How the gentle ascetic figure of Bharat Mata morphed into an ultra-nationalist warrior

How the gentle ascetic figure of Bharat Mata morphed into an ultra-nationalist warrior

Whether you are a historian, a collector of bazaar art, an analyst of visual culture or just plain curious, the iconography of Bharat Mata makes for a fascinating study. The many small details it packs, the backdrop, the colours, the subtext, the jewellery and costume, everything tells a story.
Historian Sumathi Ramaswamy’s seminal book The Goddess and the Nation, Mapping Mother India shows how Bharat Mata has been reimagined over the years, going from a benign, giving figure or a tragedienne to a martyr and often an ultra-nationalist warrior.
Among the first of these was the famous rendering by Abanindranath Tagore in 1905. His Bharat Mata is a four-armed woman dressed like a sadhvi with a beatific look on her face. But in mass-produced calendar images, as Ramaswamy points out, Mother India did not sport the ascetic look; instead, she wore vivid, flowing saris, often sported a jewelled crown, carried arms (cover image) and was flanked by roaring lions.

‘Mother’ makeover: Abanindranath Tagore’s interpretation in 1905. (Photo Credit: OSIAN’S Archive Research & Documentation Centre, Mumbai)
A poster published around 1950 and signed by Sikh painter Sobha Singh shows Bharat Mata flanked by a lion (page 64, figure 37). Ramaswamy theorizes that the number of lions flanking her — a predator associated both with Durga and the British Empire — and their ferocity increased as the freedom movement headed towards a successful conclusion. With the passage of time, Mother India was being mapped along with towering figures of the freedome movement such as Gandhi, Subhas Chandra Bose, Nehru and Sardar Patel, paying obeisance, cutting her shackles and often sitting on her lap. This infantilized position is given to both Bose (page 213, figure 105) and Gandhi.

A more ferocious avatar painted by Sobha Singh in 1950. (Photo Credit: Erwin Neumayer and Christine Schelberger, Vienn)
Among the many post-independence visuals that Ramaswamy uses is the cover of right-wing activist Dinanath Batra’s “inspirational” book Ma ka Aahvaan (page 43, figure 23). Published in 1996, it shows her against a fiery backdrop with an explosion of some kind going off in the general direction of the north-west. Amusingly enough, as the scholar points out, the artists take cartographic licence. So her bellowing pallu, halo, crown or long hair might sweep up Pakistan, the toes might stick into Sri Lanka and her arms extend into Bangladesh.
The most controversial rendering of Bharat Mata was M F Husain’s 2004 painting of an unclothed female form mapped on to India which forced him into self-imposed exile in the wake of violent threats from the right wing.

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