Bharat Mata: The Feminine
in Politico-Religious Iconography
Insurgency and the Artist explores not merely how Indian printmakers and artists responded to the freedom struggle but also how the art they fashioned invoked their own conception of the nation, their sense of the past, and the contors of the movement for India’s emancipation from the yoke of colonial oppression. Recent scholarly work has been almost entirely riveted on nationalist prints, and much of it has focused on the idea of Bharat Mata, but this book seeks to furnish a more rounded account of the artwork — including etchings, paintings, woodblocks prints, and cartoons — contemporary to the freedom struggle and also highlights the work of neglected artists such as Babuji Shilpi, S.L. Parasher, Zainul Abedin, and M.V. Dhurandhar, among others. The author considers how the Indian past was rendered as one of martial resistance to ‘foreign’ rule, the manner in which artists worked with mythic material, and, of course, the treatment of the larger-than-life figures of Gandhi, Bhagat Singh, Subhas Bose, and other patriots in nationalist art. This gloriously illustrated work simultaneously offers a narrative history of the freedom struggle and the rich interplay of text and images is designed to offer insights that neither conventional histories nor images can offer in isolation. Insurgency and the Artist is also an inquiry into how ideas travel across borders, the porousness of culture, and the relationship of art to politics.
Below is an excerpt from the chapter Bharat Mata: The Feminine in Politico-Religious Iconography which sheds light on one of the most prominent symbols of the Indian Freedom Struggle, Abanindranath Tagore’s Bharat Mata.
The visual iconography of Bharat Mata kept pace with the literary invocations, receiving its first significant embodiment in a watercolour or ‘wash’ painting by Abanindranath Tagore, the nephew of Rabindranath. She appears in the saffron robes of an ascetic, her four hands bearing the four gifts that the mother bestows on her children: shiksha (learning); diksha (spiritual initiation); anna (food); and vastra (clothing). The halo around her suggests her divinity; the four white lotus flowers at her feet point both to her purity and her ability to stay above the fray; her bare feet grace the light green earth; and altogether she bears the comportment of someone who is dainty, of restrained disposition, almost ethereal. But this gentle representation was to be short-lived: the swadeshi movement got off the ground the same year Abanindranath had completed his watercolour, 1905, and militancy was in the air. The radical leader Sandip of Rabindranath’s novel, Ghare Baire (The Home and the World,1916), explains to Bimala, the wife of the well-to-do and yet enlightened landlord Nikhil whom he has seduced with his passionate exhortations, ‘Have I not told you that, in you, I visualize the Shakti of our country? The geography of a country is not the whole truth. No one can give up his life for a map! When I see you before me, then only do I realize how lovely my country is.’1 What will men not do if they can turn the nation into a goddess? Abanindranath had at first titled his painting, Bangamata, ‘Mother Bengal’, but as the spirit of swadeshi captivated the nation and the anti-colonial struggle continued to gain adherents around the country, he decided to rename it Bharat Mata. As the iconography of Bharat Mata developed, the four icons with which Abanindranath had linked her were shelved. Had Abanindranath executed his painting a year later, it is perhaps possible that Bharat Mata might have borne aloft the first flag developed by the Congress in 1906, which bore the three colours that eventually made their way into the tricolour that was adopted by the Republic of India.
It is possible to view the iconography of Bharat Mata as developing in broadly two directions from around 1920 to the end of the anti-colonial struggle and India’s emergence as a free nation. In an influential study which has been the cornerstone of work in colonial cartography as much as the nationalist prints which are presently under discussion, the scholar Thongchai Winichakul introduced the idea of the ‘geo-body of a nation’ to designate ‘a certain portion of the earth’s surface which is objectively identifiable’. He elaborates that ‘it appears to be concrete to the eyes as if its existence does not depend on any act of imagining. That, of course, is not the case. The geo-body of a nation is merely an effect of modern geographical discourse whose prime technology is a map.’2 Sumathi Ramaswamy’s book is a detailed study of the cartographed form ‘associated with the mapped configuration of the nation’ that Bharat Mata takes in nationalist art, and she finds instances of this in Tamil literature as early as 1907–09.3 Though some early representations point to her as a nurturing maternal figure, Ramaswamy notes that readers of the publications where the cartographed image of Bharat Mata appears were just as likely to envision her in more militant terms, and she relates this development to the rise of militant strands within the nationalist movement before the ascendancy of Gandhi around 1920.
However, to add to Ramaswamy’s own understanding of how the Bharat Mata iconography evolved, where one strand of this iconography leaned towards an adumbration of the sorrows of a shackled and helpless Mother India, the other strand leaned towards a vision of Mother India arming her children, bestowing her benedictions on them, and animating them with her shakti (energy).
160 Rabindranath Tagore, The Home and the World, tr. Surendranath Tagore (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2005), 73.
161 Thongchai Winichakul, Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994), 17.
162 Ramaswamy, The Goddess and the Nation, 17–23.
Publication Year: 2023
Publisher: Roli Books
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Vinay Lal is a cultural critic, writer, blogger, and Professor of History and Asian American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). His intellectual and research interests include South Asian history, comparative colonial histories, cinema, cultures of sexuality, and the thought of Mohandas Gandhi among others. His twenty-some authored and edited books include 'The History of History: Politics and Scholarship in Modern India' (Oxford, 2003); 'Of Cricket, Guinness and Gandhi' (Penguin, 2005); and 'The Fury of Covid-19: The Politics, Histories, and Unrequited Love of the Coronavirus' (Pan Macmillan India, 2020). He is a founding member of the Backwaters Collective on Metaphysics and Politics and the editor of its book series from Oxford, including 'India and the Unthinkable' (2016), and 'India and Civilizational Futures'.