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BRANDING THE MAHATMA: The Untimely Provocation of Gandhian Publicity

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ABSTRACT

This essay is an exploration of the relationship between Mahatma Gandhi as a contested figure in present-day Indian public culture and Gandhi as himself an innovative technician of mass publicity. I begin with an analysis of the scandal that erupted in early 2002 when one of the Mahatma's descendants appeared to have signed a deal with a U.S. corporation to license Gandhi's name and image for use in consumer goods advertising. I proceed to situate that controversy within the larger field of recent Gandhian reference in India, focusing on the complex connections between his iconization and his demonization. The second half of the essay turns the analysis around to inquire into what I call “Gandhian publicity.” I show that although Gandhi's thinking on communicative efficacy is nowadays often assimilated into a commercial brand logic, Gandhian publicity remains irreducible to such appropriation. Ultimately, I argue that the scandal of “branding Gandhi” has less to do with any violation of his supposed saintly otherwordliness than with the “untimely” provocation posed to consumerist publicity by his understanding of the intimate relationship between the management of corporeal energies and socially transformative mass communication.

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