Saturday, July 30, 2022

Vande Mataram and the Imagery of Bharat Mata

A N Tagore’s 1906 

painting of Bharat Mata

In his song Vande Mataram, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee has described the motherland as Bharat Mata who is endowed with the characteristics of Goddess Durga:

O Mother, thou art love and faith,
it is thy image we raise in every temple.

For thou art Durga holding her ten weapons of war,
Kamala at play in the lotuses
And speech, the goddess, giver of all lore,
to thee I bow! 

~ (from Sri Aurobindo’s translation of Vande Mataram) 

In the early twentieth century, the Vande Mataram song inspired visual representations of Bharat Mata which depicted her carrying weapons of war and astride a lion with the Indian subcontinent serving as the backdrop. In 1906, Abanindra Nath Tagore (Rabindra Nath Tagore’s nephew) offered a different way of looking at Bharat Mata in his painting of a four-armed Goddess sans the weapons of war and the lion. This painting was published in the August 1906 issue of the Bengali magazine Prabasi

In her note to Tagore’s painting, Sister Nivedita wrote:

“Bharat Mata stands on the green earth. Behind her is the blue sky. Beneath the exquisite little feet is a curved line of four misty white lotuses. She has the four arms that always, to Indian thinking, indicate divine power. Her sari is severe, even to Puritanism, in its enfolding lines. And behind the noble sincerity of eyes and brow we are awed by the presence of the broad white halo. Shiksha-Diksha-Anna-Bastra, the four gifts of the motherland to her children, she offers in her four hands.” (The Complete Works of Sister Nivedita, Volume 3, Page: 61)

But Tagore’s painting of a serene goddess did not capture the nationalism, militancy, and revolutionary zeal of the Vande Mataram song:

“Terrible with the clamorous shouts of seventy million throats,
and the sharpness of swords raised in twice seventy million hands,
who sayeth to thee, Mother, that thou are weak?”

In his 1909 essay, “Mata Bharata,” Ananda K. Coomaraswamy dwelled on a rather stoic conception of the motherland’s feminine form. His essay was popular with the intellectuals but because of its de-weaponized view of the mother, it failed to connect with the masses. 

The mood of the country in the early years of the twentieth century was aggressive and chaotic; rebellion was in the air. People were eager to fight for their religion and homeland; they wanted to fight for their country’s independence. An aggressive conception of Bharat Mata was needed to satisfy the political and religious urges of the masses. The idea of Bharat Mata—wielding the weapons of war, astride a lion, and presiding over the destiny of the Indian subcontinent—remained the dominant feature of nationalist imagery. 

In his editorial in the 16th April 1907 issue of his journal Bande Mataram, Sri Aurobindo proclaimed that Bankim Chandra Chatterjee was the rishi who had given to India the Vande Mataram song which was the mantra of a new “religion of patriotism.” The first nationalist flag of India was inspired by Vande Mataram. On 22 August 1907, the nationalists led by Madam Bhikhaiji Cama unfurled a flag of India which had the words “Vande Mataram” inscribed in the centre.

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