The Origin of ‘Bharat Mata’
Photographs of the painting Bharat Mata and its painter Abanindranath Tagore were taken from the website of Victoria Memorial (victoriamemorial-cal.org) and Wikipedia
It was 1905. Bengal had plunged headlong into Swadeshi movement (Nationalist movement) wholeheartedly, protesting against the decision of the British to partition the province. It touched each and every section of the society and beside political speeches, the great churning threw up patriotic songs, new art, indigenous industries and nationalist educational institutions. The Tagore family had also been swept by the strong tides of the movement. Rabindranath Tagore composed songs with a fervour, sung in the processions or at Rakhi bandhan utsav (a festival to celebrate brotherhood) to protest against the government’s decision to divide Bengal. In this backdrop of fervent nationalism his nephew, Abanindranath Tagore or Aban Thakur as he was more popularly known as, wielded the brush and painted his iconic masterpiece, Bharat Mata (Mother India) in water colour.
In his own words “I painted Bharat Mata. She bestows food, clothing and reassurance (onno, bostro borabhoy). A Japanese artist made a larger copy on a banner. I don’t know where the banner ended up afterwards. Anyway, Robi-kaka (Rabindranath) composed the songs, Dinu (Dinendranath Tagore, grand-nephew of Rabindranath Tagore) along with others carried the banner and sang the songs to collect subscriptions in Chorbagan area. In those days anything done to serve the country had to be done in the Swadeshi (Nationalistic) way.”
Though Abanindranath’s tone about his achievement sounded casual, almost bordering upon irreverential his iconic painting not only signalled the beginning of a new age in Indian art but also offered a nationalist but non-religious symbol for his fellow countrymen, struggling to throw away the foreign yoke. The immediate literary precursor of Bharat Mata was found in another seminal work – Anandamath by Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay. Abanindranath conceived his Bharat Mata or Banga Mata – as he had originally named the painting – very differently from later visualisations of Mother India – as a Hindu goddess, in all her finery, perched on a lion with a banner and a weapon with a map of India as a backdrop. She seemed to be an Indian version of Britannia with the lion. In contrast Tagore’s Bharat Mata, painted in ‘delicate colours’ eschewed religious connotations. She is a picture of serenity and purity; dressed in a simple garb of saffron she is more of an average Bengali woman with conch shell bangles. The radiant white halo that frames her face and the four arms bestowing onno-bastra-sheeksha-deeksha or food, clothing, knowledge and faith are the only indications of her divinity. There are four white lotuses at her feet which emphasise her Indian identity apart from her dress and features. Depicted as a yogini (woman ascetic) she stands for renunciation and transcendentalism, very Indian in ethos. Though Abanindranath belonged to that branch of the Tagores which did not embrace Brahmo faith his depiction of Bharat Mata embraced India’s entire cultural history not through boundaries of religious orthodoxy, but through a cosmopolitan and non-sectarian spirituality. Yet, it was perhaps the first political image to personify the geographical territory as mother. His abhorrence for violence well-known it is no wonder that she does not wield a weapon.
But despite her Indianness the painting also shows traces of Japanese influence. Okakura Kakuzo, the Japanese art historian staunchly believed in Asian universalism originally came to Calcutta to meet Swami Vivekananda and was introduced to the Tagores by Sister Nivedita. Abanindranath learnt the technique of ‘wash’ in water colour from Japanese artist, Yokoyoma Taikan sent to Calcutta by Okakura. Taikan taught him to wield a lighter brush. The edges are blurred, slightly out of focus evoking a mystical quality to the painting. The painting also signalled a new era for Indian art, completely removed from Western influence, different from the sensuous paintings of Ravi Verma whom Abanindranath Tagore criticised for depicting Saraswati posing like Venus. Prior to this Tagore drew portraits in Western style but now started studying Indian art of the past, even patachitra (scroll painting). No wonder Sister Nivedita who was greatly affected by the painting described it as “the first picture of India, the mother, that an Indian man makes for his people!” Aban Thakur confided that after this initial attempt he chose more and more Indian subjects and even asked his disciple, Nandalal Bose to depict Indian pantheon of gods and goddesses in art. He also tried to create indigenous dyes, gave up foreign-made colours though his attempt to fashion out paint brushes with cotton turned out to be a soggy affair.
Sister Nivedita’s firebrand nature was moved sufficiently by the depiction of Bharat Mata that she declared : “I would repaint it if I could, by tens of thousands and scatter it broadcast over the land, till there was not a peasant’s cottage or a craftsman’s hut between Kedarnath and Cape Comorin, that had not this presentment of Bharat Mata somewhere on its walls.” However, subsequent visualisation of Bharat Mata resembled Britannia more than Aban Thakur’s depiction.
Just like Abanindranath could not remember the fate of the original banner used to mobilise people and collect subscriptions during Swadeshi days the painting too remained hidden away from public eye for a long period of time. Since the 1950s, this image had remained stashed away 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 who chose to put it on display for a single-item exhibition. George Nathaniel Curzon, the Viceroy of India a staunch imperialist perhaps must have turned in his grave when Victoria Memorial authorities decided to exhibit the painting, Bharat Mata by Abanindranath Tagore in the hallows of the grand edifice that the former had conceived as a tribute to the longest reigning queen. It is indeed a fitting irony that Tagore painted Bharat Mata during Swadeshi Movement in 1905 which was triggered Lord Curzon’s decision to partition Bengal, apparently for administrative reasons but with a far more sinister design of dividing the Bengalees who were proving to be the proverbial fly in the ointment.