By Somok Roy
As kids growing up in a globalised, post-colonial nation, a world with the contradictions of economic neo-liberalism, and invented traditions of communal projects, we were fed on a staple diet of patriotism – a wholesome meal flavoured by the most evocative condiments that went into the making of the idea of a nation in the minds of the gullible. The glossy picture-books enkindled within us a strange passion for things carrying the prefix ‘national’, as if they were a part of one’s collective unconscious, in the manner of Jungian archetypes. Thus, the tricolour, the peacock, the tiger, the lotus, and the mango became an integral part of our visual vocabulary during the process of enculturation (sadly the Indian banyan and the river water dolphin were always relegated to a secondary position, and would pop up occasionally in the better books, or should I say the more patriotic ones?). The child is taught to respect these symbols, which eventually attain a sacred value as things that are unique to his/her country, things that make this country different from the rest. Interestingly, this celebration of indigineity transforms into a hostile process of ‘othering’, and the pride in diversity gives way to attempts at assimilating these differences into a standard pattern of uniform, national culture, dominated by the cultural traits of the majority.
In a 1882 lecture delivered at the Sorbonne, Ernest Renan described the nation as a ‘soul, a spiritual principle’ constituted by ‘the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories’ and, ‘present-day consent, the desire to live together, the will to perpetuate the value of the heritage that one has received in an undivided form.’ The notion of consent in determining a people’s sovereignty and political status went on to become a jus cogens rule, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1960. ‘A nation’s existence is, you will pardon the metaphor, a daily plebiscite,’ noted Renan.
History feels the void of promised plebiscites which never happened, in frontiers far removed from the mainland production units of our nationalist iconography. Iconography takes us to the point of departure, and we can possibly explore the inversion of Renan’s idea of ‘shared memories.’ Regrettably, the evolution of our nationalist iconography has been premised on the idea of erasure of shared memories, celebrating exclusivism with growing rigour. From the anthropomorphisation of the nation in the form of a fair, Hindu mother goddess during the anti-colonial struggle, to the characterisation of the land as ‘pitr-bhumi’ and ‘punya-bhumi’ in a bid for a communal, majoritarian, cultural nationalism, a large section of the under-mass has never been able to relate to the images and notions of nationality. Take for instance the bulk of ‘swadeshi’ lithographs and oleographs produced in the art studios of Calcutta, all based on the classical epic-Puranic traditions, and mainstream Hindu parables and lores, ranging from Savitri-Satyavan series to biographical works on the lives of Vaishnava saints. Even in the non-religious prints like ‘Manada Sundari’ (a courtesan playing the violin, produced in the Kansaripara art studio), the traits of ‘being Hindu’ are remarkable. Ironically, the contexts of such ‘swadeshi’ texts are undeniably European, set in almost Lorrain-esque landscapes (with the essential Kadamba blossoms, as a symbol of indigeniety) and neoclassical mansions. The exclusive nature of such images is best understood in context of the gradual ‘Hinduisation’ and ‘militarisation’ of the image of ‘Bharat Mata.’ Abanindranath Tagore’s 1905 painting of Bharatmata is that of an ascetic draped in a saffron robe, holding in her hands the symbols of knowledge/literacy, clothing, food, and spiritualism. This image possibly stems from an antecedent agrarian context, where the soil and its yield play a crucial role, and even when dyed in the colour of dispassion and renunciation, there is something strikingly domestic about Abanindranath’s bharatmata. Sugata Bose, in his latest book, The Nation as Mother and Other Visions of Nationhood, identifies the ‘intolerable burden placed on women who were idealized as mothers’, the mystification of the mother resulting in the loss of her value as a human being. Recently, a Delhi-based gender justice movement called ‘Pinjra-Tod’ took to the streets with bright placards which read ‘Bharat ki Mata Nahi Banenge’ (We Won’t Be the Mothers of India). Pinjra-Tod’s fearless efforts at de-mystifying the woman, and making campuses equal and just for different people is often, and quite rightly, perceived as a threat by the self-proclaimed nationalists on campuses. The docile image of Bharat Mata, adhering to the patronising tendencies of our patriarchal psyche, was gradually getting replaced by more aggressive and belligerent forms of the nation-goddess, drawing hugely from the images of the forms of shakti, like Durga and Kali. Historian Sumathi Ramaswamy studied a poster of Bharat Mata printed in 1950, by the Sikh painter Sobha Singh, in which the allegorical figure is flanked by a lion. According to Ramaswamy, the ferocity of such depictions increased as the freedom struggle came to a close. The lion was associated both with the British Empire and Durga. The appropriation of the British lion perhaps symbolised the reclamation of lost power/sovereignty, and its association with the warrior-goddess could always be used as the legitimising pitch in a predominantly Hindu cultural milieu. Such images were to become even more explicit and fierce in the making of the predatory Hindu nationalism, which stands on a platform of paradoxes – of chanting glory to the nation and disregarding the constitution, of taking pride in the past and consciously erasing that of fellow citizens, of deifying favourites and vilifying ‘others.’
Tanika Sarkar has interpreted the representation of the ‘motherland or deshmata’ in 19th century nationalist literature as a ‘cultural artefact.’ This ‘cultural artefact’, which once had immense emotional appeal, is becoming more ‘performative’ in the public domain. The passionate, aggressive invocation of ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ has a coercive side which makes it obligatory for all to sing glory to the motherland. The persuasive charm of this idea has taken a back-seat, and Bharat Mata herself has metamorphosed to represent the State, and legitimise its real-estate interests. Our belligerent mother goddess draws sustenance from the existence of a perceived enemy; her highest altars are being built in University campuses across the country, and her hyper-masculine sons have replaced the prowling lions. If you aspire to become a good citizen (citizenship being a characteristic of modern nation-states), you cease to become a patriot. Such is the tragedy of our times. For, being a good patriot implies being loyal subjects of the leviathan, consecrated in the name of Bharat Mata.
Cover-painting: KK-Rajaram, Bharat Mata
Somok Roy is a student of history at Ramjas College, University of Delhi, Delhi, India.
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