The Mother India icon has, of late, become a cause for animated debate. Asaduddin Owaisi and others have loudly protested the equation of the country with an eco-feminine ideal like Bharat Mata. They would perhaps like to see the country in purely paternalistic and masculine terms of Fatherland, etc. The earth, and in specific, the Bhu-Devi in India, has always been depicted in our art in terms of the eco-feminine. During the charged times of our freedom struggle, Amrita Sher-Gil, Abanindranath Tagore of the “Bengal school” and M.V.
Dhurandar of the “Bombay school”, all had attempted at various points of their artistic careers, to paint the very evocative theme of “Mother India”. These paintings were intended to express the essence or the very soul of the Indian cultural identity. The paintings of all three artists are studies in contrast. The only commonality is that all of them saw the essence of India in a feminine form—it was not the more masculine “Fatherland” of the Germans and other paternalistic societies; it was India as the Motherland with its emphasis not on aggressive masculinity, but the care, nurturing and protection of the eternal feminine. This is in consonance with the Indian tradition of deeming the earth as the eco-feminine Gaia, the Bhu Devi or Earth Goddess and by extension depicting the country as Bharat Mata, or Mother India. The soul of India has traditionally been depicted as the mother image. So the souls of the rivers that nurture this land have been invariably visualised in the eco-feminine form as river goddesses.
It would be most interesting to examine the rendition of this theme in Modern Indian art. Amrita Sher-Gil’s attempt at painting Mother India was rendered soon after her academic training in Paris. She painted Mother India as a poor peasant woman with a boy in her lap, and her daughter by her side. The essence of the theme is the poverty of rural India. Also evoked is the mood of sadness engendered by the poverty of her situation. It is a realist image, unflattering and very down to earth. It seeks to paint the average peasant Indian mother as the exemplar of Indianness and the core construct of the Indian cultural identity. There is nothing revivalist here and there is no mythification or mythology involved in this rendition—only the abject presentation of India’s poverty as an artistic theme and an overwhelming source of melancholy.
Mother India is, by no means, one of Sher-Gil’s more successful works. It is interesting to speculate as to how she would have painted the same theme after her exposure to Ajanta and the miniatures and after her sojourn in Saraya. The fact is that the focus of her early phase of work in India was on poverty as an artistic theme.
The Bharat Mata painted by Abanindranath Tagore of the “Bengal School”, by contrast, is not in oils but in the wash technique and in the small scale of the miniature format. It is revivalist in conception. The work has clear political connotations. The rising swadeshi sentiment and the public uproar against the partition of Bengal, impelled Abaindranath to take on this theme. Abanindranth, at this time, was also moved by Okakura Kakuzo’s idea of “Asia is one” and his efforts at reviving classical Japanese painting in the face of Western onslaught.
Although the figure of Bharat Mata itself was rendered as a rather literal version of a Bengali woman, Abanindranath also worked to impart to it the archetypal divinity of the classical Mother India image. It shows a Bengali peasant woman draped in saffron with the four arms of the mythological Devi tradition. She, therefore, is not an ordinary woman, but represents the archetypal divinity of the classical Mother India image. The four hands of this deity, however, do not hold the traditional objects of Indian mythology like the lotus or vajra or conch. In fact, as somewhat of a precursor to the roti-kapda-makan (food, clothing, shelter) theme of later India, Abanindranath’s Mother India holds in her four hands a piece of white cloth, a book, a sheaf of grain and a rosary. These are emblematic perhaps of the need to meet the basic economic needs of her people, which then were, and still are, food, clothing, shelter and education for her teeming millions.
The artist had visualised Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s celebrated national poem, Bande Mataram. There is, however, also a rosary in her hand, which seems to signify that even as it struggles for economic emancipation, the Indian tradition of spirituality must be retained as a thread of continuity that links the past to the present and signifies, perhaps, the essence of dharma—the cosmic law, the “rita” or “rit”, which must remain a civilisational constant. The choice of the colour saffron for her robes further emphasises the aspect of Indian spirituality. Abanindranath’s Bharat Mata reflected strong political connotations through both its style and content which uses the traditional idea of the nation as a mother goddess.
“Mother India’s Call for Unity” by M.V. Dhurandar of the “Bombay School” was rendered as a commercial art poster for the annual supplement of the Hindu newspaper. Mother India here is a tall and statuesque woman in a heroic pose, much like the Greek or Roman gods and goddesses. She has a crown on her head and is attired like a queen. Her stature is marked by regality to set her clearly apart from the masses. To highlight the concept of national unity, Mother India is depicted towering over masses, who are rendered in their myriad regional attires and ethnicity. Emerging from this diversity, she almost appears as a symbolic point of confluence as she urges the masses for national unity. India’s regional diversity is patently visible in this painting. In the midst of this diversity, the heroic Mother Goddess calls for national unity. She virtually suggests a Joan of Arc archetype in her demeanour and disposition. The tools of academic realism have been pressed in to create a tablet of commercial art, encased in a frame of Hindu temple architecture with its ornate pillars and cupolas.
These three different renditions of the same underlying theme of Mother India, vividly showcase the essence of the three macro-approaches to expressing Indianness or an Indian cultural identity through the works of the artists.
Thus, Abanindranath’s approach is patently revivalist and seeks to mythologise the subject in a modern economic setting. Bharat Mata is executed in the miniature tradition. Dhurandar’s art is a very literal rendition, in keeping with his training in academic realism to portray an Indian essence. The Bharat Mata female figure is more heroic and tall, towering above her people. Here, art is employed as a social tool for motivation.
Both these stand in stark contrast to the approach of Amrita Sher-Gil—a down to earth rendition of Indian poverty in a rather romanticised form, a simple statement of fact in the image of a poor peasant mother with her impoverished children. There is nothing heroic or mythological about this image. There is no nationalistic emotion. There is just the fact of the grinding poverty of our people, which the artist is trying to romanticise. Amrita Sher-Gil’s painting is art for art’s sake. Her painting was rendered solely for artistic fulfilment and no underlying political purpose.
From these colonial era renditions, let us now take a look at the current image of Mother India (seen during Anna Hazare’s rallies against corruption) framed in the triangular jut of the Indian subcontinent, flames emanating from her land and her being, seated on a lion rendered in the classical Devi image of Goddess Durga. This is a strongly revivalist conception, seeking to revive an ancient civilisation that has turned corrupt, debased and highly amoral. It definitely serves its purpose as a symbol, as an image of revivalism with major mass appeal and a strong underlying political message to the people. The vehicle of the lion or tiger on which this Mother India is seated, is the traditional symbolism for great power and energy unleashed through the iconic image.
Art historians can now step into the nationalism debate triggered by the events at JNU and other Indian universities. The evolution of the archetypal image of Mother India in modern Indian art, including the more popular calendar art, is a fascinating subject of study. I have highlighted how the three schools of art in colonial India dealt with this theme. We have also seen the evolution of the Mother India image into a reflection of a far more muscular and energetic image of an assertive and aggressive divinity in the post Independence era.
The Mother India image has now become an icon of revivalism. What is disconcerting, however, is the anti-feminist bias patent in the rejection of all eco-feminine images of Mother Earth or Mother India. The insistence on the fatherland conception or imagery, frankly, is quite alien to the Indian artistic context.
Dr Purnima Bakshi Kanwar is a PhD in Art History. The topic of her dissertation was “Art and Identity: Amrita Sher Gil and Her Contemporaries”.