Gods in the Time of Democracy
- ISBN: 9781478011392
- Published By: Duke University Press
- Published: March 2021
Kajri Jain’s Gods in the Time of Democracy is an ambitious account of the rise of colossi and monumental icons in modern India as dynamic and often-shifting sites of political ideology, religiosity, capitalist philanthropy, artistry, materiality, and identity. The monograph attempts a theorization of both why and how monumental sculptures come to redefine the landscape of the Indian everyday, both as a negotiation of social interests and more crucially as “infrastructures of the sensible” (106, 225). In Jain’s multisensory approach to these questions, the book situates itself in conversation with her previous work on new image technologies that led to the rise of calendar art (Gods in the Bazaar: The Economies of Indian Calendar Art, Duke University Press, 2007), placing it at the topical intersection of vernacular religion, politics and contemporary capitalism.
The book examines “what monumental icons add to existing devotional practices, and what this tells us about the pressure politics exerts on religion” (5). It also attempts to answer the question of why these icons were added to a material vocabulary of power, given that there are other forms of material fabrication available for use—both in infrastructure and in the building of massive temple complexes. Jain suggests that the engagement of people with images and of images with people establishes the basis for “sensible infrastructures of politics” (6).
Drawing on Jacques Ranciere’s conception of the “part without a part” (7), the book presents caste struggle as a claiming of identity through the “staking of claims” (7), such that forms of sense experience and intelligibility that are entrenched in regimes and social structures such as caste become vital battlegrounds for political aspiration and representation alike. Monumental icons act as agents of instability in these regimes, as public spectacle, blurring the lines between sense regimes that serve to exclude historically oppressed or minoritized communities. This particular sensitivity to the embodied experience of the spectacular, and likewise its analogue in the act of seeing and perceiving, known as darshan, is central to the ethical imperatives driving Jain’s analytical polemic.
One of the examples used by Jain to describe the “staking of claims” is the Temple Entry Movement of the 1920s–1930s, where people from the Dalit-Bahujan community pushed for access to temples and devotional spaces that prohibited their entry. Relocating an icon into public view makes it consumable in its visibility, thereby redistributing sense experience itself, asserting new forms of engagement with religious and political identity. Jain further calls for a processual understanding of these icons—moving beyond mere circulation—to suggest that their static existences as fabrications in situ (fixed in place) belie the dynamicity of various cultural processes that shape meaning-making and use value for these icons. Instead, the icon is considered an assemblage of various intersecting, intertwined, and fluctuating forces that allow for its mobilization as a vehicle for different ends, “images working in and on the world” (16), defining Jain’s conception of “iconopraxis” (16).
Jain’s secondary questions revolve around the difficulty of applying secularizing methods of art-historical analysis to such a context as modern India. Tracing the teleological imperatives of art history as a discipline, Jain contends that the “heterochronic” (17) or multi-temporal nature of Indian art eludes interpretation through the linear model of secular progress, which assumes the separation or ambivalence of religion in the making and furtherance of art in the modern era. The book instead pushes for a recognition of the contemporaneity of religion in modern India, suggesting that any art-historical analysis must consider the project of modernity as one coeval with the cultural flows of religious life in the country.
In the first chapter, Jain tells the stories of some recent examples of monumental sculpture through the curious material metaphor of concrete. Describing it as “emblematic of modernity”(29), Jain proposes that the material’s paradoxical plasticity reflects the project of the modern itself. Its relative affordability and stability as a building material mask the labor and refinement required to make it so, erasing the very forms of instability and flux that allow it to support infrastructures of the state. Jain excavates concrete’s potential as a material that represents modern India in all its contradictions, examining the necessity of its use in constructing structures incongruous with the homogenous empty time of modernity—monumental icons. Even as these icons depict religious figures, vernacular capitalism forces capital flow and accumulation to occur within the boundaries of religious activity. Jain then elaborates the various means through which icons moved from the inside of temples to being in public view.
The second chapter discusses more thoroughly the emergent quality of these icons as redistributive changes of regimented sense experience. Here, Jain argues that journalistic accounts of irresponsible spending do little to examine the democratizing function of icons. Weaving through several examples, Jain locates this functionality in the political remediation of iconography, anticolonial sentiment, and representation itself, with specific focus on Dalit-Bahujan identities. The third chapter examines iconopraxis at various sites, articulating the shifts between their exhibition value as they reaffirm the legitimacy of neo-spiritual cultic movements.
The fourth chapter places these statues in the development of India’s postliberalization landscape, where they territorialize borders and create centers of hypercirculation for capital via tourism and boosterism. This dovetails into Jain’s conclusive chapter, where she reflects on the question of scale through “scaling” (221) as a process that examines “how form is mapped onto political efficacy” (222) and different identities map into novel configurations as competition to and for other identities, ideologies, and resources. This occurs through the making and remaking of size as a relative characteristic, dependent on the relationship between the bodies in competition.
Jain’s monograph is a complex and challenging attempt at reframing the discussion around monumental iconography in India and its diaspora. While it requires careful reading and is at times circuitously. opaque in prose, the arguments themselves are well-made and backed by careful research and analysis. The book is a valuable contribution to contemporary art history and religious studies, raising significant questions about the project of modernity in postcolonial context.
Manasvin Rajagopalan is a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Davis.Manasvin RajagopalanDate Of Review:December 28, 2021