Gaurav Kalra | DUJES Volume 27 | 2019 Issue

(De)Coding Bodyscape: A Study of Select Visual Prints in the Nationalist Discourse

Gaurav Kalra is a PhD research scholar in the Department of English and Cultural Studies, Panjab University, Chandigarh (India). He has worked on the “Politics of Posture and Sartorial Sagacity: The Construction of Ascetic Masculinity in Vivekananda’s Photographs and Posters” as a part of the project entitled Manly MattersRepresentations of Maleness in South Asian Popular Visual Practice under the mentorship of Prof. Sumathi Ramaswamy, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina during 2017-2018. Theoretical and archival research, critical inquiry of national icon formations and visual constructs are the areas of research interest.

The role of visual art as a political tool, especially during the colonial era, to disseminate multifarious ideological underpinnings has often remained at the center stage of the nationalist discourse. The paper critically scrutinizes deployment of visual art forms by nationalist elites for the ideological projection of the elitist strategies under the guise of the nationalist discourse. The national elite groups like brahmins, industrialists, agricultural landlords, capitalists, and the Western-educated Indians utilized visual culture to disseminate the notion of national consciousness among the masses. The forerunners of the anti-colonial movement knew the fact that without inducing the spirit of active participation and sacrifice in the consciousness of the masses, freedom was nothing but a utopian dream. Various art forms have been exploited to evoke the nationalist sentiments of the masses before and after independence. Visual art provided them an altogether different space to enter into the otherwise interior private sphere of the masses. This helped in widening the portfolio of the nationalist elite to sway the masses into their own nationalist strategies. The present paper will try to critically evaluate select visual art techniques employed by the nationalist elite during the course of anti-colonial struggle in India.
Keywords: Visual Art, Bodyscape, Geobody, Nationalist Discourse, Bharat Mata.

The idea of nationalism, particularly ‘Third World Nationalism’, gradually seeps into the consciousness of the people through well-defined strategies of the national freedom movements. The very invocation of the word ‘movement’ makes us believe in the participation of people from below, but the ideological legitimization of national movement is often a result of the socio-political needs and interests of the elite.[1] The role of the elite in monopolizing the discourse of nationalism clearly reveals the ideological structuring of the nation in a particular way. The elitist reading of history, mythology, or culture, in general, is deployed to legitimize the ideological framework within which the neo-elite of the emancipated nation can safely operate. The colonial practices of engaging with the nationalist elite in their (native elite) moments of crisis only perpetuated a culture of elitism.
The lopsided trajectory of Indian historiography has served the interest of either colonialist elitism or bourgeoisie elitism (Guha 1).The colonialist historiography projected Indian nationalism as a ‘learning process’ and opened up a liminal space for the native elites. On the other hand, the nationalist segment presented Indian nationalism as an ‘idealist venture’ wherein the indigenous elite acquired the position of mass leaders. (Guha 2). Both the approaches singled out the “politics of the people”[2] and excluded the contribution as well as the involvement of people in the freedom movement of India. Though the elitist projection of history is subsequently challenged with the development of other critical perspectives on the historiography of Indian nationalism, yet it continued to percolate through various socio-cultural mediums. Visual art plays a significant role in conforming to the ideological implementation and have been exploited to evoke the nationalist sentiments of the masses pre-and post-Independence. The ambiguous projections of Indian historiography through selected individuals ascertain the politicization of the Indian national elite.
Apparently, the socio-political, cultural, as well as economic strings of Independence movement have been channelized either overtly or covertly by taking into consideration the vested interests of the nationalist elite. Even the mobilization of people in the name of anti-colonial struggle contrived to accomplish the already formulated ideological framework of nationalist discourse: as Paratha Chatterjee claims that “the political appropriation of the subaltern classes by bourgeoisie aspire for hegemony in the new nation-state” (Chatterjee 100; also see Pandey 1982). Therefore, the role of masses becomes negligible in the ideological framing of the anti-colonial movement which turns them into the mere agents following the guidelines issued by the cultural nationalists.
The deployment of politically motivated rhetoric for the active participation of the people facilitated the perpetuation of nationalist ideology among the masses. The elitist formulation of nationalist discourse evaded the attempts of counter-positioning it with the diverse regional, linguistic and ethnic identities of India. The foregrounding of the anti-imperialist struggle over the class and caste issues prevalent in the Indian society unfolds the unilateral vision of the nationalist discourse. The question of power and autonomous authority was camouflaged under the dissemination of ideological strategies in the name of the anti-colonial struggle. The forerunner of the anti-colonial movement knew the fact that without inducing the spirit of active participation and sacrifice into the consciousness of the masses, freedom was nothing but a utopian dream. The idea of freedom became the common metaphor to demonstrate the elitist vision of independent nation-state. The nationalists projected this domain as a microcosm of the democratic space perpetuating the notion of freedom for strengthening the nationalist discourse. The consciousness of the people participating in the anti-colonial movement was directed towards the projected vision of attaining freedom from the colonial rule. The parallel movement of anti-colonial struggle at mass level and formation of the nation at an ideological plane are politically intermeshed within the homogenized vision of Independence movement.
The same colonial socio-political structure has been redeployed and reiterated through the exploitation of visual art, rhetoric, photography, theatre, etc. for the ideological projection of the elitist strategies under the guise of the nationalist discourse before and after Independence. With the opening of the various printing presses, politically motivated rhetoric acquired the space within the colonial structure to reach out to the wider public domain. As Lokmanya Tilak often claimed, the “liberty of the press and liberty of speech often give birth to a nation and nourish it” (qtd. in Chandra 1989 521). The sliding of historical narrative into the nationalist discourse carves out the differential political strategies of the anti-colonial struggle. These narratives were used to perpetuate the spirit of rebellion among the Indian masses to overthrow the colonial powers. The nationalists projected the historical figures within the religious framework representing them larger than life. Even in the religious festivals, they tried to incorporate them as one among the already existing god/goddesses of the Hindu religion. The politicization of Ganpati Utsav for the promotion of political agendas bespeaks the exploitation of the devotional public domain for their own interest in the name of the anti-colonial movement (Kaur 31).
The usage of the word sarvajanik (public) in the title of the image (See figure 1) provides testimony to the emergent national consciousness among people during the freedom movement of India. With the efforts of Bal Gangadhar Tilak and the other influential members, especially after the 1890s, the Ganpati Utsav was celebrated on a grand public scale continuously for eleven days. During the Peshwa regime, it was a religious and household affair, confined to the four walls of temples. Tilak appropriated it as a grand event and took it out from the private sphere to the public domain (Kaur 31).

Figure 1: One of the earliest Ganesh Utsav Mandals started by Tilak

Further, the depiction of Shivaji was utilized to demonstrate the cultural uniqueness of people in the past. The revival of the historical past through the portrayal of Shivaji as a verbal and visual icon of freedom underscores the idea of the democratization of the nation in the making. Chitrashala Press, started at Pune in 1879, with its publication of magazines such as Nibandha Mala and Kavyetihas Sangrah created nostalgia among people through the historical portrayal of magnificent past of Shivaji’s empire. This space was capitalized to produce the historical narrative with various images subscribing to the glorious past under the Shivaji and the Peshwa regime. The newspapers—founded by Tilak along with Gopal G Agarkar and Vishnushastri Chiplunkar—Mahratta and Kesari, along with the project of New English School, helped to produce the anti-colonial voice within the confinement of colonial administration (Seal 234-244).

Figure2: Shivaji receiving the blessings of the goddess (c. 1940) Courtesy: Bazaar Art.

The above mentioned image (Figure 2) displays Shivaji standing before the goddess Bhavani and she seems to bestow him with the sword. The depiction of goddess Bhavani on an elevated platform with eight hands carrying weapons of different kinds along with the divine halo at the back creates an enigmatic persona of a warrior woman. The presence of the lion fiercely looking directly into the eyes of the beholder symbolizes the power and prestige of the deity. The aarti plate—with fruits, flowers, and lighted wicks— not only symbolizes the customs and rituals of Hindus but also foregrounds the positioning of Shivaji as a staunch devotee of the deity. The presence of Shivaji in his royal attire with his folded hands provides testimonies to it. The entire paraphernalia reinforces the intervention of the divine and unseen powers in his mission. However, while writing about the Ramdas cult, V.K. Rajwade presents the image of saint Ramdasas a militant monk as well as the spiritual adviser of Shivaji. The saint was promoted not only as the devotee of Ram and Hanuman but also as a person who promoted “the muscular and assertive Maharastra dharma” (qtd. in Pinney 55). Shivaji followed the appeal of his spiritual mentor and purchased a “double-edged sword of European workmanship” (Karandikar 81).The narrative gained currency in the public domain and later became one of the recurrent themes in the visual representation of Shivaji. S.S. Karandikar also talks about the belief of Shivaji in the goddess Bhavani who is considered to be the ruthless killer of devils and demons. He further provides an account of the Shivaji’s sword ‘Bhavani’ which clearly reveals his firm faith in the unseen power or role of the divine element in the fulfillment of his desired goal. Tilak’s deployment of the historical narrative of Shivaji’s sword in his newspaper Kesari with the publication of a poem named “Bhavani Tarvar” reveals the disguised political ideology of hero-worship to stir up the suppressed voices of masses against the colonial injustice (Kelkar 369).
            The nationalist elite understood that the entire colonial power-structure stood on the notion of invincibility and their projected image as social and cultural benefactors of colonized India. So, they exposed the colonialist social and political strategy of exploitation and devised their own framework of nation-building on the notions of civil liberty and democratic tradition. Though there has not been any definite strategy which was followed in the course of the nationalist discourse, the whole intellectual framework has been created and implemented in accordance with the need of the situation. Nonetheless, the ‘Indian National Congress’ strategy of negotiation and reconciliation with the Extremists, the Moderates, and the Leftists gradually transformed the party into a powerful authority. On the other hand, the promotion of agricultural and industrial development simultaneously with the secular, republic, democratic political order based on social equality was carried unquestionably throughout the anti-colonial movement.
The reformulation of the already existing cartographic representation of India into its own specific “geo-body” explicates the disguised elitist projection of the nation. It can be noted that “geo-body” is a concept used by Thongchai Winichakul.Winichakul argues that “a nation's territory is not simply a sizable piece of the earth's surface. It is a territoriality” (Winichakul 16).While elaborating the difference between the territoriality and the earth’s surface, Robert sack argues that territoriality is “always socially and humanly constructed in a way that physical distance [piece of the earth's surface] is not”. (Sack 30). Extending the idea further, Winichakul tries to link the notion of geo-body with the concept of territoriality: “the geo-body of a nation is a man-made territorial definition which creates effects-by classifying, communicating, and enforcement-on people, things, and relationships” (Winichakul 17).To a larger extent, it is not possible to visualize the body of a nation without its political map.
The discourse of mapping creates a new geographical consciousness into the minds of people. It provides ample space for the conception, projection, and creation of an altogether new identity. It is not merely limited to the spatial representation of a particular area but also becomes a lethal instrument to concretize the already projected geo-body of the nation. As Robert Sack observes people tend to think about territoriality “as a natural entity, as the place to which …[they] belon[g] emotionally and spiritually”(Sack 74). The discourse of mapping becomes an essential cog for the functionality of the administrative machinery of the nation. Treading on a similar pattern, colonial administrators in the late 18th century demystified the esoteric image of India with the cartographic representation of colonial India. Geography as a discipline was promoted with an underlying motive to project the rationalistic tendencies and a new geographical consciousness among the masses. It communicated the cultural and scientific superiority of colonial power over the native Indians. As Matthew Edney asserts such a cartographic image was necessary to the colonial definition of India “as a coherent and singular territorial entity”, as an imperial space under the British reign (Edney 67).

Figure  3: Image of the Relief Map in the Bharat Mata Temple, Varanasi. Courtesy: WikiCommons

The formulation of Bharat-Mata as a territorial deity underlines the politics of spatialization conferring it with a specific role and place for the perpetuation of patriotism among colonized people. The intermeshing of politically derived propagandas within the religious domain helped to evoke the nationalist sentiments. The process of the “map-mindedness” facilitated the emergence of the new cultural image of India. The internalization of this process concretizes it as having evolved through the shared culture and histories, sidelining the technology of map-making. The opening of Bharat-Mata temple in Varanasi (See Figure 3) in 1936 with the display of giant marble floor relief displaying a cartographical representation of India—without any other picture or idol of deities as usually found in the Hindu temple— draws attention to the religious legitimacy of the projected vision of nation-state (Ramaswamy 149-152). The nationalists created the notion of national identity into the consciousness of the people through spatial demarcation of the territory of the nation.
The figure of ‘Mother-India’ has been exploited as a visual metaphor to reach out to the interior landscape of the masses. Moreover, the process of centralizing ‘Mother-India’ as a powerful visual icon with its religious legitimization as goddesses of territory places it in the realm of unquestionable authority. Therefore, it acquired the status of a national symbol in the minds of people participating in the anti-colonial movement. This journey of Bharat-Mata from the textual realm to the visual is not an apolitical one. It has been consolidated through various oral and textualized narratives. One can cite an instance from the life of K.M. Munshi, when he with one of his friends went to meet Aurobindo Ghosh, who was officiating as the principal of the Baroda College at that time. With great perturbation, he asked, “How one can become patriotic?” With the disarming smile, Aurobindo pointed to the wall map of India and said: “Do you see this map? It is not a map but a portrait of Bharat-Mata: its cities and mountains, rivers and jungles form her physical body. All her children are her nerves, large and small. Their literature is her memory and her speech, their vitality is her life, their cultural aspirations her soul, their freedom and happiness her self-fulfillment.Concentrate on Bharat as a living mother, worship her with the nine-fold bhakti” (Dave 38). It is interesting to note that Aurobindo advised him (Munshi) to worship the territorial map of India as a figure of Bharat Mata. The statement works on the dual axis of imagining India as a geographical entity and a somatic being. The process gets manifested through the superimposition of the figure of the Bharat Mata on the territorial map of the nation. It further testifies the articulation of the nation through the mass circulation of these visual and textual mediums.

Figure 4: "The Spirit of Motherland" (1904-05), Abanindranath Tagore

The formation of the national consciousness among the masses from its initial stages of naming, the conception of the flag to the figuration of Bharat Mata (Mother India) has been consolidated through various social, cultural, political and visual strategies. For instance, the painting by Abinindranath Tagore (See figure 4),which is considered more or less as the first anthropomorphic image of Bharat Mata, depicts the young woman clad in an ochre-coloured saree, holding a book, sheaves of paddy, a piece of white cloth and a garland depicting the material, intellectual and spiritual gifts. The painting was produced during the territorial partitioning of Bengal during 1905. Interestingly, in the figure of Bharat Mata, Tagore did not incorporate the mapped image of India. The divine halo at the back with lotuses around her feet places her persona into the already established religious canon of gods and goddesses. The painting seems to provide a blueprint for the humanization of Bharat Mata which became a powerful rallying symbol during the later phase of the anti-colonial struggle.

Figure 5: A 1937 print of a P.S. Ramachandra Rao Painting

Nationalist elite operated within the ambit of the colonial structure of cartographic representation for the creation of an iconic representation of Bharat-Mata, but with different socio-political strategies. The conversion of territorial space into “bodyscapes”—the use of human figures to represent nation— was the metaphorical supersedence of the nationalist elite over the territory of the geographical dimension of the country (Davis 34).For instance, the abovementioned figure (See Figure 5) provides testimony to the transformation of a human body (Bharat Mata) into the territorial landscape of India. The image also displays the conglomeration of the leaders who are paying homage to the revered deity. Along with the body, the flowing tresses of her tricolor saree seem to be in conjunction with the cartographic representation of colonial India. It also incorporates the freedom fighters into its mesmeric fold which gives sanctity to their sacrifice for the sake of the mother India.
The whole project of turning an abstract idea of a nation and the territory of India into the mother of all Indians was undertaken to spread among the consciousness of masses the already structured blueprint of the nation in the making. The conversion of the devotional into the political constituted an imagined pan-Indian landscape which opened up the possibility to reach the interior private spaces of the individual. Furthermore, the mass production of the image helped in concretizing the nationalistic discourse before as well as after independence. With the mass production of the images, irrespective of the caste barrier one could have the images of the gods or goddesses in homes; this resulted in the formation of a metaphorical space created by the religious nationalists to strengthen, what Peter van der Veer identifies as, the ‘‘religious nationalism’’ (van der Veer 1994).The very process of locking-in between the devotee and the image connotatively fabricated the nationalist discourse of political mobilization among the masses within the set framework of Indian national elite. The process of perceiving the ideologically motivated signs becomes easier and conceivable among illiterate people, furthermore in a juncture when people were in search of something divine to rescue them from the colonial socio-political bondage. Therefore, visual art, in contiguity with the domain of religion, became a pertinent tool in the hands of the cultural nationalists for the deployment of their socio-political strategies to encounter the prevailing colonial proscription; further it played a crucial role in shaping the imagination of nation in the consciousness of the masses.
In conclusion, the nationalist elite utilized visual art as a political tool for the dissemination of nationalist ideas among people. Art that was connected to the domain of the religion became an essential cog for the perpetuation of elitist ideological formation of the nation. Nationalist elite utilized religion as a sanctioning authority for the proliferation of politically contextualized visual art forms in society. Visual prints also transgressed the linguistic barriers and were utilized as signifiers of nationalist discourse. They create an altogether different ‘territorial space’ which has been capitalized by the nationalist elite to raise the suppressed spirit of people against colonizers away from the colonial glare. The dissemination of visual prints in the public domain provides the gateway to enter into the private spaces of an individual. The conversion of sacred into political and vice-versa converted the devotional domain into a platform to launch the nationalist ideology among masses. Thus the proliferation of mass-produced images with the help of print media further strengthened the elitist framework of the nationalist movement.


[1] I am using the term “elite” in the way Ranajit Guha uses it. Cf. Guha 1982.

[2] The trajectory of Indian historiography seems to be lopsided as it selectively elevates the role of nationalist elite as the harbinger of the Indian nationalist movement. Subaltern historians provocatively question the history writing on the freedom movement of India and call it elitist as well as “unhistorical historiography”, as it sidelines the role of the people who struggled against the colonial rule and foregrounds the position of the native elite as the major stakeholders in the freedom movement of India.

List of Illustrations
Figure 1: One of the earliest Ganesh UtsavMandals started by Tilak.
Figure 2: Shivaji receiving the blessings of the goddess (c. 1940) Courtesy: Bazaar Art.
Figure 3: Image of the relief Map in the Bharat Mata Temple, Varanasi. Courtesy: Wikicommons.
Figure 4: “The Spirit of Motherland” (1904-1905), Abanindranath Tagore.
Figure 5: A 1937 print of a P.S. RamachandraRao’s Painting.

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