The Politics of Imaging Bharat Mata

Image Source: Duke University Press

Sumathi Ramaswamy’s Book, The Goddess and the Nation: Mapping Mother India, seems to have become relevant at a time when the debate over saying Bharat Mata ki Jai is threatening to become an inferno.   The book can puncture several of the false assumptions that seem to provide space for arrogance and the sense of triumph of the proponents in the debate.  Everyone seems to forget that Bharat Mata was literally imagined in the closing decades of the nineteen century.  Several artists began to visualise her in several ways constructing as discourse that gave subject position to every Indian as a son and daughter of mother India.  In one early portrait of mother India one can trace how Sikhs, Christians, Hindus and Muslims were in her embrace.  It is interesting to critically discern how the contour of the cartographic embrace of the territory has simultaneously dropped Christians, Muslims and Sikhs from her embrace. This separation of mother India from her other children become legitimated and soon acquired normalcy and coincided with rise of Hindu nationalism.  As we reached the twenty first century, we found an attempt to keep mother India above religious leanings by a Muslim artist. Unfortunately, it was viewed as disrobing of Bharat Mata and world famous artist like M.  F. Hussian was forced to withdraw the painting from the auction and render apology by ultra Hindu nationalists.   This shows that the portrayal of mother India has acquired a life of its own and could not be divested of exclusionary Hindu nationalism. 

Perhaps, it would be important to understand the evolution of the cartography that visualizes the territory of India (which itself had a colonial birth) in a divine feminine   form. The incorporation of the map of India along with the symbolism of Hindu mythology can be discerned with critical attention in its growing iconography which simultaneously becomes also a hagiography.    Indeed, the evolutionary development of the pictorial representation of mother India can be read as a growing portrayal of the geo-body of a Nation. Beyond the verbal and textual histories, the different portraits of mother India depict how a politics of imagination of India as a nation is inscribed and written into her body.  We may discern how it embodies the territorial idea of India as well   as recognize how it is sacradized and determine its consequence. This means the iconic mother India in a very real way condenses history, geography, theology and anthropology of India.  The India that it contains remains same but the Indians that it holds together have steadily shrunk to stand for only the Hindus of India, narrowing its picturing of Indians. This has somehow alienated and exiled the other sons and daughters of mother India who are known as minorities. While the steady growth and the portrayal of mother India developed a devotion to the territorial India, it also somehow led to intolerance and hatred of other fellow Indians. Hence, some of us regard it as dangerous liaison that enables the Hindu nationalists to erase the plural history, geography, anthropology and even theology of India.

The changing investment into the portrayal of mother India has profound socio-political consequence for every Indian.  Several scholars have pointed out that the illustrious Abanidranath Tagore (1871- 1951) had pioneered a painting that depicted mother India in a swadeshi motif. He painted it in the context of the partition of Bengal.  That is why He first called it Banga Mata , mother of Bengal and later called in mother India. She had four hands that gifted ShikshaDikshaAaanaBastra to her children. Although, mother India was modelled on an ordinary Bengali women, her divine nature was already visible in her four arms and the ringed hallow around her head.  Besides Bengal, mother India was also imagined in the south. There she was a portrayed by poet subramania Bharti  which had  Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims receiving her blessings and was published in a news weekly, Intiya  on April 20 1907. One can trace a further development in  the portrayal of mother India, in Intiya on April 10 1909 where the different children of mother India, Christians, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs seems to be happily held in her loving embrace. This inclusive version of mother India underwent plural transmutation. As different  imaginations of mother India increased, it eventually  took a resemblance to a Hindu Goddess. Yet one such portrayal of mother India  held a banner proclaiming in Urdu Script ‘Allahu Akbar’, God is great in one hand and the other hand  ‘vande mataram’  which meant I worship the mother inscribed in devnagri script.  But finally mother India took up the image and likeness of Hindu Goddess Durga with her sublime adornment and strong armoury. 

This inscription of the theological motifs of the upper castes in the portrayal of mother India produces discomfort in the minorities, dalits and even tribals. The steady abandoning of the Christians, Muslims, Sikhs and other minorities from the embrace and the growing degree of intense sanskritization has produced a carto-grapy and iconography that has become a hagiography of the upper caste Hindu and reflect the narrow exclusionary Hindutva nationalism.  Although, the Bharat Mata of the RSS does not have the national flag in her hands yet one that has the national flag does not inspire confidence of the other children of mother India as it also shares in the  iconography and hagiography with the Bharat Mata depicted by the RSS.  In fact, often the iconic Bharat Mata and the slogan ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ appears to bear a pressure and force that orphanizes her other children. The pictorial exclusion of the other children and hagiographical inclusion of the upper castes in the iconography of mother India reflects and legitimates the exclusionary nationalism championed by the Sang Parivar. That is why we can notice resistance building around the politics of sloganeering about  Bharat Mata.  Perhaps, the geo-body of Bharat Mata has to become inclusive and include her lost and forgotten Children. The plurality of India cannot be iconized through a Bharat Mata created in the image and likeness of upper caste culture. But any change in its depiction is not tolerated as we saw in the case M.F Hussain. Yet this progressive journey of mother India is also not free from it being used to promote commercial ventures. The past imaging of mother India inspired us to fight for freedom from the colonial rulers, later she inspired some of her sons to take up economic adventures, and now we are facing some of her sons and daughters who seem to use her to manipulate emotions and gather votes and notes. Hence, maybe I as Christian be allowed to ask my Mother India, where is my country?  Maybe further We can ask together,  where is the Bharat in Bharat Mata ? 

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao