Ramachandran to talk on role of religious imagery



A man with an elephant’s head; a woman with several pairs of arms; a blue-skinned cowherd playing a flute.

These images are recognizable as Hindu deities, but they are frequently used in secular contexts by non-Hindu artists to decorate everything from walls to toilet seats and socks.

Professor of South Asian religions Tanisha Ramachandran will discuss the interpretation of the Hindu image at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy. Her lecture is titled “Idol, Art, Murti: The Multiple Identities of Hindu Images.”

“If we see the image we can interpret, and we see the act of interpretation as a simple case of assigning meaning, especially in cross-cultural situations, we become aware of the risk of not understanding what we are seeing,” Ramachandran said. “So when we look at the Hindu image, especially in the Western context, what are we looking at? What is informing what we’re seeing?”

Ramachandran said she became interested in religious imagery because, while religion informs much of how individuals understand the world, it can also create misunderstandings between cultures. However, art and imagery can also act as a form of communication. With religious dialogues, it’s easier to start with images, she said.

“I like to think that every cartoon is another pebble on one side of the scales,” he said. “I think each cartoon affects the general debate in a small way. In any case, while I can’t say that I can point to an instance where I changed the world, I feel like I’ve been a healthy part of the process.”

This contribution is aided by the unique perspective that cartoons provide, Toles said.

“So much of [political] commentary is either direct narrative commentary, either reporting or analysis or some combination of those and opinion,” he said. “That model of discussion is well covered and well represented. Cartooning is just another way of looking at the same material. The more ways you can look at something and think about it, the better off you are being able to understand it.“

Though Toles has been sharing his commentary with a much larger audience since joining the Post, he said that perspective on his work has not changed.

“Whether it’s a large audience or a small audience, I’ve always known that there are going to be people that agree with the overall thought of the cartoon and people that very much disagree with me,” Toles said. “When you work for newspaper, unlike giving a talk, you don’t really see the response. It’s almost like putting a note in a bottle and sending it out there. You just have to wonder who will see it, what they will think of it. It could be just one person, but the effort and the intentionality doesn’t change. I still feel like I’m more or less talking from one person to one person.”