Images of Woman and Nation
The idea of “Bharat Mata” is invented at the end of the 19th century, perhaps as a response to Britain’s “Britannia”. The image is really a hybrid figure, cobbled together from existing iconography and mythology by adding contemporary symbols, and tends to proliferate in many avatars according to changing political needs. In a country like India where the land has been considered holy since the earliest times, it was only in the late 19th century during the period of early nationalism and Hindu reformism that the new concept of the “nation” began to be personified into a divine being called “Bharat Mata” - or “Mother India”.
The Mother India image, an entirely modern construct, gets its potency by inciting primeval and traditional emotions to arouse patriotic feeling, which disguise its recent origins and almost deny the sense of a modern nation. India is not the only country to have created a female personification. However, the way the figure has been deified into a goddess, her many colourful forms, her changing iconographies, and the practice of actually worshipping the figure, seems to be a uniquely Indian phenomenon, reflecting the obsessive feeling for the mother in Indian culture. A peculiarly male way of relating to the nation after the long trauma of colonial domination, the patriotic relationship is turned into an infantile one-to-one bond between mother and son, rather than creating the sense of a shared community.
Early Nationalist period
According to Christopher Pinney, the earliest Bharat Mata image is Bharat Bhiksha, (“India Begging” or the “Begging of India”), one of the first lithographs by the Calcutta Art Studio, printed around 1878-80. This seems to be a rare secular image, as India is invariably depicted as a Hindu goddess with a trishul and lion like Durga. Probably based on a Raphael etching, the print shows a young Indian child being held towards Britannia by Mother India, portrayed as an old crone. The allegorical meaning is not very clear- we cannot be sure whether the Romanized young India is being offered into the benign care of the British, or whether the old crone is displaying a new, reformed version of the country to the rulers for approval. The infantilization of the country however, was a common theme among western educated Bengali intellectuals in the nineteenth century who saw the land as being reborn after a long dark history of superstition and ignorance. (In fact Gandhi’s mouthpiece, much later, was called “Young India”.)
While the trend among a section of the middle classes was to admire British culture and attempt to transform Hinduism into a monotheistic religion like Christianity, the counter movement that grew around the figure of Ramakrishna and Kali worship contemptuously attacked Anglicization, and believed in the potency of idol worship. Kali had been the chosen deity of the revolutionary brotherhoods that were active in Bengal at the beginning of the 19th century, and also specifically seen as the patron goddess of the present age, the Kaliyug. Ramakrishna believed that having pictures of gods was a mark of Hindu-ness, and that the images actively demand propitiation.
When the technology of printing oleographs came to India, they were immediately used as a medium of propaganda to spread nationalist ideals. Display pictures, advertisements and postcards carried hidden codes and messages in an era of strict British censorship. Mythological images like Kali dancing on the body of a white skinned Siva, or of Durga as Mahishasura Mardhini, were used as nationalist allegories and circulated widely. These pictures were framed and displayed in houses, and worshipped in the private home temples.
However, in the course of time, when the image of a bloodthirsty folk goddess Kali dancing naked with a necklace of skulls symbolizing the country became somewhat of an embarrassment to the middle class intelligentsia, the more benign cow began to be used widely as an extremely potent sign, in what became a veritable war of images. Dayanand Saraswati, the founder of the Arya Samaj established the Gaurakshini Samaj or Cow Protection Association. With the cow protection agitation in Punjab and Bihar in the 1890s, the cow, seen as the gentle, loving universal mother, became the sacred symbol of the endangered Hindu nation needing protection from the violent beef eating non-Hindus. It was also kamadhenu or the mythical wish-fulfilling cow. A popular Ravi Varma lithograph showing the cow as a proto–nation with its body imprinted with divine images and feeding all the communities, being attacked by a demon, was seen by the colonial government as anti-British and heavily censored. The divine mother cow soon got transformed into the image of Mother India.
Hindu revolutionaries like Aurobindo at the time were writing “Mother India is not a piece of earth; she is power, a godhead…” Vivekananda saw India as the Divine Mother, and the ideal woman as a chaste mother rearing patriotic sons. Mother India could be imagined as a militant, powerful goddess, or even as a virtuous and helpless woman enslaved by hostile powers. In Subramanya Bharati’s play Panchali Shapatham, Draupadi in the hands of the Kauravas is described as the enslaved Mother India. The disrobing of Draupadi was a very popular allegory for the shaming of the nation by the foreign conquerors, which was instantly understood by the public. A popular Ravi Varma nationalist print doing the rounds at the time was of Draupadi standing behind a curtain cowering from Kichaka’s advances.
For the British rulers, India as the subject country was feminized - as a woman to be conquered and ruled, educated and reformed. The West was defined as active, masculine, practical, and the East as passive, feminine, spiritual. Many of the fiery issues of the time revolved around the rights and control of Indian women: like sati, child marriage, widow remarriage, or women’s education, prostitution and public morals. Historians like Partha Chatterjee have described how in late 19the century Bengal, life was seen as dichotomized into the public and private spheres. Public life, coming directly under the control of the foreign rulers, was a westernized world of rationality, science and technological progress, in which Indian men were forced to operate. Private life, the domain of women, home and family, was a protected area where “true” Indian spiritual values could be maintained. The woman was idealized as the carrier of ancient Indian culture and the bearer of the country’s shame and honour, whose purity had to be zealously guarded. Reformists, while seeking to create a “new Indian woman” were willing to allow her modern education and certain rights within the family, but her life was strictly circumscribed. The women who freely operated in the public sphere- the prostitutes, the actresses, the labourers and domestic workers, were seen as dangerous outcasts offering themselves up for sexual exploitation.
Dewan T. Madhava Rao advised Ravi Varma around this time to make popular prints of his mythological paintings as a service to the nation. It was an era when the ancient Sanskrit classics were fashionable amongst the intellectuals and literati of Europe influenced by the ideas of Max Mueller and Goethe, as part of the Romantic interest in exotic and Oriental subjects. Kalidasa’s Shakuntala was a great favourite amongst the translated Sanskrit texts. These were the most popular subjects in Indian literature, painting and theatre as well. Hindu nationalists had their own agenda in reviving interest in India’s golden past and invoking the idea of a grand civilization that existed before the foreign conquests. Leaders like Lokamanya Tilak believed that hero worship makes a nation great. It was thought that stories of great kings and ideal heroines would arouse a sense of Hindu identity and reinforce traditional society, which was being undermined by the new ideas from the West. The new print technologies were used extensively for this. Millions of copies of Ravi Varma’s mythological pictures were printed and circulated all over India after the establishment of his lithographic press in Bombay and then Malavli, replacing local gods with a pan-Indian iconography.
The beginnings of the popular national imagery of Mother India images can be traced to Ravi Varma’s 1898 oil painting of Bharat Mata as a beautiful young goddess dressed as a queen in a red sari, standing against a halo with two lions. In her four arms she holds the symbols of Durga and Britannia, the arrow and palm leaf, which are mascots of war and peace, and the goad and snare, mascots of state power. The lion, the symbol of imperial British power, is her vahana and in an ironic comment, lies subdued at her feet. The hybrid iconography, containing a mixture of Indian and European symbols, reflects an idea of self-rule at the time, which was in terms of sharing power rather than complete independence.
Abanindranath Tagore’s celebrated 1905 watercolour painting of Bharat Mata however, expresses another strand of nationalist thought, coming from the Orientalist ideals of spirituality and austerity. She is conceived as a married woman dressed as a vaishnava ascetic in saffron robes. In her four arms she holds the rudraksh mala, a sheaf of paddy, a white cloth and a palm leaf manuscript, representing the different sections of Indian society.
This Hinduization of the national imagery was not popular with other groups, particularly the Muslims. Tilak’s introduction of the Ganesh festival as a nationalist rallying point had aroused resentment from its beginnings in 1893. It appears that Ravi Varma’s real service to the nation was to provide a “heroic past” to the Hindu ruling classes, to project their own interests in the anti-colonial movement.
In a flood of calendar pictures that circulated all over the country during the days of the freedom struggle, Bharat Mata assumes different forms according to the political climate of the time. In 1920s and ‘30s posters, the map of India takes on an iconic value, with the figure of the goddess rising from it like a swayambhu or self-generative form. In many, the goddess is a divine queen who demands cruel sacrifices from her subjects. Freedom fighters pledge their lives to her by offering their severed and bleeding heads, like Bhagat Singh and other martyrs. She is seen offering a sword to Bhagat Singh or Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose just as the goddess Bhavani is said to have given the sword to Shivaji. In some, national figures like Gandhi, Netaji, or Bhagat Singh, tear open their chests to reveal her image inside. Mother India is shown with many arms, holding the symbols of the nationalist struggle along with her own weapons like the trishul. Later, at a time when Independence was being endlessly delayed, she is depicted as a maiden in chains.
However, it is interesting to note that at the level of popular imagery, Gandhi’s use of the “passive feminine” and “spiritual” values as political tools of resistance, or the ascetic ideals of Abanindranath’s Bharat Mata, never took root.
In this profusion of tradition and Hindu religious sentiment enters the strange figure of Fearless Nadia, “queen of the stunts”, one of the biggest female stars of the 1930s and 1940s Hindi cinema. Rosie Thomas writes how this large, buxom, blonde and blue eyed, white- skinned former circus artist of Australian origin became the idol of the masses, playing an Indian avenging angel in a series of stunt films at the height of the nationalist movement. Her musclewoman persona is a counterweight to the other big star of the era, the delicate, aristocratic Brahmin beauty Devika Rani, trained in England in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and a grand niece of Rabindranath Tagore, who came to be considered a classic heroine. She traces Nadia’s success with the Indian masses to a long tradition of virangana or warrior women in Indian culture that was used in all the forms of popular entertainment during the freedom movement. The virangana, according to Hansen, is the good queen, whether fictional or real, who takes over the throne when the king dies, leads the people to battle dressed as a man, and dies defending her kingdom against invaders. The Rani of Jhansi is an important figure in this geneology. Fearless Nadia was a lively combination of the Hollywood stunt queen (Pearl White), the Indian virangana, and the cosmopolitan urban Bambaiwali.
The films of her producer JBH Wadia, first a staunch Congress supporter, then a follower of the Radical Marxist and Humanist MN Roy, were full of nationalist propaganda. The amazing thing is that Nadia was accepted in anti-British allegories though she was cheerfully breaking all Indian codes of dress and behaviour as a big white woman in skimpy dress thrashing Indian men, because she heroically took up the cause of nationalism and the rights of the oppressed, lower castes and women in all her films. She is portrayed as a virangana of the modern world, laughing at all obstacles. Her films are filled with images of modern technology, cars, planes and especially trains. Fearless Nadia is perfectly in control out of doors in the male world of technological progress- in fact, empowered by it.
Thomas sees Nadia and Devika Rani as alter egos, two opposed constructions of Indian femininity in the late colonial period. While Devika Rani embodies the tradition of passive suffering, chastity and fidelity, the ideals of stridharma or “woman’s duty”, Nadia takes on the virangana persona, which actively upholds the moral order, justice and truth, the domain of men. She is given a freedom denied to other women because she earns it with her own heroic deeds. The two visions, she says, express two different versions of the nation, two different relationships to modernity and the world. One is based on an essentialized Orientalized tradition, while the second “recognized the hybridity and fluidity within the porous borders of the modern India”. While the first used melodrama as a film form, the second used comedy, action and masquerade.
Prostitution became a major problem around the same time that the woman was seen as a devi, and the nation as Divine Mother. After the 1860s when Calcutta became the imperial centre, thousands of destitute women started pouring into the city. Many were Hindu widows or victims of Kulin polygamy (the custom where traveling Brahmins wed a series of women, who they sometimes never saw again) women turned destitute by the series of famines in the countryside, runaway or abandoned women. In earlier times, prostitutes, devadasis or courtesans had their place in traditional society, where their activities seen as sinful, but not illegal. During the colonial time, a strange situation developed when the authorities saw their existence as necessary to supply the sexual demands of the large numbers of British soldiers who were pouring into the country, but passed a series of stringent laws to control them due to the alarming rise of venereal disease in the British army. Cantonments had their own official brothels for the soldiers, where prostitutes were practically held captive and had to undergo regular medical checkups. Prostitutes in the city were also told to register themselves and were subject to severe harassment by the police. Any woman walking in certain areas could be picked up and questioned by the police. Finally women’s rights activists in England kicked up a furore over this, as also the Indian babus who found their own mistresses in the red light areas humiliated. The draconian laws, which punished only the prostitutes but not the men frequenting them, were then eased, or used in a surreptitious way.
The prostitute, the actress, the courtesan, the fallen woman, is also a traditional alter ego of the chaste woman - the devi or Bharatiya Nari, the “ideal Hindu woman”. She has been pictured in countless novels, plays, farces, poems, art works and films till the present day, as threatening traditional values by practicing the very opposite of stridharma. Kalighat paintings are obsessed with these images. The courtesan, the adulteress, even the modern educated woman are seen as threatening the very fabric of society, corrupting and castrating men and destabilizing social order. The vamp and devi are sometimes collapsed into the same character, as the heroine in Manoj Kumar’s early 1970s film Purab aur Paschim (“East and West”). She starts off in London wearing a blond wig and mini skirts, smoking and drinking, and ends up in an Indian village temple as a Bharatiya Nari singing a bhajan in a sari, won over by true Indian culture and the true Indian man! In the recent cult film Dil Chahta Hai - (made by a young, trendy director) - Dimple Kapadia is the alcoholic, divorced, older working woman, denied access to her own children, who finally dies of cirrhosis of the liver. Her character as an independent woman is pitiful, and set against the other two virginal young heroines, who look “modern” but operate only within the traditional limits of family approval.
Post Independence calendars show Bharat Mata throwing off her chains. She presides as Lakshmi over India’s development. In Mehboob Khan’s 1957 film Mother India, the peasant Nargis, abandoned by her husband, has to till the soil to feed her two small sons, threatened by misfortunes and lascivious men. She is a kind of rural virangana figure, who operates and succeeds in a man’s world, chaste and heroic even while she breaks the rules of stridharma by selling her mangalsutra, the marriage necklace, for survival, or shooting dead her deviant son. The socialist- realist film still of Nargis carrying the plough (only men traditionally use the plough) is a popular icon of modern India.
The idealistic belief in the new nation of the early years of Independence gives way to cynicism by the 1970s, which directly reflects the way women come to be depicted as symbols of nationhood. The village is seen as the essence of real Indian values, the city, a hellhole of corrupt materialism. In Raj Kapoor’s late film Ram Teri Ganga Maili (‘Ram, Your Ganga is Polluted’), a cynical allegory of lost national ideals, the river Ganga is personified as an innocent hill maiden who is seduced by a visiting city boy. She gives birth to a son and starts off with her child in search of her lost lover to the plains, tracing the course of the holy river. In a series of adventures, she is dirtied and sexually used all along the way, arousing lewd male attention even in the pure maternal act of breastfeeding. The sexy picture of the actress Mandakini in “wet drapery” exposing her breasts under a waterfall – which somehow got past the censors - was widely used for the posters and publicity of the film. The double take is interesting. The director uses a voluptuous starlet to play a pure village virgin, and exploits her in semi- nude scenes throughout the film to illustrate a moral tale of contemporary decadence!
The recent film “Mathrubhoomi” (“Motherland”) by Manish Jha is a dark fantasy set in a future India that is woman starved due to widespread female infanticide. The Mahabharata tale of Draupadi being married to five brothers is used again, not as a tale of empowerment, but as leading to even more unspeakable sexual and domestic abuse of women.
Many contemporary artists have used the archetypal Bharat Mata imagery in their work. Notorious among them is of course, MF Husain’s 1970s Emergency paintings of Indira Gandhi as Durga and Sita, also popular images in the calendar art of the time. Atal Behari Vajpayee had similarly eulogized Indira as Durga during the Bangladesh War. But later in the 1990s the Sangh Parivar organizations made violent attacks on Husain and his work for his depictions of Hindu female deities, warning him as a Muslim to keep off. [ As I write this, there is a new controversy over Husain’s nude Bharat Mata painting.] In Tyeb Mehta’s fragmented modernist images of Kaliyug – Kali and Mahishasura Mardhini counterposed with the figure of the falling man, the earlier heroic mode turns to critical analysis. Atul Dodiya’s series of watercolours of grotesque, emaciated hags, falling, crouching and teetering on a map of India, Tearscape, painted around the year 2000, are bitter expressions of loss and dispossession.
In this irrational regard for the nation as mother- goddess, where eulogistic images of mother’s milk, mother’s forgiveness, mother love, mother tongue, mother earth, reverberate as political slogans, in sentimental auto-rickshaw graffiti and in virulent regional and language identity agitations - the Indian man is forever infantilized. Problems are never faced, only maternal protection invoked. The relationship between the man and the nation becomes a duality, where the idea of community is circumvented into a one- to- one emotional relationship between the mother land and the child-citizen. The Indian woman is the adoring Yashoda captivated by the naughty pranks of the perpetual child Krishna. The Indian mother is worshipped, because she gives birth to men. In mother and child posters everywhere the mother fondles the male child: that is the greatest bond. Even the machismo of the “mard- na mard” politics around the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation created a helpless, sweet Ram Lalla figure to be babied by the whole country. The trauma of the colonial moment is never forgotten, the Indian male never grows up, and the Indian woman never breaks the maternal bond, never lets go.
Thanks to M Madhava Prasad for his critical comments and suggestions.
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The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Post Colonial Histories, Partha Chatterjee, Princeton University Press, 1993
Not Quite (Pearl) White: Fearless Nadia, Queen of the Stunts, Rosie Thomas, from Bollyworld- Popular Indian Cinema through a Transnational Lens, ed. Raminder Kaur and Ajay J Sinha, Sage Publications, 2005
A Popular Indian Art, Raja Ravi Varma and the Printed Gods of India – Erwin Neumayer and Christine Schelberger – Oxford University Press, 2003
A World without Women, essay on Manish Jha’s film Mathrubhoomi ( 2003 ), Maithili Rao, Frontline, July 1, 2005
Photos of the Gods – The Printed Image and Political Struggle in India, Christopher Pinney, Oxford University Press, 2004
Dangerous Outcast, The Prostitute in Nineteenth Century Bengal, Sumanta Banerjee, Seagull Books, 1998
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Woman / Goddess, ed. Gayatri Sinha, Multiple Action Research Group, New Delhi. 1999