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Representing Idols, Idolizing Representations: Interpreting Hindu Images from the Nineteenth Century to the Early Twentieth Century

Representing Idols, Idolizing Representations: Interpreting Hindu Images from the Nineteenth Century to the Early Twentieth Century
Tanisha Ramachandran

2008

Department of Religion, Concordia University, Montréal, QC H4B 1R6, CANADA.

ABSTRACT

At various points in history and in different geographical locations, the Hindu image has been signified and re-signified by Hindus and others. Hindu images serve a multitude of purposes - functioning politically, socially and religiously. To formulate an accurate social history or cultural biography of the Hindu image, it is necessary to examine the means, by which it travels, as well as the reception, placement and context of the object at various points on the route. It is my contention that while the trajectories that the images have traveled provide a significant cultural biography, it is discourse that not only paves the path it follows, but also gives the image significance. Using Foucauldian and postcolonial theories of representation that highlight avenues of knowledge production, this dissertation provides a social history of the Hindu image from the early nineteenth century until the early twentieth century in an Indian and Euro-American context. By examining texts produced by Orientalists, missionaries, art critics, Hindu reformers and Hindu nationalists, this dissertation will demonstrate how the Hindu image is signified through a series of discursive battles. Through these interactions we can trace the differing forms of the Hindu image as God, idol, art, and symbol. The overall aim of this dissertation is to demonstrate that the Hindu image does not have an essentialized meaning; rather it is the various textual strategies that construct the image's meaning and usage. While the materiality of the image is fundamental, it is the narrative that defines and sustains its existence - in effect, it is discourse that works to determine its form and function.