Against the Maternal Metaphors of Indian Nationalism

A young girl makes offerings to the deities at the Kamakhya Temple, Guwahati, Assam, India. Photo: Erik Törner/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

As much as women are repressed by the Indian state, the female form is also being used to promote a frighteningly narrow vision of national identity

At times Bengaluru-based Pushpamala N is a superhero (Phantom Lady or Kismet, 1996–98, and The Return of the Phantom Lady [Sinful City], 2012). At times she is a model Indian woman, a glamorous maiden (Shringara, in the The Navarasa Suite, 2003). At other times she is a dutiful wife (Rashtriy Kheer & Desi Salad, 2004), and at others still she is a matriarch (Mother India Project, 2005–). It is via the many iterations of this last (which, like her other works, takes the form of a photo-performance) in particular that Pushpamala reflects, addresses and critiques the multilayered relationship between women and the Indian nation.

Her performances as ‘Mother India’, a cult icon that was originally shaped during the late 1800s as a symbol to encourage a unified national identity (as opposed to American historian and nativist Katherine Mayo’s 1927 book Mother India, which was notably anti independence), bring into question the personification of the nation-state, its geographical borders and the socio-cultural ideals – what an Indian woman ought to wear, how she ought to behave, what roles she needs to perform (the ideal mother and wife) and so on – that continue to serve as means of political manipulation to further sectarian agendas. Here, the concept of nation and nationalism stands in also for institutionalised patriarchy, policing and prescribing the duties of its female citizenry.

In Good Habits/Birth Control (2016) Pushpamala dresses in a rich, impeccably draped saree with elaborate jewellery, wears a crown and operates a mechanical childbirth model, pointing to the duty of procreation, an idea still encouraged by Hindu fundamentalist organisations, which charge their female compatriots with countering an imagined increase in India’s minority populations. In Hygiene/Swachh (2015) the artist removes brain parts from a medical model, washes the inside of the head clean and puts the parts back to build an ideal citizen. The chilling video reminds us of how the present Indian government has been, via propaganda spewed out on social and mass media platforms, othering Muslims and other minorities in order to construct a Hindu Rashtra, or nation. Elsewhere, Pushpamala is dressed like the goddess Kali, the angry woman who will not hesitate to kill to protect her children/citizens. Consequently these works become platforms from which to think not just about the brazen task of redefining the idea of India as a Hindu superpower, but also about the ruthless bulldozing of its older identity as a diverse, multi-religious, multilingual and secular country.

Pushpamala N, Motherland Studio Portrait with Flag, Om, and Trishul, 2009, giclée print, 114 × 76 cm. Photo: Clay Kelton. Courtesy the artist

The concept of the female body tied to the idea of motherhood, assigned to the motherland and to a mother tongue, is among the most universal and potent of symbols in the current imagining of the nation. Though the idea of seeing the land and Earth as the goddess Bhumi, also known as Bhudevi, is an old one in Hindu religious practices, the specific notion of the nation as mother was first defined in Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay’s novel Anandamath (1882). This idea went on to be visualised in a 1905 painting by Abanindranath Tagore (Rabindranath’s nephew), titled Bharat Mata (Mother India), where she is depicted, evoking Hindu iconography, as a saintly, saffron-clad woman holding a book, a piece of white cloth, paddy sheaves and a rudraksha chain in her four arms (Hinduism equates multiple arms with great power).

While the maternal metaphor was cultivated as a relatable symbol for nationalist ideals during the last decades of India’s freedom movement, the notion of mother languages goes further back in some cases. It’s unsurprising, given the extent to which the country’s history had been shaped by various independent dynasties and empires whose identities drew on different linguistic lineages – centuries before the borders of postcolonial India were defined.

In the case of Kannada (spoken primarily in Karnataka), its personification as goddess Kannadambe, or Bhuvaneshwari, is said to have been created during the Kadamba dynasty (mid-fourth to mid-sixth century CE). Karnataka state boasts a temple dedicated to her. Likewise, there is a temple in Tamil Nadu for Tamilttay, or Mother Tamil. Telugu talli and Malayalam amma similarly establish the idea of the mother figure protecting the respective languages. For a brief period of time there even was a temple for Angrezi Devi (English goddess) in Uttar Pradesh, consecrated by Dalits, who, like most people who do not belong to the ruling upper castes and classes, see fluency in English as a means of achieving socioeconomic mobility. Over time, however, these goddesses have been absorbed by the larger Mother India imagery.

By the late nineteenth century, language was being recognised as an effective means of creating a sense of regional and national identity, and consequently fed into the freedom struggle. In north central India, Hindustani began to be divided into Hindi and Urdu, thus fortifying the growing sectarianism between Hindus and Muslims that would culminate in the bloody horror of Partition. Hindi soon began to be described by poets and writers of the day like Maithili Sharan Gupt and Mahavir Prasad Dwivedi as the ‘granddaughter of Sanskrit’, thus firmly – albeit inaccurately – placing it as a language that originated in India; while Urdu began to be seen as an Islamic – and thus ‘foreign’ – language. Christopher King, in his book One Language, Two Scripts: The Hindi Movement in Nineteenth Century North India (1994), indicates how, as a supposed direct descendant of the holy Sanskrit language, Hindi was revered as a demure, chaste, traditional and ‘good’ Hindu woman, whereas Urdu was gendered as a wanton Muslim woman: brash, violent, uncontrolled.

Abanindranath Tagore, Bharat Mata, 1905, gouache, 27 × 15 cm. Public domain

Which brings us back to Bharat Mata. Even though Mother India was meant to be a symbol of the nation that all those who lived within its borders could revere and tap into for patriotic inspiration, it was always a Hindu icon. Even beyond its evident deployment of tropes borrowed from religious iconography. Fair-skinned, clad in a rich saree, usually red or saffron in colour, and bedecked with gold jewellery, Bharat Mata could never be anything but a wealthy Hindu woman. Her relatability thus remains exclusive to the upper classes, othering not only the majority of Hindus, but also Muslims, whose religion disallows such idolatry. Moreover, while the first visualisations of Mother India were invoked to effect national unity, evident in the tricolour flag in the hands of the figure, more recent interpretations (notably by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Vishwa Hindu Parishad organisations) have the figure sporting a saffron flag, a symbol of Hinduism and Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) thought. The idea of the mother goddess who inspires nationalism is now an invocation to effect religious, majoritarian supremacy. And as this new interpretation of the Indian nation gains visibility, so the rights and freedoms promised to women of different communities are diminished (think of the recent uproar following Karnataka’s banning of the wearing of hijab in schools and colleges, on the grounds that to do so was not an essential religious practice).

Amid the frequent, highly contentious attempts to reinterpret Hindi as the ‘national language’, and by extension the language of Hinduism, in a country as linguistically diverse as India, one gets a sense of rabid erasure of syncretic cultural values. Seeking to claim all Indians as the children of a Hindu-Hindi mother is not only an affront to the diversity of India, but also an attempt by the political right to erase a complicated nation and flatten it into a simplified, homogeneous and thus easily manageable entity. To the detriment of said nation and its nationals.

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