Contemporary Indian feminist art has found its new favourite motif – the ‘Indian’ goddess. While this trend is not entirely new, recent pieces of art do seems to have rediscovered the imagery and have enthusiastically used it in their narrative of ‘Indian Feminism’.
Chitra Ganesh’s installation ‘The Eyes of Time’, Priyanka Paul’s ‘Goddesses’ series, Sam Madhu’s re-imagination of goddesses as everyday women are only few of the art pieces that have garnered appreciation and acclaim. The repeated use of the goddess figure to symbolise an ‘Indian’ woman brings forth several questions of representation, marginalisation and the association of divinity and feminism, which has problematic implications.
Women in upper caste, Hindu households have long been compared to goddesses. Whether its in the context of propagation of a certain kind of nationalism wrapped in the symbolic Bharat Mata– an icon of purity, pristine motherhood and fertility burdened with the ‘honour’ of the nation; or in the form of Lakshmi to hint at a fortune that arises out of her mere presence (its undeniable linkages to dowry implications); or Kali – the divine manifestation of ‘Stri- Shakti’.
In the article, ‘Is the Hindu Goddess a feminist?’ Rajeshwari Sundar Rajan argues that comparing women with goddesses is problematic on many accounts. The first of which is the notion of a singular goddess entity, a universal term that seems to encompass a certain brand of femininity and ‘goodness’ and glosses over the pantheon of goddesses in Hindu mythology that hold very diverse connotations for different groups of people. This singular notion of Hinduism, has for the longest time, been endorsed by the Hindu right wing.
This brand of ‘Hindutva feminism’ has been normalised through popular art forms and literature. In the 1970s the image of these select goddesses were often used in movements meant to mobilise women. If critically examined, one would stand to observe that the upper-caste Hindu populace worships the goddesses popularly invoked in these contexts.
Also Read: Bharat Mata and the Ideal Indian Woman
Indian political theorist and Ambedkarite activist, Kancha Illaiah argues for a more democratic and secular feminism that appeals to women from non-dominant castes as well. In his critique of Hindu Philosophy, he makes some very interesting observations about how goddess-inspired feminism grew among the upper-caste women in Indian society as a response to the Mandal reforms in the 1990s.
The art pieces in question here, were created and displayed as a response to Western, white feminism that could not recognise the oppression that brown women face. ‘The Eyes of Time’ by Chitra Ganesh has been touted as one of the finest intersectional feminist work in the 21st century. The installation was put up in the Brooklyn museum in 2015. She used imageries of Kali and other figures from Judy Chicago’s ‘The Dinner Party’ to start a conversation on female power and plurality.
Chitra Ganesh explains her work by saying, “In this painting, the many-armed goddess Durga rides in the centre on her tiger, while her even fiercer incarnation, Matangi, is shown at the upper left holding a severed head and a sword. Along with Kali, they are among the ten fearsome forms of female divinity known as Mahavidyas. By picturing overlapping avatars, paintings such as this one indicate the fluidity between and interrelation of a variety of goddess forms. This plurality also allows various social groups to identify with female divinity through their preferred avatar. For example, Matangi, a marginal figure in the pantheon, has often been associated with worship among lower castes”.
Both Sam Madhu and Priyanka Paul’s choice of goddess also seems to be Kali and her avatars. While Sam Madhu uses her to portray a liberated woman, unapologetic about her sexuality, Priyanka Paul portrays goddesses as everyday women. She says, ‘Tumblr Kali is a badass brown girl. Loves graphic t-shirts and piercings. She’s against misogyny and sexism and quite literally slays.’
So why is it problematic to portray women as goddesses? Rajeshwari Sundar Rajan points out that goddess worship does not translate into better life opportunities for women. It is a token representation, merely symbolic. The trope of Stri-Shakti and goddess worship is Hinduism’s oldest trope, absolving itself from patriarchy and caste discrimination that it is deeply rooted in. It mechanically responds to claims of lack of representation by pointing out that by the virtue of worshiping a female body, they distance themselves from all accusations.
The Hindu right wing has iconised Kali as the flagbearer of ‘Hindutva feminism’. They glorify her victory against asuras and have immortalised her as the divine manifestation of Stri-Shakti. But the asuras and daanavas she slays, are are Dalit and Adivasi people, that Brahmanical Hinduism portrays as perpetrators of crime and violence. Goddess worship is very much a part of the patriarchal and casteist practices of Hinduism, masked as ‘respect for women’.
The trope of Stri-Shakti and goddess worship is Hinduism’s oldest trope, absolving itself from patriarchy and caste discrimination that it is deeply rooted in.
Moreover, the very notion of equating ‘Indian culture’ or brown-girl feminism with ‘Hindu culture’ is highly problematic. It reinforces majoritarianism and ignores those who subscribe to any other religion. The idea of a religious nationalism remains untouched by these interventionary pieces of artwork. The brown girls who are not confined by societal bearings are all upper class, upper-caste Hindu girls.
The trope of using divinity as a way of negotiating with patriarchy also poses its own problems. Why does femininity need to associate with divinity at all? Does this imply that a mortal female body will not be allowed to occupy spaces and will not be given the opportunities that a body associated with divinity will be? There are further deeper questions of the kind of bodies that can be equated with a divine entity. These restrict the scope and reach of Indian feminism and define a very straightjacketed framework under which it needs to operate.
Maybe contemporary feminist art needs new motifs to epitomise Indian feminism. The boundary within which it currently operates seems to be too narrow and privileged to accommodate the different voices within the movement.
Featured Image Credit: Sam Madhu