Bharat Mata ki…Ruckus
The original symbol of Mother India is a far cry from today’s polarising deity
Earlier this week, the founder of India’s fastest-growing FMCG company told media, “If I were not tied down by law, I’d behead those hundreds of thousands who refuse to chant ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’.”
The company is Patanjali, maker of hair oil and noodles, feted by investment banks. Its beheader-in-chief is Baba Ramdev. In a decade, he has shot up from teleyogi to tycoon.
Two days earlier, the 150-year-old Darul Uloom seminary in Deoband, Uttar Pradesh, issued a fatwa against Muslims chanting ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’. Islam, it said, has one god and no idols.
Mata ka Sahara
On April 6, the BJP organised marches and demonstrations in Gujarat to hail this deity. Suddenly, Bharat Mata is an image to divide Hindu and non-Hindu in this vast nation. But when did you first see Bharat Mata?
My first glimpse of her was 11 years ago, in Lucknow, when I had the dubious privilege to interview Sahara Group boss, Subrata Roy.
His lair on the fringes of Lucknow was called Sahara City. To impress visiting hacks, a desolate stadium was floodlit with millions of watts. He wanted to say he didn’t have Aids. His gates were guarded by Bharat Mata. She resembled Durga, but with four arms instead of Durga’s10, saffron pallu whipping in her wake, on a chariot pulled by four lions. She held a saffron flag.
From the mid-1930s, as India inched towards freedom, Hindu-Muslim politics got ugly. After Partition, the RSS and its affiliates started looking for icons to illustrate the dream of Akhand Bharat: a hallucinated nation from Afghanistan in the west to Myanmar in the east, swamping Sri Lanka southward.
Actually, this Mata was born in Bengal in1905, to promote amity among all faiths, defy British rule and bring colonised people together. She was the opposite of the toxic Sangh Mata. Here is her tale.
On October16,1905, George Nathaniel Curzon signed off on a plan to partition Bengal. He argued that the province that included Bihar, Orissa, Assam and undivided Bengal was too unwieldy: so chop off Muslim-dominated east Bengal and parts of Assam. Locals perceived this, correctly, as a plan to drive a wedge between Hindus and Muslims to ‘divide and rule’. So, a vast clan lined up to destroy Curzon’s partition plan. This was the Tagore family, prolific reformers, radicals, intellectuals — and breeders.
Thus, Tagore, éminence grise at 44, led the Swadeshi Movement of 1905. The Tagores knew Curzon wanted to create a religious rift, disguised as administrative reform. Curzon didn’t know what hit him.
In his memoirs, Ghoroa (Homely), Abanindranath Tagore, nephew of Rabindranath, describes October 1905, “Rabi-kaka said we’ll all march on foot, no carriages… what a surprise… all around women threw khoi (puffed rice), blew conch shells, it was like a victory parade.”
Nationalistic songs and rakhi-tying was everywhere.
Suddenly, around Pathuriaghat, Rabindranath, all 6 ft-plus of him, dashed off and tied rakhis on the sowars (horse-minders), who were all Muslims. Abanindranath feared for the worst: bloodshed. Instead, there were fraternal hugs all around.
“Then Rabi-kaka said, ‘We’ll all march to the Chitpore mosque, tie rakhis there.’” There, the young Abanindranath’s nerves failed at the thought of bloodshed when Rabi-kaka would try to tie rakhis on maulavis. He fled. Later, when the gang came back unscathed, he asked what had happened, “What else? We tied the rakhis and everyone smiled and hugged us.”
Abanindranath was a great writer and gifted painter. Driven by Asian anti-colonial movements of his time, he rejected European art forms and embraced different styles. Sumit Sarkar, in his magisterial The Swadeshi Movement in Bengal, writes about how Japanese painters like Okakura Kakuzo, Yokoyama Taikan and Hishida Shunso, Mughal and Rajput art, and the murals of Ajanta influenced Abanindranath.
When Rabindranath was dashing into mosques to tie rakhis to fend off communalism, Abanindranath painted a picture of Banga Mata, Mother Bengal. She was dressed in a simple saree, what village women wore in those days, not the ‘Vaishnavaite nun’ garb that modern art historians say. She held a piece of white cloth, a palimpsest (puthi, in Bangla), a sheaf of paddy and a rudraksh garland in her four hands. Each is symbolic.
Food and shelter, wisdom and piety were the motifs of the original avatar of Bharat Mata. Banga Mata was wise, kind and all-embracing. No lions accompanied her. No flames flared in her wake. She spanned no map of Akhand Bharat.
By1911, Charles Hardinge, the new viceroy, was beaten by the Swadeshi Movement and the overwhelming appeal of the compassionate Banga Mata among all communities. The partition of Bengal was revoked.
The original Banga Mata and the Swadeshis won because all communities came together in an embrace. What a difference from today’s polarising, vicious deity sold by teleyogis and their political masters.
Maternity wards: Abanindranath Tagore’s Bharat Mata (1905); Subrata Roy in front Bharat Mata, Lucknow, 2005