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Among the gurus and sermonizers who have often been projected as brand ambassadors of Indian spiritual wisdom, the name of Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902) figures pre-eminently alongside Mahatma Gandhi, Gurudev Tagore, Sri Aurobindo, Acharya Vinoba Bhave and a host of post-Independence brahmacharis (celibate pursuers of knowledge and wisdom). They constitute the leadership figures that India as a spiritual super-power has always needed for guidance and moral upliftment. The trend of spiritual gurus continues unabated in the 21st century. Their role and position become all the more significant when the discourse of nationalism aspires for the values of self-renunciation, transcendence and other-worldliness.
The positioning of Vivekananda among the pantheon of male nationalist heroes who along with Jesus and Buddha surround the figure of Bharat Mata, reflects the gendered structure of the nation-state (Fig. 01). It demonstrates the gendered perspective of the nationalist elite in foregrounding the male as protector of the mother nation. Taking its cue from the already established ‘Chicago Pose’ of Vivekananda (see Fig. 15), the poster reinstates his persona as a militant monk with saffron turban and ochre-coloured robes, and confident, assertive posture (arms folded, as we will notice later). The overall paraphernalia generates a bold charisma to enchant the masses into submission. Merely a message, oral or printed, is not enough for the illiterate masses; rather it is the performativity of the sermon that sways them into its mesmeric fold.1 The present essay scrutinizes, in particular, the visual representation of Vivekananda in terms of its politics of posture, its inter-textual connections with other saintly figures of the past, and its repeated circulation within the nationalist discourse.
Vivekananda stands out among the modern saints of India for some crucial reasons. Both he and his guru Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (1836–86) made a seminal contribution towards the revitalization of Hinduism at a point of time when it was receiving flak from the Christian colonialists for being a fatalist, superstitious and over-ritualistic faith. Within the context of colonialism, the confluence of Indian nationalist thought and the spiritual rhetoric of Vivekananda initiated a new cultural movement. Operating within the discursive space, Vivekananda constructed his own version of Hindu masculinity which not only countered colonial tropes about Indian effeminacy but also claimed spiritual superiority. In his ambivalent quest to find a synthesis between the austere, self-sacrificing dimension of Hindu asceticism and militant aspect of the kshatriya (Indian warrior caste), he often urged ‘…Hindu youth to accept celibacy as a way of life in order to conserve their strength’.2 His emphasis on asceticism and celibacy helped in the consolidation of his idea of spiritual masculinity. In order to assert and redefine Hindu masculinity, Vivekananda continuously drew upon and challenged the Western notion of masculinity.
Working within the ambit of institutional organization, the young ascetic charted out his own course. The presence of his guru as well as institutional practices of the math (monastic establishment/religious organization) did not allow Vivekananda much room for experimentation during the lifetime of Ramakrishna. After the latter’s passing, Vivekananda’s judicious mixture of revival and reform fosters the notion of ‘ascetic activism’ which adds a society-centred dimension in the framework of religion.3
Two latter-day posters stand as witnesses to Vivekananda’s quest for the peculiar representations of his mentor, ‘from a religious ecstatic to religious eclectic, especially a vedantin prophet of the highest caliber’ (Figs. 02 and 03).4 After the death of his mentor, the devotional emphasis of the organization was shifted to the ‘more masculine Shiva and quietly but decisively, exiled Kali into obscurity and insignificance’.5 The shift helped Vivekananda in creating the more masculine form of bhakti (devotion) and Ramakrishna’s devotees started identifying themselves with the danas and daityas (ghosts and demons) of Shiva. In the poster in Fig. 02, Vivekananda kneels before Kali, with images of Ramakrishna and his wife Sarada Devi in the background. This image reinstates his submission to the goddess, and more significantly, his ultimate submission to Ramakrishna. The image of the Belur Math (the monastery founded by Vivekananda in the year 1897 in Kolkata) in the background also bears the imprint of such a legitimizing gesture. For the devout and the faithful, this paraphernalia depicted in the poster provides justification for the superhuman accomplishments of the saint. The verse inserted in the poster reads thus: ‘You are part of the great gods and goddesses Vivekananda, / I do not have anything to offer, / Look at the Supreme Being Ramakrishna, / You will receive many things there.’ This verse fragment reinforces the image of the new Ramakrishna that emerges as a godly and saintly superman, whose teachings should penetrate every pore of Hindu society.
The poster in Fig. 03 shows the shift in the representational scheme of the relationship between Vivekananda and his mentor. While maintaining the aspect of inheritance intact, this poster reverses their positions: instead of giving prominence to the image of Ramakrishna, it confines him to the background, though the frontal view accords him a position of dominance. Both posters also reflect the posthumous representation of Ramakrishna which serves to establish the line of succession from the master to the chosen disciple (Vivekananda). Furthermore, the juxtaposition of Vivekananda with the territorial map of India in Fig. 03 constitutes his pan-Indian identity. The representation of his fellow disciples in the poster represents Vivekananda’s ideal of social and national service along with the establishment of religious institutions at different locations in India.
After his iconic appearance in the Chicago Exposition in 1893 (as visualized in Fig. 04), Vivekananda catered ‘simultaneously to the West’s search for the Eastern exotic and East’s need for Western recognition’.6 The standing posture with folded arms, sideways glance, the saffron robe and turban, and sash tied around the waist, with the map of India and the USA in the background, projects his image as a ‘global monk’ who re-established the honour of India in the West. Furthermore, the beam of light that emanates from India to the USA not only signifies the travel of Vivekananda but also indicates the metaphorical victory of Orient over Occident in the arena of spirituality.
The unprecedented reception of Vivekananda’s speech in Chicago worked as a catalyst that triggered Western interest in the religious and philosophical dimensions of Hinduism. Vivekananda’s rhetoric of spiritual masculinity provided the much-needed counter-discourse to disrupt the violent and aggressive colonial hegemonic masculinity. The assertion of hyper-masculinity in British colonial ideology provides testimony to the prevailing rigid boundaries between the masculine and the feminine in post-Enlightenment Europe. The process resulted in the construction of the Oriental by the West as a ‘weak, ineffectual, non-martial and irrational other as compared to the powerful imagery of the strong, virile, martial and rational European self’.7
To counter the colonialist emasculation of Indian men, Indian nationalists deployed the same colonial discourse of masculinity. Vivekananda’s rhetoric of re-masculinization, especially the amalgamation of hegemonic Western notions of manliness with the acclaimed/alleged superiority of Hinduism, created the discursive space for the repositioning of Hinduism at the global level. For Vivekananda, superiority in the spiritual domain could not be attained unless the men of India reclaimed their (lost) masculinity. These claims of re-masculinization revolved around an essentialized idea of a certain kind of masculinity of which the indicators were: Physical Strength, Virility, Assertiveness, Martial Prowess, Chivalry. Vivekananda, who himself foregrounded these ideas, became an essential cultural cog in the nationalist imaginations to challenge the colonial stereotyping of Indians as well as to redefine the Indian masculinity.
The present essay, while concentrating on the representation of Vivekananda in photographs, also takes into consideration the proliferation of mass-produced posters, frequently derived from photographs, for the construction of a new ascetic masculinity (for example, see Figs. 01–04). The staging of Vivekananda’s body in the public domain, especially the careful selection of robes and postures for photographs and posters, showcases the great degree of premeditation and self-reflexivity. The intertwining of photographs and posters further helped in enhancing the public projection and circulation of the ascetic male persona. With the addition of colours, a map of India and other elements, posters overcame the limitations of the black-and-white photographs. The circulation of the posters, during and beyond the lifetime of Vivekananda, helped in the consolidation of his charismatic authority amongst both his followers and other consumers of such images in the Indian public sphere.
Early Photographs of Vivekananda (1886–92)
This section primarily covers the photographs of Vivekananda taken after the death of his mentor Ramakrishna Paramahamsa in 1886. In these, we see the image of a disciple who is struggling to come out from under the shadow of his guru, while being equally careful to observe the protocols of his math. The early photographs of Vivekananda are suggestive of considerable shifts as he stepped outside the mimetic mould and experimented with his sartorial make-up.
The close resemblance between the early photographs of Vivekananda and those of his mentor Ramakrishna Paramahamsa surfaces in the similarity of their seated posture (Figs. 05 and 06). For instance, soon after the death of his master, Vivekananda is photographed in samadhi pose, with a noticeable beard and short hair directly in accordance with his master’s image. The striking representational similarity is strategic as it tends to legitimize his saintly status among his disciples. The phenomenon of guru mimesis becomes apparent here as the acquired postures act as a necessary corporeal indicator of legitimized guruship. Copeman describes it as ‘…one guru dressing up as another, the copier guru attempting to reveal an affiliation of sorts, via the copy, with the copied guru’.8 In his photograph, Ramakrishna seems to be in the state of samadhi, i.e. not conscious of his surroundings (Fig. 05). On the other hand, the half-exposed body of Vivekananda in the seated posture seems calculatedly masculine and grave (Fig. 06).
Vivekananda’s latent desire to fabricate a masculine self manifests in his preoccupation with photography. This early image lacks depth and sophistication and that can possibly be interpreted on two accounts – one, the art of photography had not evolved beyond the mimetic world, or two, Vivekananda’s personality itself did not evince the sophistication of an ‘arrived’ being. Moreover, photography was still in its embryonic stages in India and was perceived as a new phenomenon in the public domain.9 In the 1880s, photographic studios were a relatively rare sight, especially outside large cities. Before the invention and arrival of the box camera in 1888, to go and get oneself photographed in the studio was a tedious as well as an expensive affair.10 However, with the expansion of photographic studios, in the latter half of the 19th century, ‘portraits became vogue among the Indian gentry’.11 Thus, the usage of photographic techniques within Ramakrishna’s organization stimulates pertinent questions regarding the ‘cultural, economic, and technological choices exercised by devotees’ to construct the photo-iconographic tradition.12
The experimental tendencies in the outer persona of Vivekananda, especially the transition from semi-naked body to ochre/gerua robes, reflect the canny usage of dress, gestures and photographic choreography. Moreover, the sartorial experimentation foregrounds his quest for a new kind of masculine persona for the modern celibate monk.
The first ‘turban photograph’ of Vivekananda was shot at Baranagore Math on January 30, 1887 (Fig. 07). It shows Vivekananda with a heavy beard, a shawl draped across his shoulder and wearing a turban. It is generally believed that Vivekananda only started wearing a turban from June 1891 on the suggestion of Ajit Singh, the ruler of Khetri, as a protective measure against the severe climate. Ajit Singh’s secretary carried out his master’s command and, despite Vivekananda’s objection, purchased ‘costly silk materials and suiting…for the robes and turbans’. So, he was ‘fitted out in royal style, and presented with a handsome purse’.13 However, the photographic chronology poses a serious question about this circulated narrative, for the 1887 image shows that Vivekananda’s sartorial experimentation, especially with headgear, started well before his meeting with Ajit Singh. From this time indeed, the sartorial shaping of his persona gradually becomes instrumental in the solidification of his new ascetic masculinity.
Vivekananda’s experimental phase of the early 1890s continuously reflects his aspirations to go beyond the conventional paradigm of asceticism. The consistent shift in his poses and different ways of draping his ochre robes – also apparent in mass-produced posters, produced posthumously – bring forth his keenness for a degree of ‘outer’ distinctness. The initial representation around 1891 of Vivekananda as a ‘wandering monk’ indicates his indecisiveness with regard to his headgear (Fig. 08). The transformation from the half-naked body of 1886 (see Fig. 06) to the fully-draped figure of 1891 with a bald head, and clean-shaven face, holding a staff in one hand, also points towards his sartorial yearnings. The subtle but consistent shift in his outer persona can also be interpreted as his inclination towards middle-class respectability.
The headgear, however, makes a comeback and becomes consistent along with the clean-shaven face in Vivekananda’s studio photograph at Belgaum in 1892 and subsequent ones (Fig. 09). The garment stitched up to the top, the strapped sandals and the sideways glance lend a quasi-noble sophistication to the image. In this instance Vivekananda is initially said to have resisted being photographed, but on the insistence of his disciples agreed.14 Some scholars have connected draped clothing (as opposed to stitched garments) to notions of ritual purity and caste pollution. Draped clothes, worn especially by Hindu men, were considered suitable for ritual performances and were deemed less permeable to pollution. Interestingly, while in the religious context the stitched garment was considered as defiled, in the secular context it was seen as the symbol of sophistication and educational advancement.15 With the arrival of the European style of dressing, especially with the coming of colonial administrators, missionaries and traders in India, the notion of ‘gracefulness’ attached to stitched garments gained currency. The European assessment of the flowing nature of robes of Indian elite as childlike and effeminate was part of the political move to achieve colonial hegemony over the Indian masses. Vivekananda, in his attempt to protect or revive the threatened culture, sought to create a masculine self through his sartorial experimentations.
After posing for photographs in various postures with stitched or unstitched garments, bald head or cropped hair, wearing a turban or bareheaded and sometimes with staff in hand, Vivekananda gradually cemented his outer persona: ochre robes, clean-shaven face, and turban as headgear. Later on, during the nationalist struggle of India, Mahatma Gandhi also similarly experimented with his headgear and clothes to augment his outer persona.16 For instance, after coming back to India in 1915, he frequently shuffled his headgear between the Kathiawadi turban (Fig. 10), Kashmiri topi (Fig. 11) and finally the topi that became popularized as the ‘Gandhi cap’ (Fig. 12). The idea of the Gandhi cap reveals the symbolic and socio-political value of clothing in the Indian context. Gandhi utilized his body as a site to resist colonialism and his intentional change of dress from ‘English suits and bowler hats to homespun khadi is emblematic of an attempt to decolonize the body’.17 Similarly, in his early photographs (see e.g. Figs. 06–08), Vivekananda seems to be imitative and yet partly experimental. In subsequent years, he experimented with his outfits in different postures within the institutional domain. The subtle photographic adeptness acquired in the later images (and Vivekananda’s careful sartorial selection of ochre robes) mirrors the gulf between Ramakrishna’s beliefs and Vivekananda’s ideology.
The emergence of Swami Vivekananda, with a ‘modern outlook’ as well as noticeable sartorial experimentation, at this juncture seems to overlap with the ongoing discourse of colonial civility. The donning of ochre robes signifies sacrifice, renunciation and courage. His vision of bringing modernity into Hinduism is not only reflected through his ideological outlook but can also be traced in consistent reinventions of his masculine self through photography.
Chicago Photographs of Vivekananda (1893–95)
I next turn to highlight the ambitious flight of the young ascetic to become a global icon. Here again his sartorial judiciousness, evident in the Chicago photographs, played a decisive role in positioning him in the tradition of Indian ascetics. Vivekananda’s letter sent to Mary Hale revealed his intentions and purposefulness in emphasizing the particular colour and style of his dress. This insistence on the choice of dress and colour, particularly the saffron signifying renunciation, speaks of the sartorial shaping of an icon.18 Lurie observes that ‘…clothes, like, language communicate; they are, like language, capable of communicating anything from truth to lies, from the intelligible to the unintelligible’.19 Vivekananda’s thoughtful selection of his outer garb explains his deliberate cultural allegiance to the ‘ancient’ ascetic tradition of India as well as the aim to circulate his saintly image at the global level. The construction of Vivekananda as a militant Hindu monk of India within a framework of traditional Indian asceticism asserted and re-established the ‘honour of India’ globally.
His experimentation with regard to posture and clothing bears fruit in the Chicago images of Vivekananda which are central to his rise to iconic prominence. It is in these photographs that the entire credo of his militant style of saintliness attains ‘aestheticization’, and thus stabilizes the image of a male saint for modern India in times to come.20 A photograph of him seated (Fig. 13) captures him wearing a turban and ochre robes tied at the waist with a sash, looking away from the camera and viewer, chin slightly upwards. The photograph bears inscribed verses from Hindu scriptures along with English text (‘Equality in all beings, this is the sign of the free’) and Vivekananda’s signature. The insertion of text (as in all three Chicago photographs in this section) helps in containing the polysemous nature of pictures and redirects them to a definite and precise meaning. The amalgamation of signature and verses disseminates the saintly discourse in a particular mode to amplify the heroic stature of Vivekananda. The juxtaposition of inscribed verses with image acts as an anchor to provide definite meaning to the ‘floating chain of signified’.21 The text interprets and identifies the already formulated meanings communicated through the images. Vivekananda’s sideways glance, looking beyond the horizon, along with his posture and the position of his hands, represent his persona as if experiencing some epiphanic revelation. The utilization of an engraved throne-chair provides a regal tinge amplifying his status as a royal saint. The fleshy body of Vivekananda trespasses the general perception of the impoverished sadhu (ascetic) as having outwardly frail corporeality.
The transition from the early photographs where Vivekananda is shown seated on the ground to those where he is seated on a chair to finally the standing posture (in his Chicago photographs) helps in the visual consolidation of the masculine self as assertive and in command (Fig. 14). Further, without blindly emulating the European style of dressing, Vivekananda created his own distinct yet acceptable image within the conventions of asceticism. Through his sartorial adeptness, in particular the inclusion of sash, trousers and leather shoes in his Chicago photographs, Vivekananda succeeded in creating a look which was neither the flowing linen (in colourful combinations) worn by Indian maharajas nor the European style of garment cut, stitched and shaped to the contours of the body.
The spatial codes at play in the photograph of a standing Vivekananda (Fig. 14) – the slightly angled body, one hand resting on the table, elbow jutting out a bit, and right foot forward – correspond with the ongoing style of portraiture photography. The standing posture shows his boldness and firmness of character as a defender of the Hindu religion. The turban enhances this overall impression along with the sash tied at his waist, which appears only in his Chicago images. One can see the usage of studio light falling from the upper right corner to create the shadow which enhances the tonal quality as well as provides the three-dimensional appearance of the photograph. Linkman points out that ‘these conventions were employed in Victorian portraiture to signal the strength and authority of men’.22 In the Chicago phase, the judicious use of the techniques of portraiture photography helped in elevating Vivekananda’s persona as a militant monk. In the late 19th century, the camera lens was not perceived as something that passively recorded reality but as a device that actively constructed it. Rather than becoming a place that records a person, the studio ‘produced a space that creates a personality’ with an aura.23
In the Chicago photographs, the deployment of the dominant mode of portraiture photography such as single point perspective and carte-de-visite pre-empt the possibility of a different space produced either by the photographer (Thomas Harrison) or by the sitter (Vivekananda). In almost all of his photographs, especially in this phase, privilege has been given to the frontality of the face as well as the body of Vivekananda (Figs. 13, 14). Most of these studio portraits were influenced by the Western painting conventions. The entire paraphernalia of the images showcased the features of portraiture used in the photographic studio in 19th-century America, in which ‘…space is constructed so that the body forms the focal point. Subjects [following the European style of authority] usually sat or stood in full or three-quarter lengths, slightly angled towards the camera.’24 At the same time, the existing studio portraits of the newly Western-educated well-to-do Bengalis (bhadralok) in India displayed the ‘power inherent in creating an image of the self-performing gestures of authority’ as they were not given the real power despite being equally competent as their British counterparts.25 The photographic space enabled them to produce images of themselves as powerful subjects within colonialism.
The standing posture, physical robustness and bold look (Fig. 15) can also be seen in terms of Vivekananda’s conscious strategy of engendering a masculine image of Hinduism which was hitherto perceived by some Western minds as weak and effeminate.26 Vivekananda’s emphasis on practical Hinduism or neo-Vedanta seems to be in conjunction with the newly emergent Indian bourgeois which supported the administrative system during the period of colonization.27 He re-defined the role of an ascetic from a renunciatory figure to one who had a deep social commitment.
In spite of Vivekananda’s reported initial resistance, he distributed copies of his iconic ‘Chicago Pose’ to his disciples both in India and the United States. Initially, 50 copies of the Harrison photographs had been ordered but later on, he asked for another 100 copies to be distributed.28 His eagerness to widely circulate his Chicago photographs comes to the fore in his letter sent to Alasinga on July 11, 1894: ‘I have sent a letter to H.H. of Mysore and some photographs. You must have got yours by this time. Present one to the Raja of Ramand. Work on him as much as you can. Keep correspondence with Khetri and try to spread.’29 The unprecedented circulation of this photograph (Fig. 15) buttressed the ‘charismatic authority’30 of Vivekananda over his followers in India and abroad, as a militant Hindu monk. The process of his deification became intensified with the intermeshing of textual narrative with photographs. As Kay Turner observes for a comparable context, the photographs of saints ‘become the parts of their holy prosperity, just as paintings and prints had been for saints of earlier periods’.31
Apparently, just after his opening speech at the Parliament of Religion, Vivekananda’s Chicago Pose photograph was converted into a huge poster (Fig. 16) and widely distributed for the popularization of the conference among the public. The poster image seems to be taken directly from the existing photograph, in the style of ‘circus’ posters where shows by great performers used to be advertised in the USA at that time.32 Vivekananda’s association with the lecture bureau, especially after the Parliament of Religion (1893), proved to be futile. The lecture bureau, fully aware of the commercial possibilities, turned Vivekananda into a commodity to be displayed at a certain price. The focus on his robes, physical stature, height and the colour of his skin in the advertisement and the newspapers further Orientalizes his persona. The lecture bureau utilized his regal persona, flying robes, sash tied at the waist and turban as a ‘new source of amusement’. His entry into the seminar hall was announced with the beating of big drums ‘as if he was a circus man’.33 Furthermore, the fixing of his public appearance hints at the utilization of theatrical or performative tools by Vivekananda. The difference between his appearance in formal and informal settings further testifies to his discreet sense of theatricality to strengthen his already established ascetic image among the public.34
Treading along the same lines, the posters of Vivekananda published over the course of the last century bring forth the image of a ‘global monk’. The juxtaposition of Vivekananda’s iconic image with the large buildings, church and the map of America (Fig. 17) clearly explicates his status as a warrior-monk who re-established Hinduism at the global level. The building blocks suggest the development and material prosperity of America. The positioning of Vivekananda amidst these symbolical markers of modernity, especially fully clad in ochre robes, helps in contextualizing his persona as a modern celibate ascetic. The juxtaposition of religion, symbolically represented by the image of Church and modernity anchored by the multi-storey buildings, along with the larger-than-life persona of Vivekananda, depicts him as a person who assimilated the modern elements in his thought without denouncing the traditional values or beliefs, and labels him as one of the most powerful agents of the Hindu Renaissance.35 The entire paraphernalia presents an image of a modern spiritual leader who wears the monastic robes and gives scientific explanations of religious ideas. Instead of positioning him in the conventional framework of a saint, the poster tends to show the pragmatic self of Vivekananda who does not seem to be dismissive of material prosperity.
In the Chicago photographs, the technical proficiency conferred an unprecedented leap to the charismatic aura of Vivekananda. Along with the uncanny power of the pictures, the American photographer’s skill played a decisive role in the concretization of Vivekananda’s masculine self. His standing posture with folded hands lends him an aura which became emblematic of his virility, strength and the ‘man-making mission’. These photographs were circulated among people as the attempt was to transfix the image of a warrior-monk in the public domain.
Late Photographs of Vivekananda (1896–1902)
Vivekananda utilized the momentum gained as a result of his spiritual sojourn in the West to begin implementing his plans for the organized dissemination of his philosophy throughout India and abroad. In India he passed certain resolutions for the formation of the Ramakrishna Mission and promoted the idea of social service. After the establishment of Belur Math in 1897, he started two journals, i.e. Prabudha Bharata (Awakened India, 1896) and Udbodhan (Illumination, 1898). The philanthropic and charitable work became part and parcel of the already established maths. The purpose of his second visit to the West (London, New York, San Francisco and other places) was to consolidate the global institutional setup for the dissemination of neo-Vedanta philosophy. However, Vivekananda’s preoccupation with his photography continued even during this period.
In a photograph of Vivekananda taken at Madras in 1897 (Fig. 18), he resorts to some of the conventional insignia associated with Hindu saints such as staff, kamandal (water pot), shaven head and an open book on a stand. These elements point to his projected vision of disseminating his image as a simple Indian sanyasi. The photograph correlates with his already established image among people as a wandering monk. The removal of the turban directly equates his outer persona with the conventional image of the saint and seems to be more in keeping with the history of saints within the Indian context. This photograph was subsequently published in the April 1897 issue of Prabuddha Bharata with an editor’s note stating that ‘[w]e are sure many would be glad to have the likeness of the swami in his simple Indian Sanyasi dress and position’.36 Interestingly, this issue of the magazine included two prints of the photograph of Vivekananda on separate sheets, and subscribers were asked to pay extra to meet the additional printing cost.
A similar samadhi pose is depicted in the poster (Fig. 19) which is juxtaposed with the geographical space (Kanyakumari) where Vivekananda realized his spiritual mission. Before the erection of the Rock Memorial there in 1970, the space became a bone of contention between the local Hindus and Christians. Through the efforts of Eknath Ranade (Organizing Secretary of the Rock Memorial Committee) with the support of the Ramakrishna Math, the Rock Memorial to Vivekananda was not only established but also gained currency (especially in the later years of the 20th century) as a national icon in the consciousness of people. Despite facing financial and political hurdles, Ranade was able to turn the movement for the construction of the memorial into a national campaign and mobilized donations from the state government as well as ordinary people. The outcome of the nationwide campaign was the completion of the Rock Memorial along with the establishment of the Vivekananda Kendra. In the process, the persona of Vivekananda became loaded with politically contextualized meanings. The poster in Fig. 19 projected Vivekananda as a youth icon among the masses. The donning of the ochre robes, especially in the samadhi pose, with the addition of the Rock Memorial and the saffron flag in the background, not only politicized his image but also bracketed his persona and ideology within the structured parameters of Hinduism.
However, it was his visits to the United States of America and Great Britain that gave Vivekananda the space to discover himself ‘as the swami, as Vivekananda, as Indian, as Hindu, and as male, an implicitly heterosexual male, in the West outside the Indian nation space’.37 Vivekananda’s recognition as a masculine and heterosexual subject, especially among Western women, was necessary for his projection as a ‘global’ monk. Interestingly, most of his Western disciples were women, who played a significant role not only in the establishment of his mission but also in the consolidation of his image as a celibate monk. As Parama Roy observes, ‘Vivekananda needed the West, especially white women for his validation as nationalist, masculine, heterosexual.’38 For instance, Margaret Noble (Sister Nivedita) was one of those who provided a significant leap to his gendered conceptualizations. Interestingly the majority of the women disciples of Vivekananda in America more or less acted as public relations agents; provided food, shelter, financial support; and also cultivated his public image as a celebrity.
Vivekananda himself stated before going abroad for the second time at the end of the year 1898, ‘last time they saw a warrior, this time I want to show them a Brahmin’.39 The shift in the desired goal is reflected in the transition in the photographic representation of Vivekananda (Fig. 20). The postural varieties of Vivekananda’s photographs seem to be in conjunction with the socio-political environment of the place as well as the people. The purpose of getting himself photographed in a quasi-Protestant clerical outfit during his second visit to the West conveys a predetermined strategy to identify with the people. The shift in his outer appearance from the Indian-style turban-wearing, saffron-clad saint of Figs. 13–15 to an altogether different persona constituting clerical dress, white collar and long hair neatly parted at centre (Fig. 20), hints at Vivekananda’s subtle and strategic sartorial shifts.
Vivekananda in the later phase laid more emphasis on his image as a celibate monk, public lecturer and Vedantin missionary.40 Following the same trajectory, a poster published in the early to mid-20th century (based on a photograph of 1900) shows him in ochre/gerua robes, resting his right elbow on a pedestal and holding a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, often referred to as the holy book or even bible, in his hand (Figs. 21, 22). Around his head is a pale spiritual halo, and he looks directly into the eyes of the beholder, which not only underlines his charismatic authority but also validates his ascetic self. The entire paraphernalia contextualizes Vivekananda as the champion of Hinduism.
The transition in the photographic representation from the warrior-hero-monk exhibiting physical vitality, vigour and youthful handsomeness to the contemplative monk and public lecturer displays a thoughtful crafting of self-image. The 1900 photograph (Fig. 22) shows Vivekananda sitting calmly on an ornate seat, sash tied around his waist, and looking directly into the eyes of the viewer. The foregrounding of the engraved seat along with carving on the pillar surrounded by trees, looming large in the background, gives the impression of a palatial setting. Vivekananda’s commanding persona and piercing eyes along with his spectacular outfit, neatly juxtaposed with the grand backdrop, raises his majestic presence. As Swami Shraddhananda comments about this photograph, ‘See in this photograph what a grand appearance Swamiji had! Nivedita used to call him a King. He indeed looks like a King. In America, they used to call him a “prince among Men”.’41 The terms ‘grand’ and ‘prince among men’ emphasize Vivekananda’s masculine self and exhibit his authority and power over the masses.
During his last years, after returning to India in 1900, Vivekananda travelled to East Bengal and Assam to recover his health. He was a well-known figure by this time, and delivered public lectures both to his followers and to British officials at the request of Chief Commissioner Sir Henry Cotton. Vivekananda’s fascination with photography appears to have continued even at this time, as one can tell from his studio photograph taken in Shillong (Fig. 23). This photo shows a clean-shaven Vivekananda, his hair short and not greying, looking into the distance. His health was steadily deteriorating and for this reason, he had decided to stay for some time in the hill station. However, in the photograph his face reflects a certain serenity, calmness and radiance, and there is no trace of his deteriorating health condition. The disparity between the manufactured self through photography and the reality of declining health testifies to his desire to consolidate his public persona in a pre-defined template of a healthy monk.
With the deployment of photographic conventions, postural mimesis and sartorial experimentations, Vivekananda created for himself a distinct yet firmly-rooted masculine image of a ‘modern’ Indian ascetic. To counter the hyper-masculinity appropriated by the colonialist – who rendered the colonized as effeminate – Vivekananda sought to create a new, even modern, ascetic masculinity. The body of Vivekananda, especially its photographic representation, becomes a site to enact this visual discourse of masculinity. The experimental tendencies in the outer persona of Vivekananda – the canny usage of dress, gestures and photographic choreography – hint at the judicious usage of theatrical techniques. The photographs of Vivekananda, especially in the early years before his visit to Chicago, are suggestive of considerable shifts as he stepped outside the mimetic mould and experimented with his sartorial make-up.
This experimentation reached its apex after the establishment of Vivekananda as a Hindu warrior-monk. The professional photography, especially in America, filled the vacuum of sartorial elegance and displayed Vivekananda in striking poses asserting his image as a militant monk. Furthermore, the photographs taken in later years after he returned from Chicago helped in fixing his identity as a global monk.
The proliferation of Vivekananda’s posters in the aftermath of his lived life lends him a certain degree of linearity in terms of serenity, calmness and profundity, judiciously dovetailing with his ideological vision of projecting himself as a celibate monk and public lecturer. It also strengthens the gradual consolidation of his masculine persona which was hitherto perceived either as virile or as celibate.
The urgency of projecting certain individuals as national heroes is driven mostly by political necessity rather than the wish of paying homage to them for their service for the nation. The official construction of national icons revolves around the axis of projecting each of them as a devotional subject to be worshipped among the masses. The proliferation of mass-produced photographic images of these icons in the public arena to this day fosters the notion of submission rather than an objective critical evaluation of political exploitation of these icons in the society. For instance, the embossing of the ‘Chicago Pose’ of Vivekananda, The Hindoo Monk of India, on clothes (Fig. 24) not only offers it in the form of a commodity-for-sale among the youth but also brackets his persona within the framework of Hindutva.
Moreover, it caters to the even younger masses when it enters into events like the fancy-dress competitions in schools (Fig. 25 and the video clip at #26) where students are made to replicate the ‘splendid performance’ of Vivekananda (his famous speech at the Chicago Exposition in 1893): this becomes a site to enact the discourse of performativity. The process helps in facilitating the ‘deification’ of the national icon. Any deviation from the ‘homogenized’ official representation of national icons gets considered as an act of infidelity, and the politicization of Vivekananda either as a national or youth icon follows suit. The process has reduced Vivekananda to one among the available stock of cultural symbols that can be utilized, distorted as well as reinvented according to the requirement of the market economy.
On the other hand, a deeper attempt to re-read, re-interpret and re-examine national icons renders them as open texts: it opens up new vistas and provides new insights, unravelling the knots of disguised political ideology that regulate the circulation of various images in the public sphere.
Many thanks to Prof. Sumathi Ramaswamy, Prof. Akshaya Kumar, Prof. Christiane Brosius, Yousuf Saeed, Shreesha Udupa and Manika Arora for their useful comments and constant support. Thanks to the Priya Paul Collection for allowing access to some of the posters. The photographs are reproduced here with the permission of the Manager, Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata.
1 Barad, Karen, ‘Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter’, Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Vol. 28, No. 3, 2001, pp. 801–31.
2 Roy, Abhik & Hammers, Michele L., ‘Swami Vivekananda’s Rhetoric of Spiritual Masculinity: Transforming Effeminate Bengalis into Virile Men’, Western Journal of Communication, Vol. 78, No.4, 2014, pp. 545–62. See p. 553.
3 Bhattacharya Mehta, Rini, ‘The Missionary Sannyasi and the Burden of the Colonized’, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Vol. 28, No. 2, 2008, pp. 10–25. See p. 17.
4 Sil, Narasingha,‘Vivekananda’s Ramakrishna: An Untold Story of Mythmaking and Propaganda’, Numen, Vol. 40, No. 1, 1993, pp. 38–62.
5 Sharma, Jyotirmaya, A Restatement of Religion: Swami Vivekananda and the Making of Hindu Nationalism, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013.
6 Bhattacharya Mehta, ‘The Missionary Sannyasi’, p. 310.
7 Banerjee, Sikata, ‘Gender and Nationalism: The Masculinization of Hinduism and Female Political Participation in India’, Women’s Study International Forum, Vol. 26, No. 2, pp. 167–89.
8 Copeman, Jacob and Ikegame, Aya, ‘Guru Logics’, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory (University of Manchester), Vol. 2, No. 1, 2001, pp. 289–336.
9 During the colonial era, with the opening of various printing presses in India such as the Calcutta Art Studio, Chitrashala Press, Ravi Verma Studio and many others, the trend of visual representation had taken off. By the early 20th century, lithographs, chromolithographs, calendar art and oleographs were in vogue and were utilized as means to disseminate different ideological orientations among people. Cf. Pinney, Christopher, Photos of Gods: The Printed Image and Political Struggle in India, London: Reaktion Books, 2004.
10 Vedanta Society of Northern California, Photographs of Swami Vivekananda, Chennai: Advaita Ashrama, Adhyaksha Sri Ramakrishna Math, 2002.
11 Mitter, Partha, Indian Art, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. See p. 174. Also see Pinney, Chrisopher, Camera Indica: The Social Life of Indian Photographs, London: Reaktion Books, 1997.
12 Beckerlegge, Gwilym, ‘Swami Vivekananda’s Iconic Presence and Conventions of Nineteenth-Century Photographic Portraiture’, International Journal of Hindu Studies, Vol. 12, No. 1, 2008, pp. 1–40.
13 Ibid., p. 13.
14 Vedanta Society of Northern California, Photographs of Swami Vivekananda, p. 36.
15 Tarlo, Emma, Clothing Matters: Dress and Identity in India, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
16 Bean, Susan, ‘Gandhi and Khadi: The Fabric of Independence’, Cloth and Human Experience, edited by A. Wiener and J. Schneider, Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989, pp. 355–76.
17 Chakraborty, Chandrima, ‘The Hindu Ascetic as Fitness Instructor: Reviving Faith in Fitness Yoga’, The Politics of Sport in South Asia, edited by Subhas Ranjan Chakraborty et al., New York: Routledge, 2010, pp. 24–38. See p. 29.
18 Vivekananda took particular care of the colour of his outer robes, as he wrote in a letter to Mary Hale, ‘By very good luck, I have found the orange cloth and am going to have a coat made as soon as I can’ (Vivekananda, Swami, The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (CWSV), Vol. 8, Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1989, p. 375). How seriously he took his sartorial projection amidst the American public is evident when he called his disciple, Swami Abhedananda, to join him in 1895 and instructed him: ‘Gangadhar’s Tibetan Choga is in the Math; get the tailor to make a similar choga of gerua colour.’ Cf. CWSV, p. 352.
19 Tarlo, Clothing Matters, p. 18.
20 Mirzoeff, Nicholas, ‘The Right to Look’, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 37, No. 3, 2011, pp. 473–96.
21 Barthes, Roland, Image-Music-Text, London: Fontana, 1977.
22 Linkman, Audrey, The Victorians: Photographic Portraits, London: Tauris Parke Books, 1993.
23 Garden, Wendey, ‘Photographic Space and the Indian Portrait Studio’, Double Dialogues, Vol. 2, No. 7, 2007, pp. 1–10.
24 Ibid., p. 3.
25 Ibid., pp. 3–4.
26 Cf. Religious Tract Society, Christian Manliness (1866).
27 Chowdury, Indira, The Frail Hero and Virile History: Gender and The Politics of Culture in Colonial Bengal, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001.
28 CWSV, Vol. 8, p. 315; Vol. 9, p. 46.
29 Vedanta Society of Northern California, Photographs of Swami Vivekananda, p. 86.
30 Cf. Max Weber, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, New York: Oxford University Press, 1947.
31 Turner, Kay, ‘“Because of This Photography”: The Making of a Mexican Folk Saint’, Nino Fidencio: A Heart Thrown Open, edited by Dore Gardner, Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, pp. 120–34. See p. 122.
32 Springhall, John, The Genesis of Mass Culture: Show Business Live in America, 1840 to 1940, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
33 Romain Rolland, The Life of Vivekananda and the Universal Gospel, English translation by E.F.M. Smith, Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, 2001, p. 62.
34 The theatrical and performative aspect deals with the self-conscious portrayal of one’s own image in the public domain. The deliberate attempt to prepare oneself, as an artist does before facing the audience on the stage, raises questions regarding the notion of purity and simplicity associated with the spiritually elevated person. In the case of Vivekananda, one can see the conscious circulation of his ‘Chicago Pose’ which further becomes the representative tool for his projection through various modes. The deliberate use of certain props magnifies the image of an entity among the masses. For instance, one can cite an example of Rajneesh (Osho) who ‘self-consciously prepared for his public appearances as does an actor for his role. In later life, he would use make up, wear rich robes that accentuated his broad shoulders and jewel studded caps that hid his baldness.’ Cf. Kakar, Sudhir, Mad and Divine: Spirit and Psyche in the Modern World, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009, p. 14.
35 Bharti, Agehananda, ‘The Hindu Renaissance and Its Apologetic Patterns’, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 29, No. 2, 1970, pp. 267–87. See p. 278.
36 Quoted in Beckerlegge, ‘Swami Vivekananda’s Iconic Presence’, p. 26.
37 Roy, Parama, Indian Traffic: Identities in Question in Colonial and Post-Colonial India, London: University of California Press, 1998. See p. 114.
38 Ibid., p. 121.
39 Rahbar, Hansraj, Vivekananda: A Warrior Saint, Delhi: Farsight Publisher and Distributor, 2009.
40 Beckerlegge, ‘Swami Vivekananda’s Iconic Presence’, p. 28.
41 Vedanta Society of Northern California, Photographs of Swami Vivekananda, p. 260.