In the history of modern Indian art, Bharat Mata has adorned the canvas of only two artists of repute. The first was the product of the Bengal Renaissance, Abanindranath Tagore, who first visualised the Indian nation as the Mother. The second was the modernist M F Husain, whose painting of Bharat Mata was banned and trashed — and he was forced to spend his last years outside his country.
Between them, these two works of art span the vast ground the image of Mother India has traversed culturally and politically in India. Now, as the Sangh Parivar steps up insistence on “Bharat Mata ki Jai” as patriotism’s compulsory chant, it is useful to go over the journey of the metaphor of the Nation as Mother over the last century and quarter.
The imagery first appeared in the works of artists and writers in Bengal, much before it was used elsewhere in the context of India’s national movement for independence.
Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s 1882 novel Anand Math contained the hymn to the motherland, Vande Mataram, which became the mantra of the freedom movement, and the official song of India after Independence. The novel depicts the three faces of Bharat Mata as the goddesses Jagaddhatri, Kali and Durga.
Two decades later, in 1905, as Curzon partitioned Bengal, Abanindranath painted his iconic Bharat Mata, a woman in saffron robes, with a serene face and halo around her head, beads and scriptures in her hands. The revolutionary Aurobindo Ghose wrote in a letter to his wife Mrinalini Devi in August that same year: “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?” This letter was to be used as evidence against him and other accused in the famous Alipore Bomb case.
In Bhawani Mandir, a blueprint “for the revolutionary preparation of the country”, Aurobindo referred to “India, the ancient Mother”, who was “striving to be reborn, striving with agony and tears”. Several historians have pointed out that the Bharat Mata these pioneers visualised was more a “Banga Mata”, or Mother Bengal, with the deities they invoked being Kali and Durga, often their family deities. In Vande Mataram, Bankim called upon only the “sapt koti” or seven crore people of Bengal.
The first critics of the metaphor too came from among its inventors. Fifteen years after the Partition of Bengal, in August 1920, Aurobindo underlined the limits of the slogan and sought a greater mantra: “We used the Mantra Bande Mataram with all our heart and soul… (but) the cry of the Mantra began to sink and as it rang feebly, the strength began to fade out of the country. It was God who made it fade out and falter, for it had done its work. A greater Mantra than Bande Mataram has to come. Bankim was not the ultimate seer of Indian awakening. He gave only the term of the initial and public worship, not the formula and ritual of the inner secret upasana (worship). For the greatest Mantras are those which are uttered within.”
Nevertheless, Mother India retained her symbolic force through the national movement, even though the metaphor often changed with the speaker who employed it. In The Discovery of India, written in jail in the 1940s, Jawaharlal Nehru recounted his experience when people greeted him with slogans of Bharat Mata ki Jai.
“Who was this Bharat Mata, Mother India, whose victory they wanted?… Mother India, was essentially these millions of people, and victory to her meant victory to these people. You are parts of this Bharat Mata, I told them, you are in a manner yourselves Bharat Mata, and as this idea slowly soaked into their brains, their eyes would light up as if they had made a great discovery,” he wrote.
Almost upto Independence, few underlined the religious overtones of the slogan, and it remained an essential mantra of a slave country, a rallying call for all its people. It found little resistance from other communities until 1947, when during the Partition riots, Bharat Mata ki Jai and Allah-o-Akbar became competitive, communal slogans.
Among the figures idolised by the Sangh Parivar, Veer Savarkar curiously, spoke not of the motherland, but of the Pitrabhoomi or fatherland, in the manner of the ancient Greeks and Romans and, in modern times, the Germanic-language countries. “Everyone who regards and claims this Bharatbhumi from the Indus to the Seas as his Fatherland and Holyland is a Hindu,” he said.
The first major enunciation of the Mother India concept came in the writings of Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya.
“The foundation of our nationalism is Bharat Mata,” he wrote. “Remove Mata, Bharat will be reduced to just a piece of land.” He, however, merely paraphrased what Bankim had written nearly a century ago, when he elaborated on the notion of Mother India as a woman having the characteristics of Sujala, Suphala (overflowing with water and laden with fruits) and Dashapraharana Dharini Durga (Goddess Durga with her 10 weapons), Lakshmi and Saraswati.
The first two paragraphs of Bankim’s Vande Mataram were adopted as the national song after Independence. The government did not retain the verses that mentioned either “sapt koti”, or the eulogies to the goddesses Durga and Lakshmi. The obvious reference to Bangla nationhood was removed.
Barring some isolated voices against Vande Matram, Mother India remained a largely benign concept that did not attract controversy. The imagery was used in popular media and Hindi cinema — the iconic frame of actress Nargis, with a yoke and two babies, was an unforgettable cultural intervention, ironically portrayed by a Muslim woman, and conceived by a Muslim director, Mehboob Khan. For many, the character of Nargis remains the definition of what Mother India stands for: a righteous, independent, suffering woman who doesn’t hesitate to kill her own son for the sake of justice.
During the Ram Janmabhoomi movement of the late eighties, however, Bharat Mata ki Jai became a war cry for communal mobilisation. The serene, bountiful Mother that Abanindranath Tagore created became an aggressive, unforgiving Bharat Mata, carrying swords and other weapons, and sometimes riding a tiger.
The Anna Hazare movement of 2011, one of the biggest mass mobilisations of recent decades, which shook the central government and paved the way for the emergence, ultimately, of Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party, used the image of Bharat Mata as the rallying point for an anti-corruption crusade.
The last few weeks have seen a remarkable escalation of political tensions over this century-old metaphor. In the backdrop of the JNU controversy, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat said the new generation needed to be taught to say Bharat Mata ki Jai — which AIMIM’s Asaduddin Owaisi refused to do “even if a knife was put to his throat”. Soon after, the Maharashtra Assembly suspended a lawmaker of Owaisi’s party for the same ‘crime’, a resolution that the Congress too backed.