Imaging holy cow as Mother India

Only by seeking explanations to these self-imposed questions can art history reinvigorate itself in order to look at ourselves in the present and the past as well with a critical eye.

Published: 11th August 2022 01:30 AM  |   Last Updated: 11th August 2022 01:30 AM   |  A+A-

Poster representing the Cow Mother. Printed probably at Ravivarma Lithographic Press, Lonavla near Pune. (Photo | Special Arrangement)

What was probably the religious or political ideology which determined the choice of a theme, narrative structure, style, and why certain images or themes were recurrent and popular in a particular time and space have to be addressed in an art historical enquiry. 

Only by seeking explanations to these self-imposed questions can art history reinvigorate itself in order to look at ourselves in the present and the past as well with a critical eye. However, rethinking art and art history in these terms must acknowledge from the very outset the fact that “human culture is made up of signs, each of which stands for something other than itself, and the people inhabiting culture busy themselves making sense of those signs.” (Mieke Bal and Norman Bryson). In this sense, to get into the socially constituted meaning of a work of art, it has to be placed in a context which weaves it into a text out of a sign-system.

This insight has recently remoulded the approach in the study of social sciences. Despite this, art history as an academic discipline in Indian universities is largely found to be fixated on the study of ‘representation’, enquiring into the style, iconography and patronage based on religious and textual sources. Its reluctance to shrug off its habitual practice, in short, shows its prolonged interest to continue with the notion of history and art that the nation had ‘imagined’ in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

As a nationalist project, certain memorable episodes from history were selected to construct glorious cultural pasts. By the same token, it also either forgot or suppressed something ‘bad’ from its history. As a result, innumerable riots and rebellions were either entirely forgotten or brushed aside from the mainstream history to make it a “Wonder that was India” or “Incredible India”. 

Keeping pace with this sense of wonder and splendour, traditional art history remains disdainful towards popular visual culture of the past and therefore fails to offer an insight to look at ourselves surrounded by similar images which pervade our every quotidian space. 

In this context, as a part of extending the central point of my last discussion Roaring lion of the national emblem (July 20), I would like to draw attention to a brilliant study by Christopher Pinney, The Nation (Un)Pictured? Chromolithography and ‘Popular’ Politics in India, 1878—1995, which, in some part, focuses on a series of posters of a ‘Cow Mother’. These posters were endlessly reproduced and widely circulated across the subcontinent, particularly in north India in the late 19th century. He analyses them to show how a sense of nation was articulated through its visual strategy.

In the first instance, the poster looks innocent and harmless with an image of a holy cow. But it has certain encoded meanings to express through its imagery, which were apparently decoded in the backdrop of a series of violent anti-cow-slaughter agitations of the 1880s and 1890s, the prime cause of its production and circulation.

Covered with gods and rishis all over its body, the bovine is made sacred and identified as Cow Mother. In doing so, the cow becomes not only a sacred symbol, but also a sacred space—the Mother India. Its details make this sense explicit. Near the udders are seen a cluster of figures comprising the Hindus, a Sikh, a Parsi, a Christian, a European and a Muslim accepting milk from the milkman. It suggests an assumed equality and communal harmony. 

However, the Muslim is shown in a double role. Breaking the peaceful and harmonious moment of the sacred land, a butcher is shown with a drawn sword heading towards the Cow Mother. With dark skin, dishevelled long hair and a full-teethed open mouth, this demonic figure is meant to be identified with a meat-eating Muslim. This interplay of meaning is further made explicit through a caption near its head: “he manusyaho, kaliyugi mamsahari jivomko dekho” (Oh! mankind, look at the meat-eating souls of the kaliyug).

There are innumerable records showing that its viewers did not miss the point. A revealing one is a memo from 1893 prepared by the Indian Viceroy Lord Lansdowne (1888–1893). As a response to the query of the Earl of Kimberly about the ever-increasing communal riots, Lord Lansdowne, as quoted by Christopher Pinney, observes:

“[wandering ascetics] have distributed throughout the country a picture of the cow, of a kind calculated to appeal strongly to the religious sentiment of the people. 

One of them, for instance, depicts a cow in the act of being slaughtered by three Muhammadan butchers, and is headed ‘the present state’. Another exhibits a cow, in every part of whose body groups of Hindu deities and holy persons are shown, being assailed by a monster with a drawn sword entitled the ‘Kali Yug’ but which has been largely understood as typifying the Muhammadan community.”

Lansdowne also notes that the Muslims were agitated and felt insulted because they heard of a picture in circulation representing a Muslim with a drawn sword butchering a cow.

Posters and calendars with the motif of a cow as a sacred symbol of a nourishing Mother and Mother India had continuously been re-imagined and reproduced in subsequent periods at the length and breadth of the country in ever-expanding rhythm. 

As the religious sentiments and the communal politics involved in it had gained wider acceptance in the 20th century, it continued to proliferate uninterruptedly till the 1970s. Since the 1980s, too, it began to pervade our visual culture but in new incarnations altogether. I will return to it in my next turn.

Chandran T V
Art critic & author. Teaches art history at the College of Fine Arts, Thiruvananthapuram


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