Monday, June 13, 2016

Bharat Mata Ki Jai: A Reaction to Colonialism or Ancient Tradition? Was Irfan Habib wrong?

When historian Irfan Habib told, in an interview, that the slogan 'Bharat Mata ki Jai' (Long live mother India) was a colonial era reaction by nationalists who were influenced by European traditions, the reactions amongst Indians ranged from running around like headless chicken to mild disapproval. Overnight most Indians became indignant literary sleuths and dredged up every verse they had come across where land or kingdoms of yore had been worshipped as goddess. A furor ensued and the historian remained silent. No one bothered to ask Habib why he said so and what were the evidences beyond pointing out to the example of Britannia, England depicted as lady. Was Habib wrong?

Sumathi Ramaswamy, professor of history at Duke University, has written an engaging book, "The goddess and the Nation:Mapping mother India", which goes to the heart of the claim that Habib made.

Ramaswamy opens with the following words, "In the closing decades of the nineteenth century in a land already thronging with all manner of gods and goddesses there surfaced a novel deity of nation...Invoked in English as "Mother India", and most usually in various Indian languages as "Bharat Mata"". The first depiction of  Bharat Mata, like Habib said, was in a painting by Abanindranath Tagore. The portrait, suffused with symbolisms, depicted a young lady clothed in saffron colored saree, tied austerely around her, with four hands, lotuses around the feet and a halo. The portrait was captioned "The spirit of motherland".

"The Spirit of Motherland" by Abanindranath Tagore 1904-05

The vivisection of Bengal by Lord Curzon saw all of Bengal rise up in revolt and "Bharat Mata was used as a mobilizing artifact". A police raid  in 1908 'on the premises of the Dacca based Anushilan Samiti" recovered a portrait of "Bharat Mata-the map of India represented by a woman in flowing garments".

Before the advent of Gandhi Bengali nationalism swept the country providing the ideological flavor to the new idea of nationalism and religious reforms. Tamil poet Bharathi, no doubt influenced by Bengali traditions, wrote a poem extolling Tamil, the Tamils, Bharata (India) and ended with what was fast becoming a clarion call of the freedom struggle, 'Vande Mataram' (I worship you mother). The poem published around the customary New Year celebrated according to Tamil calendar, April 20th 1907, was featured in the magazine 'Inthiya', run by Bharathi. The cover of that issue featured a lady seated on rock, her hand resting on a globe showing the map of India and Indians, a Hindu, a Muslim and others, paying obeisance to her. Bharathi used such imagery often. Another image published on April 10th 1909 showed a lady, super imposed within the cartographic representation of India with babies suckling at her breasts, as before Indians of various religions looking up to her, the words "Vande Mataram", in Devanagari script, on the right and even a 'Allahu Akbar', in urdu and in relatively diminutive script of the left.Even latter day iconoclast and virulent atheist E.V. Ramasamy Naicker used a depiction of Bharat Mata super imposed within a map of India in the mast head of his paper 'Kudiarasu' circa 1925.

From Bharati's 'Inthiya" April 20 1907

Habib is no idiot not to have known the propensity to worship land in the form of a goddess. The fecundity of land has, from time immemorial, been equated, in all civilizations, to the fertility of woman. Anthropologically possessing land has been similarly equated with possessing woman. "Bharat Mata is fundamentally a novel, even unorthodox, goddess". What differentiates Bharat Mata from other goddesses is "intervention of the map of India into her visual persona". The cartographic intervention shows that the depiction of the female form is "no longer adequate in and of itself in embodying territory once the the scientific map form arrives on the scene". "In traditional Hindu iconography goddesses are not generally shown carrying a banner, yet the flag is certainly one of the Mother India's signature possessions".

The depiction of Bharat Mata drawing upon ancient Hindu iconography is what gives Habib's naysayers ammunition to protest that the depiction is not an European import but a hallowed tradition. Ramasawamy cites Sudipto Kaviraj to label this, very aptly, "subterfuges of antiquity". Ignorance fueled by jingoism made the naysayers to ignore the fact that the depiction of Bharat Mata while seemingly antiquated is actually a unique and novel addition to the ever burgeoning Hindu pantheon of divinities.

We don't know if Habib had read Ramaswamy's book for Ramaswamy builds her case exactly on the lines of what Habib said. Ramaswamy points to anthropomorphizing countries in European tradition, a tradition unknown in Indian heritage. Anthropomorphizing, the art of representing nations or a people in corporeal images, a geo-body representation, is a distinctly European import to India. The East India Company commissioned in 1778, probably to commemorate their victory in Battle of Plassey in 1776, a painting for the East India office in London by the Italian painter Spiridone Roma. Roma painted Britannia, a representation of England, as a lady in a white robe while the East, depicted as a bare breasted dark skinned lady, offering her riches. The bare breasted East is symbolic of a naked female in all its 'vulnerability' and even a 'invitation to conquest'. A similar portrait, circa 1575, showed America, the newly discovered continent, as a "naked and erotically  inviting woman".

Spiridone Roma's "East offering its riches" portrait for East India Company. 1778. Image Courtesy Wikipedia

Ramaswamy says that "corporealizing countries" has been traced by scholars to European Renaissance. Abraham Ortelius's 'Theatrum Orbis Terararum', possibly the first atlas of the world, depicts Europe, Asia, Africa and America in various forms of women. The newly discovered science of cartography rapidly merged into this iconography in a parade of portraits that Ramswamy details one after another to show how nations, portrayed as women, were either super imposed on maps or their forms very artistically skewed to fit a map. 'Europa Regina', circa 1537; a portrait of Queen Elizabeth standing on a map, circa 1592, a picture of Britannia seated on a map of England all point to an emerging trend of marrying anthropomorphizing countries with cartography thus imparting a powerful message of suzerainty. Maps, "enable the nations citizens to take visual and conceptual possession of the land that they imagine they inhabit". "Bharat Mata is no generic earth, earlier or mother goddess (although she is also all of these); instead she is a very specific kind of territorial deity, one who embodies and presides over a delimited, nameable, identifiable geo-body".

Ramaswamy brilliantly captures that, "it is at the cusp of the 'same but different' and the 'old but also new' that we can identify the forces and pressures including the (re)conceptualization of India as a cartographer Mother India".

Discussing Bankim Chandra's iconic classic 'Ananda Math' Ramaswamy quotes Sudipto Kaviraj, "to see the country as the mother is highly non-standard in Hindu mythology. It (depicting country as goddess) is a transposition, using traditional figures certainly, but  to purposes that are highly innovative". In 'Ananda Math' hearing Bhavananda sing 'Vande Mataram' Mahindra inquires "who is this mother?" Bhavananda sings the second verse of that song in reply and Mahendra inquires "But this is my country; this is not my mother!" Bhavananda admonishes him "We say our motherland is the mother". Bipin Chandra Pal wrote in "The Soul of India", "The earth that we tread on is not a mere bit of geological structure. It is the physical embodiment of the mother. Behind this physical and geographical body there is a Being, a Personality".

Aurobindo Ghosh, firebrand revolutionary from Bengal, "I look upon my country as the Mother. I adore her. I worship Her as the Mother. What would a son do if a demon sat on his mother's breast and started sucking her blood?"

Disappointingly Ramaswamy does not connect Ghosh's imagery with his compatriot Bharati's verses about 'Motherland'. Bharathi wrote copiously about Motherland. He wrote of India as a mother, a distraught mother, a yearning mother and even a vengeful mother. Echoing Ghosh Bharathi asks "what is this life worth if the mlecchas who defile the holy mother land are not killed?' and in another verse he's more blistering, "who amongst us, like a dog, will tolerate a mother being violated?". That sons are the custodians of a mother's chastity speaks directly to a patriarchal society where possession of land and women are symbols of manhood. Though Tamil poems have spoken of land as woman Bharathi was charting new territory and essentially  offering new metaphors for patriotism that, while drawing upon a tradition, was "old but new". It is this newness that Habib drew attention to.

Rabindranath Tagore, amongst India's intellectuals, was the most conflicted on the idea of strident nationalism. Ramaswamy uses Tagore's 'The Home and the World' to highlight the poet's conflict. Sandip, a character, tells Bimala, the heroine "the geography of a country is not the whole truth. No one can give up his life for a map!". "True patriots, will never be roused in our countrymen unless they can visualize the motherland. We must make a goddess of her". A temple, inaugurated by none other than Gandhi himself, enshrined a map of India and offered it as an object of worship in a temple for Bharat Mata.

The iconography of Bharat Mata is very interesting if one observes the fact that almost without exception the Mother is portrayed as svelte woman, curvaceous, but never with children. Bharat Mata is asexual and offers a blank stare into the void even when there are others, often only men, looking at her worshipfully. The men, Ramaswamy says, "are generally pictured as figures of their times","whereas Mother India's face is invariably remote and otherworldly".

Ramswamy identifies the role of bazaar artists, 'barefoot cartographers', who helped proliferate the iconography of Bharat Mata. An important contribution is how the leaders of the freedom struggle were often portrayed in pictures of cartographed Bharat Mata. Gandhi was the most popular of such depiction including a Pieta style portrait showing a slain Gandhi lying prone on Bharat Mata's lap. Prior to the arrival of Gandhi and his philosophy of non-violence it was common to see Bharat Mata depicted as goddess of war, akin to Durga. Bhagat Singh and Subhash Bose brought back some of that flavor with portrayals of even blood soaked sacrifice where, for instance, Bhagat Singh would offer his decapitated head to Bharat Mata.

Bhagat Singh offering his decapitated head. This was a recruitment poster published in 1966.

While the iconography of Bharat Mata was a recent one it is telling that the image is, without exception, even when non-Hindu artists portray, that of a Hindu goddess. Even textbooks, supposed to be secular in a free India nonchalantly adopted this imagery without debate.

Khushwant Singh, India's gadfly like author, makes an interesting observation in his short and very readable "India: An Introduction, published in 1990.  "They (Indians) visualize it (India) as Mother India with her head in the snowy Himalayas, her arms stretched from the Punjab to the Assam, her ample bosom and middle (the Indian concept of feminine beauty requires a woman to be big breasted and heavy hipped) resting on the Indo-Gangetic plain and the Deccan, and her feet bathed by the waters of the Indian Ocean. Sri Lanka is like a lotus petalled foot stool". Ramaswamy also draws attention to the depiction of Sri Lanka, as lotus petalled stool, in many portraits of Bharat Mata. It is therefore evident that cartography and the barefoot cartographer, made possible by the printing press, is a pre-requisite for creating and popularizing the Bharat Mata iconography.

A picture similar to what Khushwant Singh describes.
About the book itself, a few words. The book is lushly illustrated and lays out the evidence with solid facts and solid research. The scholarship, as one would expect from a book published by a University like Duke, is impartial and ground breaking. The writing style leaves little to be desired though. The writing is dense and lacks lucidity. The author intruding into the text in first person singular is irritating as if the reader is unintelligent. It is grating to see the author, in first person singular, to repeatedly jump in and say that she is expanding on a certain point or persona in a specific later chapter. I'd expect an intelligent reader to make that connection. An unpardonable mistake is the translation of Bharathi's poem on Tamil in the 1907 issue of Inthiya. Where Bharathi refers to "Aryan land" Ramaswamy unpardonably translates omits that characterization of India.

Pieta style portrait of Gandhi and Bharat Mata published circa 1948
My favorite author, Jeyamohan and favorite adversary, fart obsessed blogger Othisaivu, took umbrage at Irfan Habib's opinion. Jeyamohan ( was livid that Habib, for whom he professed some admiration, had the temerity to say such an opinion from a public stage. He was also indignant that Habib's remark will play into the politicized climate of India where support and opposition for the opinion will fall, predictably, along political lines and no one would take the pains to know the truth. Of course what Jeyamohan hints as truth here is that Habib was wrong and that the iconography, unlike what Habib said, was an ancient tradition. Unfortunately, predicting that reaction will be along political lines without an attempt to ferret truth Jeyamohan himself not only adopts a political stand but gives space to a Hindutva voice, a committed reader of his books, which heaps not just scorn on Habib but maligns him as a liar in the mould of a Nehrzvian-Marxist. I looked for proof, impartially, in favor or against what Habib said and found Ramaswamy's book. The facts presented by Ramswamy appears to validate Habib. If there is a counter proof, written in the academic style of Ramaswamy, I'll be happy to consider it and retract this blog.

Jeyamohan is also indignant that Habib, reportedly, wanted to use historical research to oppose Saffron politics. What is wrong with what Habib said? That is perfectly the role of an intellectual and an academic. When academics is divorced from contemporary events and is content with distant concerns we unerringly call it as inhabiting an 'ivory tower'. Battling the menace of fascism and totalitarianism is exactly the duty of an intellectual and an academic. Academicians need to provide the intellectual fire power to defenders of a plural and secular republic lest the republic falls to the forces of fascism. Let there be more Habibs who supply the ballast in the most important battle of any republic, defending against fascist thuggery.

PS: All images in this blog are featured in the book in the same context I've mentioned above. I found the images online by googling.



the tradition in indian subcontinent as we call as SRUTI-SMRITI way of living/ philosophical
outlook is to consider the LAND " BHOOMI " as Bhoomatha or BHOOMA, SITA all in our ancient tradition since time immemorial. in tamil nadu the depiction of AANDAL is considered as "BHOOMA DEVI "

these practices cited above is enough to look up to The the land of Bharatha ie The Bharat, that is to revere the land in the form of "AMBA" hence "BHARATAMATA".
all prayers to motherland will definitely follow the the HINDU practice IDOL worship , ritualistic, followed with prayers, procession and at higher level-- usage of MANTRA SASTRA --
becomes the traditional approach

all colonial period writings is effect of modern evaluation of the print medium.

hence let us not get confused with the scholarly writings trying to find facts and figures.

culture is the product of centuries of evolutionary effects , fertilised by the noble thinkers.

with regards,

MV Seetaraman
retd GM.

Sriram said...

Yes, I accept there was no concept of Bharat Mata before the British arrival. But as pointed out by many, the people of India see the land as mother like many other cultures did. Even though India (as defined by current boundaries) was never under one king or ruler, there was a sense of one land due exchanges of ideas all across this land. (It did happen with outside of India too, but it was much lesser due to the mountains on the north and oceans on other 3 sides. Clue: Srilanka is not part of India). Can you deny that?

If you already have a sense of one land and the concept of seeing the land as God, what is wrong in using the European concept to add these two and creating Bharat Mata?

The problem is not Muslims unwilling to say "Bharat Mata Ki Jai", but their insistence of putting their religious beliefs and loyalty above their country. Muslims unwilling to say "Bharat Mata Ki Jai" is only a symptom, not the root cause. These people are like David Headley, their citizenship is with one country, but their loyalties are somewhere else.

Sanjukta said...

Brilliant article. I was googling for information on Bharat mata images for my research. This is Very helpful