The image of the suffering mother, found in these lines from the popular Hindi novel, Maila Anchal, is undoubtedly the most central among those visualisations which have shaped and reshaped national identities, spanning both pre- and postcolonial India. As we see in the abovequoted example, the crucial aspect of this image of the nation as body is that the body involved is neither anonymous nor abstract. It is a familiar one, revered and adored, one which evokes profound memories, and one which, at this narrative moment, is in grave distress. Even in deep pain, this body commands respect. What is also worth pointing out is that this body is presented as perishable, in the most literal sense of the word.
We have a number of instances where the anthropomorphic form of the nation, Bharat Mata, has been shown along with India’s cartographic form, its map. A popular wall calendar of the Hindu right wing organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is one such example. We can divide this poster into three main subtexts. These are a) the central image; b) a quotation attributed to a certain Swami Ramtirth, including a passport-size photograph of the man; and c) the photograph of RSS supremo Rajju Bhaiya and the announcement of an upcoming mass meeting in New Delhi.
The Bharat Mata icon and its various scopic regimes are, obviously, quite mythical. In India, the imaginary bonding between nation and citizen is often mediated in and through religion. Writing on “Nation and Imagination”, Dipesh Chakrabarty has questioned the use of the word ‘imagination’ for the phenomenon of ‘seeing the nation’ in the Indian context. He suggests that it would be “impossible to gather up the heterogeneous modes of seeing the nation in the subject centered meaning of the word ‘imagination’.
For the nation in India was not only ‘imagined’, it may have been darshaned as well.” Unfortunately in the dominant discourse of recent decades, the complexity of the relationship between nation and religion has been reduced to an analysis of communalism. An alternative way to examine the multilayered discourse on the relationship between religion and nation is via an understanding of some of the representational sites where nationhood and religious practice meet.
The imageries of Bharat Mata provide one such location. From Abanindranath Tagore and Anand Coomaraswami’s treatments, to the calendars of the RSS, there has always been a celebration of the nation’s female body and of her citizens’ male gaze. Nor has Bharat Mata failed to find a place in the plethora of “invented traditions” that abound in the popular religious space. Her temples have even been accorded room in at least two of India’s holiest sites of pilgrimage, Haridwar and Benaras.