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Strange and Wondrous: Prints of India from the Robert J. Del Bontà Collection

Enduring Stereotypes


Detail: Willie’s Rope Trick
Robert J. Del Bontà collection, E1452

On the 1943 cover of the Saturday Evening Post, Norman Rockwell portrayed Willie Gillis, his fictional version of an all-American World War II soldier, in the midst of duping an Indian religious figure with the simple children's game "cat's cradle." Perhaps a nod to American soldiers' wily abilities in all wartime locales, it is also a pun on the infamous "Indian Rope Trick." In this act, a fakir or yogi magically draws a freestanding rope out of a basket, which his assistant miraculously climbs.

By the twentieth century, Indian ascetics—or magicians disguised as ascetics—often were viewed as tricksters practicing magic for a living. Unlike the representations of snake charmers, who were shown enthralling audiences with their abilities, here the tables have turned. An American GI has outwitted the once-powerful Indian yogi. Still, the strength of stereotypes, solidified by the repetition of images of India over the centuries, remains intact.

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