devi, Mother Teresa, and Arundhati Roy.6 We wish to extend her analysis to iconic male bodies in order to demonstrate that the visual appearance and look of these men is critical to both nation building as well as their exercise of power and the cultivation of charisma.  In pivoting thus from text to image, from words to pictures, how do things and matters hitherto hidden become visible and apparent? This too is one of our critical questions.

About us:

The project will be carried out under the joint leadership of Christiane Brosius, Sumathi Ramaswamy, and Yousuf Saeed, the co-founders and coordinators of Tasveer Ghar.  It is funded by the Anneliese Maier Research Award granted in 2016 to Sumathi Ramaswamy by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, Germany.

Also see: Fellows who will be working on various themes under this project.

Some of the image galleries and essays that have been completed under this project:

Rupali Sehgal: Selling Intoxicating Bondings: Hyper Masculinity and Print Alcohol Ads in India

Sourav Roy: The Constitution of India: A National Gallery of Few Good Men

Gaurav KalraPolitics of Posture and Sartorial Sagacity: The Construction of Ascetic Masculinity in Vivekananda’s Photographs and Posters

Shabnam Naher and Mossabber HossainMale Beautification and the Beauty Salon: Changing Perceptions of 'Masculinity' among Males in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Sarunas Paunksnis and Runa Chakraborty: Masculine Anxiety in the Films of Anurag Kashyap


1 Thus, in a pioneering anthology which focused on the human body in Indian art, only one essay reflected on representations of male sexuality—and very perceptively (Visakha Desai. “Reflections on the History and Historiography of Male Sexuality in Early Indian Art.” In Representing the Body: Gender Issues in Indian Art, edited by Vidya Dehejia, 42-55. New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1997). For some scholarship that takes on the masculine in Indian visual culture, see Anuradha Kapur, “Deity to Crusader: The Changing Iconography of Ram.” In Hindus and Others: The Quest of Identity in India Today, edited by Gyanendra Pandey, 74-109. New Delhi: Viking, 1993; Kajri Jain. “Muscularity and Its Ramifications: Mimetic Male Bodies in Indian Mass Culture.” In Sexual Sites, Seminal Attitudes: Sexualities, Masculinities and Culture in South Asia, edited by Sanjay Srivastava, 300-41. New Delhi: Sage, 2005; Christopher Pinney. “The Body and the Bomb: Technologies of Modernity in Colonial India.” In Picturing the Nation: Iconographies of Modern India, edited by Richard Davis, 51-65. New Delhi: Orient Longman, 2006; Christiane Brosius. “‘I Am a National Artist’: Popular Art in the Sphere of Hindutva.” In Picturing the Nation: Iconographies of Modern India, edited by Richard Davis, 171-205. New Delhi: Orient Longman, 2006. Sumathi Ramaswamy. “Maps, Mother/Goddesses and Martyrdom in Modern India.” Journal of Asian Studies 67, no. 3 (2008): 819-53); and Deepa Sreenivas. Sculpting a Middle Class: History, Masculinity, and the Amar Chitra Katha in India. Delhi: Routledge, 2010.

2 Dehejia, Vidya. “Issues of Spectatorship and Representation.” In Representing the Body: Gender Issues in Indian Art, edited by Vidya Dehejia, 1-21. New Delhi: Kali for Women in association with The Book Review Literary Trust, 1997, quote on p.17.

3 Reeser, Todd W. Masculinities in Theory: An Introduction.  Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

4 Jain, “Muscularity and its Ramifications,” 7.

5 Srivastava, Sanjay, “Non-Gandhian Sexuality, Commodity Cultures and a ‘Happy Married Life’: Masculine and Sexual Cultures in the Metropolis” In Sexual Sites, Seminal Attitudes: Sexualities, Masculinities and Culture in South Asia, edited by Sanjay Srivastava, 342-390 New Delhi: Sage, 2005, p. 370.

6 Bishnupriya Ghosh. Global Icons: Apertures to the Popular.  Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.


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