Visualizing the Muslim Gandhi

by Kelley Reardon

As part of the Wednesdays at the Center series, the John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Studies welcomed Tim Dobe, Th.D. and Sumathi Ramaswamy, Ph.D. for a conversation on “Visualizing the Muslim Gandhi.”

 

The John Hope Franklin Center, Duke India Initiative, and Duke Islamic Center hosted the event, which discussed the connection of Gandhi to Islamic culture. Dr. Dobe is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Grinnell College and a current visiting fellow at the Duke Islamic Studies Center. Dr. Ramaswamy is a James B. Duke Professor of History and International Comparative Studies at Duke, Co-Director of Duke’s India Initiative, and President of the American Institute of Indian Studies.

 

 

Dr. Dobe discussed how there is often a focus on Gandhi’s Hinduism and western influence, but less attention on his ties to Muslim culture. In his earlier years, Gandhi was often depicted in art as “a man of the people,” and he was known to put immense effort into dressing appropriately to fit in with his surroundings. For instance, there are images of Gandhi in a suit while he was training to be a lawyer, and images of him in traditional Indian dress when he returned to India.

 

Furthermore, Dr. Dobe shared many works of Khwaja Hsan Nizami, who studied Gandhi and is known for his literary pieces. Nizami even predicted that Gandhi’s legacy would extent to the year 2050, when there would be a landscape of ethics and non-violence and nearly all Muslims would be vegetarian.

 

Dr. Ramaswamy shared artistic depictions of Gandhi later in life, when he would go without clothes and present himself nothing but a loin cloth. Artists depict this stage of Gandhi’s life in different ways—for instance, the modern Indian painter Maqbool Fida Husain did not shy away from painting Gandhi’s unclothed body. Meanwhile, Sayed Haidar Raza, who was also a modern Indian painter, rarely showed Gandhi in his paintings. Yet Raza’s work is still a reflection of his perspective on Gandhi.

 

As Ramaswamy explained, “there is no single way in which Muslim artists respond to Gandhi’s barely clothed body.” There was also the potential that artists were worried about allowing their faith to stand in the way of their art. However, the limitations that faith may have had on an artist’s work can be difficult to determine.

Deconstructing American Theater’s Great White Way

 

by Kelley Reardon

As part of the Wednesdays at the Center series, the John Hope Franklin Center welcomed a panel of theater experts to speak about incorporating minorities into American theater. The guests included Sophie Caplin, Onastasia Ebright, JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell, Lulla Kiwinda, Monét Marshall, Dr. Jules Odendahl-James, Maria Zurita Ontiveros, and Casey Pettiford.

 

The John Hope Franklin Center hosted the event, which focused on Black and Latinx spaces in theater. The panelists discussed what it is like to be a minority in theater and the challenges and hopes that they have for the field.

 

Lulla Kiwinda, Sophie Caplin, Jules Odendahl-James

Lulla Kiwinda, Sophie Caplin, Jules Odendahl-James

 

Panelists explained that when they direct a play, it is not simply a play— it is a message to the world. These artists want everyone to exist as more creative citizens. Monét Marshall said that if an audience member leaves the theater without a new “nugget” of perspective— such as a provoking idea, an interesting encounter with a new person, or meeting themselves in a new way— then she feels like her plays are not giving back to the community in the right way.

 

Onastasia Ebright stated that she has learned “not to wait for permission,” even on the Duke campus. She explained that she has to go out and work on her ideas if she wants to make them happen, by forming and maintaining committed relationships. The fact that Duke is a predominantly white campus can make it more challenging for diverse theater to emerge. When the play with an all-black cast called Once on This Island was first proposed, some people said that there were not enough talented people of color. However, a play like Once on This Island had never been done before and there was no prior experience to back up excuses like not enough talent.

 

 

Even all-black casts can be controversial. By separating out black shows from “everybody else” (white shows), black shows become a scarcity and black actors feel like it’s their only opportunity to be in a show. The panelists also warned about “token-ize”ing people- for instance, highlighting the one Black, Latinx, or woman actor in a show. Marshall recommended leaving behind this scarcity mindset and instead “leaning into abundance.”

 

Marshall said that she creates work for her future self. People from other backgrounds can come, but they don’t have to come. She sticks to what brings her joy, and encourages younger artists to not carry the emotional work of catering to a white audience. Bridging the gap between black and white audiences will require hard work and a commitment to relationships of value and acceptance from both sides.