The visual turn in history has expanded the archive beyond the mass of official images that were always a part of it to include the wider world of visual materials circulating in culture more broadly. From a drawing in of heterodox familial, religious, commercial, and political images has come a widening of historians’ engagements with anthropology, art history, and media studies, and a dramatic shift in how we think with images, how we “read” them. If they are no longer to be viewed as inert evidentiary objects that merely support arguments that have been crafted largely with texts—what Carlo Ginzburg once called a “physiognomic” reading of artistic material—then how do images function differently from texts? Indeed if images are now understood to not only bear histories of their own but actually generate questions of their own, how do they allow historians to intervene in existing historiographic debates, and, perhaps most importantly, offer a different “sensibility” to the politics of the past? Kama Maclean’s A Revolutionary History of Interwar India: Violence, Image, Voice and Text takes on a question that pioneers of the visual turn in South Asian history Christopher Pinney and Sumathi Ramaswamy had already signposted—how does one explain the enormous presence of revolutionary figures in popular visual culture versus their relative marginality in the actual historiography of the anticolonial struggle? Maclean offers a compelling history of revolutionary activity in the 1920s and 1930s in which, firstly, she considers the visual repertoire of the revolutionaries as integral to their very strategies of anticolonial resistance, and, secondly, she seeks to unsettle the presumed opposition between violence and nonviolence, the revolutionaries and the Gandhian Indian National Congress party, that renders the former peripheral to the history of Indian nationalism. With a focus on the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army (HSRA) and its most charismatic figure, Bhagat Singh, the chapter entitled “That Hat” is arguably the most vital of the book. In this chapter Maclean traces the making of the most widely recognizable image of Bhagat Singh, as a Western-dressed young man in a rakish hat—an iconic image comparable to Alberto Korda’s 1960 photograph of Che Guevara, “Guerrillero Heroico,” to show its integral role in the revolutionary politics of colonial India. The author suggests that Singh (and fellow revolutionaries) self-consciously posed for photographic portraits in studios. They then organized for the dissemination of copies of these images to the nationalist press, just before they undertook the Legislative Assembly bombing in April 1929. As one such portrait, the image by which Bhagat Singh is best known to us is no accident—it was crafted with political purpose. It is here that Maclean’s attention to the details of revolutionary organizing, the pragmatics and binds of secrecy versus the imperatives of dissemination and mobilization, is the most illuminating. It is a strength in the rest of the book as well. As an underground movement, the HSRA knew their burst of violent action on the one hand gave them a dramatic stage for their ideas, and on the other hand risked their being cast out as simply “terrorists” without an ideology. If their action was going to be effective as an anticolonial force they had to subvert the heavy hand and heavy censorship of the colonial state. In anticipation of Singh’s arrest, trial, and death sentence, it was his photograph that secured life after death, by offering an image of a “martyr” with unabashed youth and charm, and in western dress. As such, Singh’s photograph, taken with his full awareness of his anticipated death, thwarts the association of violence with terrorism and places in circulation instead the heroic iconography of martyrdom. Another image stands out from the book—it is of Gandhi baring his chest to reveal the faces of Bhagat Singh and two other revolutionaries, as if they are close to his heart, albeit in concealment (fig. 53 ). Maclean argues that the textual archive, including Gandhi’s article “Cult of the Bomb” (Young India, January 2, 1930) and HSRA’s rejoinder, makes the opposition between Congress and the revolutionaries appear much more pronounced than it was. This, she proposes, was an opposition carefully cultivated so that Congress could deny knowledge of the revolutionary movement in its negotiations with the colonial state. In actuality, the two were much more deeply intertwined, as the fusions in popular visual imagery suggests. In addition to images, Maclean draws on oral histories that were recorded with former revolutionaries after independence, and this provides another kind of personal narrative that elucidates relationships on the ground. It has been generally understood that most members of the HSRA came into politics through participation in the Gandhi-led noncooperation movement of the 1920s, and who then radicalized when Gandhi controversially called off the movement, after his followers burned down a police station at Chauri Chaura (107). The oral histories, including those with women in the movement, suggest that this process of radicalization did not mean a severing of ties with the Congress, and many continued active participation in the nationalist party, and remained connected through family and friends. Indeed, many in the Congress were in turn sympathetic to or inspired by the young revolutionaries. Some, like Motilal Nehru, were even crucial to funding them. Given Motilal Nehru’s seniority in Congress, his role is quite noteworthy, as it complicates the view that it was only the young in the Congress, such as his son Jawaharlal, who were drawn to the youth and charisma of the revolutionaries. Instead Maclean carefully documents the wide-ranging support the revolutionaries received after the bombing, despite public denunciations of the attack, and their profound impact on Congress proceedings. For Maclean, moments such as Singh’s hunger strike in jail to demand fair treatment as a political prisoner, or when Gandhi’s resolution of August 6, 1931, to denounce political violence won only by a very narrow margin, underscore that violent and nonviolent actions were not “rivals” in the anticolonial struggle, and their dynamic invigorated the Congress and catapulted it into demanding purna swaraj, or full independence from colonial rule. While A Revolutionary History brings the vitality of popular imagery to bear upon a reconsideration of interwar revolutionary movements, as a history that takes the visual seriously, the author’s “reading” of dense images is often trite (e.g., “this is angry art” ). This analysis of images may be tied to Maclean’s understanding of violence and nonviolence as “actions,” as a set of strategies, rather than as ethics that may only be articulated in relation to each other or with an already shared conception of sacrifice, courage, and self-discipline. Thus, the arrangement of political figures in popular liturgical, didactic, and even humorous compositions; the representation of violence in a political theology of martyrdom; and the meanings of nonviolence in visual form receive surface treatment and do not engage a rethinking of the very concepts of anticolonial resistance that may exceed the framings of nationalism. Therefore, in bringing the revolutionary movements into the ambit of nationalism, Maclean may have risked losing some of the insurgent potential of both Gandhian nonviolence and revolutionary violence, and of the popular dialogue between them. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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