Sunday, February 21, 2016

Ma- Ben ki Gaali and the New Bharat Mata in the Indian Political and Visual Discourse

Somehow we all are very touchy about our mothers and rightfully so. Kanaiah Kumar who is currently jailed in the high security cell of Tihar Jail, Delhi for sedition charges while giving a speech at the steps of the administrative block in the Jawaharlal Nehru University just a day before his arrest, raised his mobile phone and said that he could show the messages that abused his mother and sister profusely by the right wing who, he wondered, were the same people who spoke highly of the ‘mother India/Bharat Mata’ and had been baying for the blood of the anti-nationals. Considering the events in India today, we also need to say here that what hurt some people most is not the ‘anti-national sentiments’ but the ‘anti-nationalist sentiments’. Most of us know where the difference lies. Nationalism is more of a cultural inclination and soft pride about the goodness and wellness of the place or country where we happen to take birth, while Nationalist feeling is something that is imposed by certain political and religious ideology/ies that demand a huge amount of patriotism (the contradiction is there in the articulation itself; your nationalist loyalty is measured by the patriotic fervor that you cherish) and illogical loyalty for the country which you have been happy to be born and brought up in.

Let’s rest that argument there for the time being and proceed with the idea of ‘Bharat Mata/Mother India’, which is all of a sudden on the upswing mode. As we know, this chant and pride of/for Bharat Mata is more than a century old. Indian nationalism, as any student of history knows is an outcome of the colonial process and the erstwhile sub-national movements, wars and struggles were not really for establishing an India as we see these days. Historians have noted that burning, looting and breaking the existing systems that include both the social political and religious structures, were a part of the process and all, irrespective of their religions and social perspective had done these atrocities. But when the British became the sole authority of the Indian sub-continent, subjugating the subject fiefdoms as tax paying entities, it became necessary for the erstwhile warring provinces to bury their differences and join hands against the common enemy. We should also understand that even in the process of forming a ‘national resistance’ which was primarily a conglomeration of ‘sub national resistances’, some of the parties were surreptitiously working with the colonial masters in order to perpetuate their interests and survival. This shows that our nationalism was not without any betrayals or vagaries of its own kind. But it was the idea of ‘Mother Nation’ that could ethically and emotionally bring all these warring factions together and it was emotionally difficult for many to defile the mother, means the country.

(Goddess Lakshmi by Raja Ravi Varma)

Hence, by the second half of the 19th century AE, we started seeing the formation of a peculiar notion of ‘Mother India’ getting consolidated and it was purely an abstract idea, which was liable to be interpreted in the most pious way by the ‘patriotic’ subjects. Indian sub-which that has been conjoined invisibly despite its cultural and linguistic difference, in fact stood on the common mythologies and the shared values of Hinduism manifested in different forms and practices all over the sub-continent. And we could see how the original structured religious philosophies either talking about the ‘primordial’ god whose existence even before the existence or talking about the ‘primordial couple’- Shiva-Shakti or Purusha-Prakruti. The presence of this binary but joined inseparably in evocation and meaning, helped the early nationalists to formulate their nationalism around it and the ‘mother’ became all the more important in the process. And ironically we should see that this idealization of mother also comes from a predominant male chauvinism shown by the Indian society in general because any war including the mythical ones were waged in the name of women or by staking women in the war efforts. The very basis of the atrocities committed against women during the war is because in wars property/earth/land/women are considered as one or as the part of the war spoils as a whole. So, upholding one’s right over the earth/land/kingdom/nation is equated with one’s right over the woman who belongs to the land. Woman, therefore has been treated as an entity that has to be fought over as she lacks her own agency.

Mother, though we attribute a lot of value to her then and now, is not different from any women in that case. But the early nationalists had to use mother as the primordial Shakti and this could gravitate people’s sentiments around it; the sudden view of India as a nation and as a mother abused by the whites could change the whole course of the nationalist movement. That’s why we see the slogan ‘Vande Mataram’ in late 19th Century in Tara Shankar Banerjee’s ‘Anand Math’. One has to be particularly watchful here because this slogan was not coming from the material men but the spiritual seekers that in fact could give more authenticity to the claim over women’s body and soul as India as a philosophical unit could easily identify such a claim. Coming from Bengal, it took very less time to mix up this abstract Vande Mataram with the image of Ma Durga, which is the reigning deity of the Bengalis. One need not say it emphatically that the initial anti-colonial struggles started in Calcutta and in Bombay because the colonials were ruling India from these places and the initial struggles were intricately connected to the human labor, surplus value or profit and the alienation of the worker from the work. India was changing fast because of the introduction of rail and postal service. The printing technology was the real catalyst for consolidating the dispersed and diversified nationalistic efforts.

 (Galaxy of Musicians by Raja Ravi Varma)

Though these communication facilities were there, in their nascent form it was very difficult to involve a large populace into the common nationalistic struggle from different parts of India. With no literacy to be considered, it was necessary to have pictorial depictions of ideas that could penetrate into the walls of ignorance. Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906) was perhaps the first artist to recognize this factor. He was not a nationalist per se. But he wanted his works to be seen by the people, not just by the rich royal and feudal patrons. He had already painted the Devas and Devis (gods and goddesses) of Indian mythology and it was now his responsibility, as he thought, to proliferate these images amongst the masses. He was not a Hindutva artist as we understand today of the word, but he was a Hindu with an intention to get his works in all the Hindu household as an inexpensive but a reverent image meant to be worshipped. Hence for the first time people got a chance to identify with the goddesses who looked like them. Instead of feeling disgust and awe (the way the French felt disgust while looking at the familiar prostitutes in the works of Eduard Manet in the late 19th century), the illiterate Indian people accepted the gods and goddesses who looked like them. It was the beginning of ‘Bharat Mata’s’ journey though Ravi Varma did not have any intention to create such a ‘rath yatra’.

Ravi Varma could be the pioneer artist who imagined an India with all its cultural differences. His ‘Galaxy of Musicians’ was not a political map or the effort was not to create a visual topography of a political India. What Ravi Varma attempted in this painting was to bring the cultural varieties of Indian ethnic diversities into one pictorial frame and using the musical harmony as a device to imagine the beautiful and harmonious co-existence of different cultures within one India. We cannot just say that Ravi Varma was unaware of the socio-political movements that were taking place around him. He knew the initial upheavals of a political nationalism in Maharashtra and its Hinduist thrust as he was a well travelled artist in the western parts of India. So though apparently an apolitical artist, Ravi Varma had this subconscious inclination and interest to see the kind of India that would come into a reality eventually. Ravi Varma did not live to see the independence of India. But he could foresee what is coming. He knew eventually India would come under one flag/one frame. But what we need to appreciate in his artistic vision is his deliberate choice of avoiding the ‘male’ figures from his future India. He saw a ‘woman’ India or rather a women India. It was progressive on the one hand considering his time and on the other hand he was going by conventions because India saw women as land and land as women, the right on which were in the hands of the male. Hence, Ravi Varma here is the absent male who creates the visible/present female.

 (Bharat Mata by Abanindranath Tagore)

Though it might sound unethical to posit Ravi Varma into this scheme of things to which he does not have the capacity to forward a counter argument, art historically it is necessary to see that Ravi Varma indirectly creates a Bharat Mata, with some kind of a physical contour which looked like belonging to the common women in India. Though Ravi Varma knew the Botticelli’s 15th century masterpiece, ‘The Birth of Venus’ and modeled several of his works on that painting, it was his choice of models, ethnic beauties of India that had made all the difference. What Tara Shankar Banerjee initiated in his clarion calls, in Ravi Varma it found its visual echo. In Vande Mataram, Banerjee allowed the people to see their women and women themselves in the slogan. Ravi Varma by giving the visual semblance of the ordinary people to the ideal mother/mother land/mother earth, made it visually viable. Then happened the printing press revolution in Bengal primarily and elsewhere in India too. The local artists reinterpreted the ‘mother India’ in the Ravi Varma way. Cheap prints were available for the common people. Newspaper cartoonists and illustrators were profusely using the ‘common woman mother India’ and were pushing her towards some kind of a political divinity. She was ordinary yet she was divine. And looking around the artists saw that the best form of an ordinary woman achieving the divine powers was to combine her image with that of Ma Durga.

The Durga image came as a result of all the powerful woman, originated, hailed and then filtered out of the Tantric forms, then to the mainstream Hindu art by the 7th and 8th century AE, became the standard iconography for the artists, cartoonists and the illustrators. Mahishasur Mardini, the vanquisher of the buffalo demon was the most powerful iconography of Durga. With her lion mount, eight hands attributed with weapons and finally with a dying Mahishasur at her feet, she was the perfect choice for the mother India to find manifestation. In her struggle to be seen and heard, she had assumed the most ferocious looks. At times she appeared as impoverished, at times crude, and at times really aggressive, in the hands of the illustrators. Interestingly we have to see Ravi Varma had never portrayed a Durga, the way the later artists did. People lapped it up and for the political activists, especially the Hindu version of political activism it was an easily adoptable visual vehicle. The shrillness of imagery however was too much for the more egalitarian and educated class. They wanted to see Mother India in much more graceful manifestations. It was Abanindranath Tagore who made all the difference in redefining the Mother India. Though it did not become the standard mother India after a point of time, it could change the visual discourse pertaining to the Mother India in Indian political and visual discourse.

 (Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli, 15th century AE)

Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951) did his Bharat Mata in 1905. The year is very important. It was in this year, based on their Divide and Rule policy, on behalf of the British Empire, Lord Curzon, the Governor General of India, divided Bengal into two parts; Muslim dominated East and the Hindu dominated West (Bengal). India’s nationalist movement became quite strong after this. One has to see the irony; today we are talking against the Muslims and ironically, the Indian Independence struggle here was against dividing the Muslim from Bengal. Abanindranath, perhaps, was thinking about a much cosmopolitan, humanitarian, compassionate and less aggressive Bharat Mata. In Tagore’s work we see a Bharat Mata with four hands; one has a japamala, a rosary, showing her religious/spiritual bent of mind. In another hand we see a sheaf, which shows the agricultural flourish, one has a palm leaf book, showing the erudition and one hand holds a white cloth, showing the symbol of peace. A very potent image indeed! But what makes Tagore’s work more impactful is the de-sexualization of the woman; she is a mother and she is clad in saffron clothes and this saffron is different from the Hindutva saffron today. This cloth connotes the idea of renunciation. She is not sexually appealing like Durga (who is in the act of killing a male demon which could be seen as a sexual play). She is more like a nun or a widow; the one who has disinvested herself of all her sexuality for the cause of the land. She is not to be desired but worshipped and emulated. Tagore places his Bharat Mata against the voluptuous goddesses envisioned by Ravi Varma. But could this Bharat Mata stay in the visual memory of people in India?

No is the answer. Reasons are many. With the arrival of Mahatma Gandhi into the Indian political struggle, the Hindu thrust as formulated within the Congress and represented by Tilak and MM Malavya was pushed behind and a more secular approach was put in place. Gokhale who was the political mentor of Gandhiji was not really following the Tilak like Hindu nationalism. Gandhi learnt the ropes from there but at the same time knew that estranging the Hindu lot was not a good thing. So he upheld Gita as his political text and followed it to the T. The Hindutva tendencies within the nationalist movement were kept under check by this move of Gandhi and he had to pay a heavy price for it later on 30th January 1949. Nathuram Godse, a Hindu fundamentalist shot him dead. But the irony is it was Mahatma Gandhi who inaugurated India’s first ‘Bharat Mata Temple’ in Benaras. In a program attended by Khan Abdul Gafar Khan and Sardar Patel, Gandhiji, while inaugurating this temple had said: “In this temple there are no statues of gods and goddesses. Here only a map of India is raised on marble. I hope this temple will take the form of a worldwide platform for all religions along with Harijans and of all castes and beliefs, and it would contribute to feelings of religious unity, and peace and love in this country’ (quoted from Icon of Mother in Late Colonial North India by Charu Dutta in EPW November 2001). Gandhiji’s vision was much closer to that of Abanindranath Tagore though he did not want a human figure there.

 (Nargis in Mother India, 1957)

In the post-colonial India where Hindutva did not have much of a say despite their never ending efforts they kept the heat on in different levels and till they found their chance in 1992 in the destruction of the Babri Masjid and it was mainly through temples, RSS branches, VHP and many other outfits (which is now counted as 91 number). The post-independence India actually did not do much to curb the activities of the Hindu nationalists. It was necessary to keep both the Hindus and the Muslims in good humour especially after the partition in two different phases; in 1947 and in 1971. Hindutva people always behaved as the hurt parties though their hurt was largely neglected by the people in general and the governments in particular. They had an opportunity to consolidate during the Emergency period in 1975, which was a short lived honeymoon with the socialists in India. Indian governments led by both Congress and many other regional combinations were mostly tolerant and benevolent towards even to the Hindutva forces fearing the vote bank politics would decimate them had it not been in that way (which eventually decimated them). Hence, overt presentations of the Bharat Mata were allowed right from the school levels. During the youth festivals Bharat Mata is an unavoidable tableau. Through match boxes stickers, films, village fairs, textile calendars, new temples this idea of Bharat Mata as an aggressive goddess was kept alive and she was a potential tool only to be used at certain times. It is interesting to see how, the Bharat Mata is on a come back trail and both Ram and Hanuman are in a retreating stage.

It is imperative to discuss how Bharat Mata took a different turn and moved many leagues away from the images that both Raja Ravi Varma and Abanindranath Tagore had created from their proximate perspectives with the emerging nationalist sentiments in the late 19th and early 20th century respectively. Bharat Mata got a new avatar in Nargis (Dutt) in Mehboob Khan’s ‘Mother India’, the cultic movie released in 1957. Nehruvian Socialism was not really working and the new License Quota Raj was emerging strongly. The new political leadership was not really interested in the Lal Bahadur Shastri’s Jai Jawan Jai Kisan slogan was inspiring (1965) but not really taking the kisan anywhere. Feudalism in general was not ready to leave its clutches loose over the Serbs and the farmers were pushed under the yoke of debts. Hence, Mehboob Khan’s (notice his religion) Mother India presented a new Mother India, in Nargis, who presented the toiling farmer woman with two sons. With her husband leaving them for the fear of debt, the burden of the family falls on her. One of the sons becomes a dacoit and takes revenge. But in the film, what we see is a young voluptuous Nargis becoming a desirous mother, whose body is desired by the feudal lords. Interestingly, there is an Oedipal subtext to the story which is extraneous to the narrative of the film’s original story. Sunil Dutt, who acted as one of the sons of Nargis got romantically involved with his ‘mother’ in the film sets and post film shoot they got married.

Nargis, in the popular imagination stands for two things; the toiling mother, the fighting mother, the dignified mother and the mother who is voluptuous and desirable by her son/s. The toiling mother who is an agricultural worker takes a lot from the Ram Kinkar Baij’s imagination (not directly but from though a larger visual culture awareness). Baij’s famous sculptures ‘Santal Family’ and ‘Mill Call’ were already there in the cultural scene and Baij’s interest was more in the industrialization as pitted against the natural agricultural scenario of India rather than the direct conflict between the colonial master and the subject. Baij imagined the celebration of the people who move from one location to the other with a lot of spirit to survive than complain. He as a free soul was not either wanting his protagonists to be under the yoke of any ideology. It was more like carrying the essence of the Gandhian philosophy with the village as an autonomous unit. Baij’s protagonists were free to move out of this unit and also were free to come back to this. But in Khan’s imagination we see Nargis trapped in the rural setting, which is agrarian and oppressive at the same time. Sunil Dutt, her son moves out of the system not only by becoming a Daku but also by marrying his ‘mother’ outside the film’s narrative.

All of a sudden we have a double edged Bharat Mata unlike the voluptuous Bharat Mata of Raja Ravi Varma and the desexualized Mother India of Tagore. Here in Nargis we have both. She resists the sexual advances of the feudal lords; she fights like a Durga. But at the same time she is austere and monogamous, and believes in the Hindu way of life. She wants her children to study. She is a farmer. She is the embodiment of piety. All attributes attuned to that of Tagore’s  Bharat Mata. But her body is voluptuous and desirable. So from Nargis we see the slow transition of Bharat Mata in the calendars and other visual ensembles; she regains her sexual prowess (more like Ravi Varma characters) and gets her fighting spirit (like Durga). Together they make the present aggressive, desirous Bharat Mata image. Sometimes she is clad in saffron sari, she is with her mount Lion, the backdrop against which she stands is the topographical representation of the Indian Sub-continent where the northern part is made more abstract as a conscious effort to push the memories of partition and the Jammu Kashmir conflict out of the viewers’ minds. The Akhand Bharat (undivided India) concept of the RSS is played out here. This Bharat Mata is a woman with a lot of ‘male’ power. She is ‘masculine’ in her war spirit and ‘feminine’ in her physical attributes. Sometimes she is seen as wearing a tricolor sari. At times she is holding the national flag and at times she holds the saffron flag. This interchangeability of the flags connotes the polity as a Hindu polity. Tricolour could be replaced with saffron, it seems to say and interestingly that has been a demand of the several Hindu outfits. 

During the Ayodhya movement in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and during the aftermath of it, and even during the new first decade of the new millennium we witnessed a benevolent Ram, the Ram in Gandhiji’s imagination or even in the Uncle Pai’s versions of Ramayana, turning slowly into a masculine, angry and armed Ram who is about to wreck revenge on all those who stand against the making of a Hindu Rashtra. But it slowly lost its steam and the main architect of this movement, Mr.L.K.Advani slowly left his hawkish stance and turned into a dove before he was rendered politically irrelevant by Modi-Shah duo. Now with the JNU row, we once again see the reintroduction of Bharat Mata. From Go-mata to Bharat Mata was a lighting transition. Go-mata did not yield enough results and it is time for the Bharat Mata, who is actually a ‘mother’ of our time. The fear is this; she will be violated by the enemy of the country. This fear is a potent weapon to make everyone a nationalist. Ironically, we are a lot that uses maximum number of expletives that highlights the violation of our mothers’ and sisters’ private parts. The invocation of Bharat Mata sounds like an obscene thing these days because of this connotation preordained by the same aggressors who are out there to decide the nationalists and the anti-nationalists. 

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