The Swadeshi Movement that followed the 1905 partition of Bengal rode on the wings of two braided emerging identity discourses — one of an imagined regional Bengali community and the other of the nation. A revolutionary movement with an extremist component surfaced while a variety of gestures of cultural resistance and native solidarity proliferated. Several bhadralok families of Kolkata were prominent in leading and supporting these efforts and one of these was the Tagore family of Jorasanko. One of the members of this family, the artist Abanindranath, nephew of the more famous Rabindranath, painted an image which was used in a procession to rally support towards the revocation of the partition and for the Swadeshi Movement. It was perhaps the first political image to personify the region as mother, Banga Mata. Yet the easy conflation of region and nation at this time has left the enduring label of Mother India, Bharat Mata, for this image.
Since the 1950s, this image had remained hidden from view in the trunks of a private archive, Rabindra Bharati Society. But in recent times, the Society’s archives have been taken on loan by the Victoria Memorial, Kolkata. Ironically, the Victoria Memorial chose to display this image at the very time when the nationalism debate around the slogan “Bharat Mata ki Jai” being pushed by the ruling party was raising emotional temperatures. Interestingly (and fortunately), the BJP sloganeering has not mobilised Abanindranath’s image for its cause, preferring instead, a more popular calendar aesthetic derived from Ravi Verma goddesses, and consequently, early Bollywood actresses, wearing a crown and ornaments, holding a flag and accompanied with a customary lion. If one is to think of a traditional Hindu goddess that comes close to this image, it would be that of Jagaddhatri, a more benign aspect of Durga, but not without the hint of her violent retributive powers. The theatrical or cinematic literalism of this image coupled with its ubiquity through national propaganda and sloganeering bids to turn the virtual into the real by objectifying a monolithic Hindu cultural imaginary. Expectedly, non-Hindus have not taken to this image or the slogan; and it is doubtful what proportion of Hindus have found it unproblematic.
Abanindranath’s icon stands in a hazy golden light and in her golden-brown complexion and orange-saffron (gairik) robe, seems to be a condensation of this light, embedded in it in a state between emergence and recession, dream and waking. Such a non-obtrusive space is conducive to imaginative internalisation, unlike the material objectification of the BJP mata. Though she has four hands, there is a lightness about her, her slim modern humanity in contrast to both the theatrical illusionism of the present Hindu nationalist goddess and the voluptuous opulence of Hindu goddesses of the past. Rather, if one is to seek an earlier model, it is to miniature paintings of Parvati as Uma, a young ascetic, or of wandering Deccan yoginis that one must turn. In her hands she bears material, intellectual and spiritual gifts — anna, vastra, siksha and diksha.
Given the climate of the present nationalist debate, it may be instructive to consider what regional and/or national content Abanindranath put into his personification. The Tagores were an outcaste Hindu family, their ambiguous status marked with a Muslim appendage in their popular clan appellation — Pirali Brahmins. The Jorasanko Tagores were acutely conscious of this status, something that appears through Abanindranath’s inscription of an open-ended Hindu-Muslim dialogue in many of his works. Among the cultural events surrounding the production of his image was the consolidation of a Bengali linguistic community through the famous Hindu-Muslim rakhi bandhan festival organised by Rabindranath in October 1905. The shared culture of this linguistic community included mother goddess worship, as may be seen from the large number of songs to Kali and other goddesses written by Kazi Nazrul Islam, a contemporary of Rabindranath and Abanindranath, who visited the Jorasanko Tagores often and was later celebrated as a poet laureate of Bangladesh.
This is to say that the mother icon painted by Abanindranath was inclusive and integral to the cultural imaginary of Bengal. In its extension to the nation, the transition from Banga Mata to Bharat Mata, the identity politics of religious separatism cast an exclusionary aspect on any idea of a goddess, leave alone one with four hands. But it is clear that the idea of the region/nation embodied in Abanindranath’s Banga/Bharat Mata was one which embraced its entire cultural history not through boundaries of religious orthodoxy, but through a cosmopolitan and non-sectarian spirituality.
Moreover, the immediate literary precursor to Abanindranath’s mother goddess was to be found in Bankim’s Anandamath, from which the famous national song, Bande Mataram comes. At this very same time, Aurobindo Ghosh was championing this song as the rallying cry of revolution for the rising nation. Anandamath fielded word images for the “nation mother” of the past, present and future. In the past she was Jagaddhatri, settled and calm. In the present she was Kali, fierce and demanding blood sacrifice. And in the future, she would be Durga, victorious, opulent and dynamic. Abanindranath could not but have had these images in mind when he painted his mother goddess, yet he eschews their connotations of violence. Instead, his goddess represents the present as an asceticism of the nation necessary to attain to its material and spiritual goals. Yet this asceticism is not a dry one, it retains the rasa of a new blown lotus and exemplifies Rabindranath’s conviction of the true spirituality of India as one which blossoms in beauty without excess and without maiming the flesh.