Many avatars of Bharat Mata
B.N. Goswamy
on the different ways the image of
‘Mother India’ has been presented by artists

“Bharat Mata” by Abanindranath Tagore Ca. 1905
“Bharat Mata” by Abanindranath Tagore Ca. 1905

IN many ways one knows the image well, having grown up with it from childhood. Mother India: wearing the Himalayas as her crown, her feet blessing the waters of the ocean by their touch, graceful arms stretching out as if to embrace the East and the West. Patriotic songs sang of her; leaders invoked her in their orations; young men took solemn oaths in her name. But, in times gone by, when she was still not free, one also knew that she was suffering. I remember our mother telling us children of Gandhiji having heard the clinking of the chains on her feet; in a mushaira to which I went in my young years I heard a poet speak of her silent sighs in the night.

You could almost see her as a person: Mother India. That is why, even though it was written much later, I remember being deeply moved by passages in Phanishwarnath Renu’s classic: Maila Anchal. For they spoke of those times with an honesty, and a passion, that struck an instant chord. Ramkishan Babu’s words were real. Tewariji’s plaintive song – Ganga re Jamunwa ki dhaar neer bahaaye rahi, Bharat maiya akulaaye rahi re— resonated in one’s heart. One knew that the ‘anchal’ that was soiled was the mother’s. One wanted to reach out and wipe a tear from her eyes, apply some healing salve on the lacerated skin of her feet.

Visuals not having been a prominent part of our young lives, I do not recall seeing till much later what is almost certainly the most famous among images of Mother India: Abanindranath Tagore’s "Bharat Mata." He rendered her quite differently: a quietly beautiful young woman, dressed like a sadhavi in an ochre-coloured sari, standing at the edge of a lotus pond.

But clearly a divine being: celestial nimbus behind her head; four-armed, each hand carrying an object charged with symbolism: a sacred manuscript; an akshamala-rosary of beads; a vastra or length of fabric; a sheaf of green foliage. There is no suffering that one sees: if anything, calm radiates from her being. She is there as an idealised goddess, shedding grace, conferring boons: Saraswati and Lakshmi at the same time.

Abani Babu painted this image close to 1905, and it is not difficult to imagine the influences that shaped it, or the thoughts that must have been coursing through his head as he went about visualising the figure. The palpable British presence, the impending Partition of Bengal, talk of Swadeshi, were all around him. But, above all, must have been not only the awareness but the reverberations of Bankimchandra’s stirring composition: Vande Mataram. The image of our land as Mother – she who is shasya and shyamala, she whose touch cools like the wind blowing from the Malayachala mountains, and she who fills the earth with countless bounties – is what Bankim Babu had evoked in the song that he had set in the heart of his celebrated work, Anandmath. It was an ideal that he was creating, something for everyone to recall and to revere. To be sure, there was conflict, or impending conflict, in the air, but for it to endure, the image had to be quiet, almost inwardly turned. Abanindranath clearly sensed this: polemics in any case was not his chosen ground.

Different things were happening, or were to happen soon afterwards, however, at the popular level as far as the image of the land as Mother in pre-Independence India is concerned. And here one gets into a complex, and somewhat strident, area. One enters the world of oleographs and posters and calendars; wit, anger, playfulness, innovation, all with an eye to popular appeal, come into play.

Mother India is juxtaposed with popular national figures: sitting and conversing with Gandhiji as he plies his spinning wheel inside a jail cell, for instance; lifting everyone – Gandhi, Nehru, Azad, Lajpat Rai – in her arms as if to take them out of harm’s way; Subhas Chandra Bose cutting his head off and offering it to the Mother on a platter. In these, art was not the chief concern: the message was. The visuals are engaging in their own manner, and found their way into homes on a scale that was undreamt of before. Bharat Mata or Mother India – to be carefully distinguished from Mehboob’s hugely popular film of the same name – had become a household expression.

This is not the place perhaps to go into what has happened to images of Mother India after she became free. For politics, in particular sectarian politics, soon took over, and the words and the image were quickly hijacked. Aggressive and self-assured now, instead of the suffering figure that she once was, Mother India continues to peer at you from posters and calendars everywhere.

But, with her form routinely fitted into a cartographic framework, and with the head of a massive lion peering from behind her, she has become a different person. For she seems to shed no grace, touches no real chords. Perhaps she is back in chains again, this time placed upon her feet by self-serving interests for whom narrow politics, not nationalism, is the real concern.