India and Africa in Parallax: In Conversation with Renu Modi, Shobana Shankar, and Meera Venkatachalam


In recent years, Mohandas Gandhi’s life and works in South Africa have seen vigorous re-appraisals and critical assessments from a range of positionalities. Movements to remove statues of Gandhi throughout the world (Gandhi Must Fall) as well as various attempts to defend the image of Gandhi have occurred as well. As statues of slaveholders and imperialists have begun to fall in the Global North, what are the larger issues at play in Global Southern histories of Gandhi and his reception across the world? What do we see when we see statues of Gandhi? What actually is destroyed when statues come down?

Gandhi’s life and itineraries straddled the Indian Ocean, and key sites in India and Africa, but also inspired a number of movements and political changes in other regions of the world including the Atlantic world. Building on the particular issue of Gandhi’s reception in the Global South, this conversation places Africa and India together in various ways. It poses questions about how to read entangled histories of race and empire in ways often hard to see in either standard issue histories of particular places or people or politically charged dismissals of older figures.

Given how many histories and critical perspectives on the past Gandhi’s name conjures, his iconic presence prompts a parallactic reading of history and politics in India and South Africa. Parallactic readings uncover histories behind the easily predictable image crowding dominant lines of vision. Parallax and parallactic readings come together in recent scholarship and art, including Pakistani-American artist Shahzia Sikander’s Parallax, aninstallation composed of hundreds of digitally animated images which focuses on the geostrategic position of the Strait of Hormuz as well as aims to orient viewers to perspectives on modern colonialism and post-colonial politics of the present. Another parallactic reading of history comes in the form of Bangladeshi artist Dhali Al Mamoon’s 2015 Lat Saheber Chair,an installation of a chair made of indigo, representing the conquest of Lord Clive over Bengal, posing questions to viewers about both Mughal and English conquest of Bengal, two sovereign entities from outside the region who indelibly shaped the cultural, economic, and political trajectories of Bengal in a manner that is impossible to disentangle. Kris Manjapra’s 2020 Colonialism in Global Perspective offers a range of “parallactic readings” of various moments in the history of colonialism via interpretations of objects embedded in colonial and postcolonial contexts in North American indigenous sites contextualized within frames comprehensible to historians of Asia and Africa.   

Sikander and Al-Mamoon offer works of art and abstraction whereas Manjapra’s work of global history is informed by such parallactic readings, motivated not only by empirical research but also by visual practices and languages as well as reflections on the limits and possibilities of seeing history through multiple frames. These reflections about history frame a discussion with scholars based in a variety of institutions regarding how concepts of race as well as histories of racialization sometimes get confused between the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean contexts and how we may think about that today. Invocations of and interpretations of Gandhi range from recent fixation on his South African years from 1893 to 1915 as well as an older anti-colonial African emphasis on his methods of politics in the post-South Africa Indian years from 1915 to 1948. What do Gandhi Must Fall movements mobilized around the image of Gandhi in the present day say about the limits and potentials of our various fields, whether the history of South Asia, whether the history of Africa, whether the history of connected, connected histories of colonialism and anti-colonialism?

Post description:  

  • Publication year: 2021
  • Content type: Op-Ed / Interview / Article 
  • Form of cooperation: Comprehensive  
  • Cooperation context: Bilateral  
  • Region (country): Africa  
  • Sector: Multisectoral  
  • Institution (publication): Borderlines, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East
  • Written by: Neilesh Bose
  • Keywords: India-Africa Relations, Entanglements, pan-Africanism,
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