sensory, material, & digital anthropology

Modi and Mother India: Photos of the Gods in the Digital Age

This post dissects a genre of images circulating on social media that highlight the ongoing debate over secularism in India. Each time India has a General Election records are broken – and this election the records are being broken online. Google has just released a set of analytics, Urban Indian Voters (2014) which explores how voters consumed online media, interacted online, and which topics were most searched. Internet usage has reached record highs and political images can be circulated faster and easier than ever before. Nearly 37% of the India electorate now use the internet (ibid). What Google’s analytics cannot do is to dissect the images, so I will discuss ways of interpreting a selection of digital photomontages created by the supporters of Narinda Modi -the Bharatiya Janata Party prime ministerial candidate- at the 2014 Lok Sabha (parliamentary) Election. These ‘born-digital’ images (Salmond 2012: 217) are unique to social media and have their own ‘social lives’ (Appadurai 1986). Images have social lives: meanings are continually being made and remade as they circulate between groups representing a variety of causes from cow protection groups to youth political movements. The Facebook groups to which these photomontages belong are at once active sites of identity politics and visual archives. Visual anthropology provides a theoretical framework on how ideologies become visual manifested (Banks and Morphy 1997: 2). I will illustrate how a set of images depicting Modi alongside Mother India (Bharat Mata) are part of a longer history of mechanically produced works of art in the Sub-Continent, particularly the introduction of chromolithograph prints.

Modi and Bharat Mata conquering Asia 2014

Figure 1. Modi and Bharat Mata conquering Asia 2014

So why focus on images relating to Modi? According to Google’s study, Modi was the most frequently searched for political candidate and the BJP the most searched party. I choose my images of Bharat Mata due to the frequency I found them on Facebook groups, and the number of ‘likes’ and comments they received on social media. No images were selected that I did not find duplicated across Facebook.

Google’s study took place across 65 Indian cities in 2013 so provides a good pan-Indian basis for online habits. Google’s results showed that many urban voters – especially the young- were now consuming equal amounts of traditional and digital political media. Digital images should be seen as an important part of this new online discourse so I wanted to discuss some of the images Modi’s supporters are creating and sharing across social media.

Figure 4. Modi's tweet.

Figure 2. Modi’s tweet.

Last week the BJP asked its supporters to stop chanting: ‘Har Har Modi’ because ‘Har Har’ should only precede the divine. This form of vyakti puja (worship of individuals) was deemed a step too far – even Modi took to Twitter to ask his followers to stop. However, despite paying lip service to secularism, and occasionally rebuking his overzealous supporters, Modi remains happy to tap into Hindu cultural capital. For example take Modi’s decision to stand as the Lok Sabha representative for Varanasi[i]. Few cities could boast of a closer affinity to Hinduism or endow a candidate with more symbolic capital. While Modi may shift his rhetoric between secularism and the idea of Hindu nation, a sizeable element within the BJP continue to position Modi alongside the divine.

Figure One: Modi and Bharat Mata 2014

Figure 3: Modi and Bharat Mata 2014

Figure Two: Modi and Bharat Mata 2014

Figure 4: Modi and Bharat Mata 2014

The Figure 1 and Figure 2 are very similar. Modi assumes the position of the worshipper and Bharat Mata (Mother India) floats above him both spatially and spiritually. So who is Bharat Mata and what does she represent? Bharat Mata stands tall, fair, richly adorned, beautiful and young, an idealised view of fertile Indian womanhood.  She holds the Nation’s flag in one hand and sits astride her vehicle, a lion – an animal also strongly linked to Modi. Modi’s supporters call him ‘the lion of the Gujarat’, envisioning him a noble and fierce defender of India/Hinduism. But in this image he has reverted to the dutiful son, head bowed low in respect and hand up in the worshipful position of namaste.

Figure 5: Bharat Mata, accompanied by Christ, the Buddha,  Swami Vivekananda, Bose, Jinnah, Gandhi, and Nehru

Figure 5: Bharat Mata, accompanied by Christ, the Buddha, Swami Vivekananda, Bose, Jinnah, Gandhi, and Nehru. Courtesy of Columbia University.

Bharat Mata is a young goddess. In Christopher Pinney’s Photos of the Gods (2004) the creation of Bharat Mata is located in the last decades of the 19th century where chromolithograph printing and nationalism converged. Under the Raj, conceptually, religion was independent and politics was highly regulated. Seditious images were tightly controlled and disseminating them led to severe punishments. But Bharat Mata marked a convergence between the spheres of politics and religion; she was at once a goddess, India, a cow protector (from beef eating Muslims and the British), and a symbol of nationalism. By being a Hindu goddess, she was a Nationalist icon and a deity worthy of being worshipped in her own right. Pinney’s work contains numerous examples of how Bharat Mata became entwined with the iconography of the freedom movement and its most famous figures. Chromolithographs provided the perfect medium for this new Goddess to be disseminated throughout India, prints were cheap to produce, easy to transport, and highly decorative. Images could also be read by a population hampered by illiteracy and a vast profusion of regional languages. Pinney argues not for a ‘history of art, but a history made by art’. Chromolithograph had a profound impact on the Nationalist movement. Common themes include pictures of Gandhi and Bharat Mata, and Bharat Mata receiving the martyrs who sacrificed their lives fighting the British such as Bhagat Singh. Bharat Mata was the cultural product of a distinct time and space where chromolithographs print technology met the burgeoning Indian nationalism. In relation to the early rhetoric of nationalism, Bharat Mata was an inclusive figure often featuring alongside images of prominent Muslim politicians and the symbols of other faiths. Since Independence Bharat Mata has increasingly become an exclusively Hindu symbol, and now often stands in direct opposition to earlier multi-faith visions of the Indian Nation. Digital images have become cheaper, easier and quicker to share than their chromolithograph ancestors. And,  through the powers of copy and paste it has become even easier to deploy Bharat Mata in new contexts, through juxtaposition, in digital photomontages.

However, let us return to our current images. To rule out any possibility of ambiguity in Figure 1 and 2, Bharat Mata stands superimposed over maps of India. She has been transformed from an icon of sedition to the Nation State embodied. Modern India’s borders are part of her iconography; the post-colony is her body. And to take this point even further, saffron yellow dominates these pictures. Saffron has become the colour of Hindutva, an aggressive ideology that seeks to bind Hinduism and the Indian State closer together. So close in fact that there will be little room for the Sub-Continent’s other faiths except as subservient minorities whose influences should at best be curtailed, and where possible reversed. And in India, Muslims remain the largest minority.

Figure 6: Bharat Mata and her Islamic antithesis.

Figure 6: Bharat Mata and her Islamic antithesis.

Facebook groups function as archives. Images are not isolated but placed in contexts. Next to the images I have already discussed are a plethora of caricatures of opponents, images of Modi with other gods, photographs, logos, and text based images. One image I found repeatedly (Figure four) is a pictorial antithesis, an anti-Bharat Mata if you will. The rhetoric is simple, what would happen if Bharat Mata was replaced by a Muslim woman? What if India became Islamic? Below the posters usually encourage other Facebook users to comment 1 or 2, depending on their choice. The logic is simple if you don’t choose Modi and Bharat Mata you are giving India over to Islam. This image has been reposted on several groups and often commented upon. It displays, and encourages, the fear of the minority Muslim community in India -and the suspicion they are the servants of Pakistan. The Image’s message is simple: secularism will not save India from the ‘terrors of Islam’. The beautiful, strong, and free Bharat Mata has been usurped by a burqa wearing woman: an index of Muslim intolerance –which is ironic in many ways. A clenched fist in the top right adds a sense of aggressive urgency to the composition. The fear the Image plays upon is that of a majority with a minority complex. It encouragers the viewer to imagine an India where Hinduism has been crushed –and Islam reigns supreme. And part of Modi’s attraction for the BJP’s electorate was that he made sure Muslim’s ‘knew their place’ in the bloody communal riots of 2002. When Modi was Chief Minister of the Gujarat there was a series of communal riots that left hundreds dead and thousands homeless. Muslims comprised the overwhelming majority of the victims. To date Modi has expressed little remorse for these deaths and has avoided making any full public apology to the Muslim community. Interestingly a minority with the Muslim community do support Modi in the Gujarat, although more in the public sphere than in polling booths. But let us return to the image of the anti-Bharat Mata, an image of binaries.

While eight Hindu politicians including Modi sit to the right of Bharata Mata, to the right of Islamic figure, are Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal.  These men are not Muslim politicians; they are the rival prime-ministerial candidates. However, the Image’s rhetoric suggests that these men are too secular and too weak to hold back the threat of Islam. And here I want to move away from the binaries. To hold up Modi as a threat to secularism may be correct, but to offer up Gandhi’s Congress and Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) as its saviour would be false. For Gandhi’s and Kejriwal’s secularism is little more than a veneer. Congress pays lip service to a soft Hindutva and Kejriwal AAP revels in the high caste Vashnivite values of Gandhi. Kejriwal has also done his fair share of Hindu activism supporting the Ramakrishna Mission in North-East India. The Hindu right and left are not binaries; they bear more similarities than either care to admit. Kejriwal will contest the Varanasi seat in direct opposition to Modi. Both men seek to push their Hindu credentials and highlight their religious values such as strict vegetarianism. And for a real threat to democracy, it would be hard for Modi to outdo Rahul Gandhi’s grandmother, Indira, who nearly destroyed democracy during the 1975-7 Emergency. In contrast to Rahul, Modi cannot claim an illustrious family name – the only famous mother he can lay claim to is Bharat Mata. So instead he has styled himself as self-made man, and this has proved successful at gaining the support of the aspiring middle-classes. Supporting the BJP does not make one a proponent of communal violence -Modi has built a solid electoral platform of development, charisma, and market reforms- but one does need to have excuses for, or selective amnesia over, the riots in Gujarat. Returning to the anti-Bharat Mata image, what it suggest is not that Modi’s opponents are not real Hindu’s, rather they are just not Hindu enough. Only Modi can satisfy the aggressive Hindutva elements in the BJP as they seek to push their chosen man further away from any trace of secularism. And, how better to present this vision than through circulating images of Modi and Bharat Mata?

Figure 6: Modi with a statue of Bharat Mata 2013.

Figure 6: Modi with a statue of Bharat Mata 2013.



Sources and further reading

Appadurai, Arjun

1986    The social life of things: commodities in cultural perspective: Cambridge University Press.

Banks, Marcus, and Howard Morphy

1997    Rethinking visual anthropology. New Haven ; London: Yale University Press.

Salmond, Amiria

2012    Digital Subjects, Cultural Objects: Special Issue introduction. Journal of Material Culture 17(3):211-228.


[i] Varanasi is one of Hinduism seven sacred cities (Sapta Puri). Built along the river sacred Ganges, pilgrims come from all over the world come to Varanasi to bathe in the river, scatter the ashes of the deceased, and visit the numerous temples that make up the City.  Varanasi is also home to India’s most famous temple to Bharat Mata.

One comment on “Modi and Mother India: Photos of the Gods in the Digital Age

  1. Pingback: The Visual Politics of Beef in Indian Elections | SENSIBLE CULTURE

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