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.
Also Read: Women’s Sexuality In The Indian Nationalist Discourse
Featured Image Credit: Sam Madhu
I usually do not buy into art that exoticises or fetishises Hindu culture. I also find it lazy to slap on goddess, or kitsch elements to artwork to then say it automatically becomes Indian. But consider a different p.o.v. of some of these works, that they bring the goddess down from the heavens, and speak of her as everyday, modern women. They cd also be of young women who reclaim the goddess as their own motif, and may, possibly, over time be subverted.
I have often seen this narrative on Quora, where I write about feminism. Whenever I point out the sexist aspects of Hinduism and its effects on our culture, a common retort is “But we worship goddesses!”
Placing women on a pedestal by deifying them, or demonising them by blaming them for man’s destruction (a few Hindu texts share the idea), in either case, you are creating a divide between people. A woman is not seen as a part of the ‘normal’.
And worshipping goddesses doesn’t make you egalitarian.
A few sashtras also calls on man being destructive and what sexism ? I mean hinduism is so vast, yeah some part has them but mostly the religious texts don’t quote much discrimination, it’s individual opinions of the scholars over the years, heck one of the most important text mahabharata has one of Arjuna’s Wife Uloopi who forcefully abducted him to have sex with, also she was a widow before marrying Arjuna… The problem is most liberals, feminists and extreme right wingers haven’t read any texts and quote seeing a few … Yeah the problem exists because of poetic license given to any scholar who could influence, they just went on adding their opinion … Still sexist verses aren’t given divine status or anything… One or two books do that alone … Now I am not justifying anything but the thing is traditions and religion is different, as they say … Traditionally there is discrimination but for the large part its not the religions fault … Ps : There is an inherent divide and you can’t change those fact, it’s not about superiority or inferiority but blantly saying men and women are just about equal in everything is really wrong and irrational… Even in sports and many places, there is a reason for having the divide but whatever …
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Essay is a hotch potch of mixed up ideas. Hinduism worships gods and goddesses as role models. Ideally humans should strive to awaken the inner divinity. If this doesn’t happen doesn’t mean it’s theoretically wrong. Also Asuras and Danavas aren’t Dalits or Adivasis or OBCs etc. What is shocking is that these so-called intellectual women talk big about feminism, women’s liberation etc.but can’t be bothered to do basic research before forming such distorted opinions.
‘Asusu ramate iti asurah’ An asura is one who is materialistic. So, in ancient tales, these asuras or materialistic people do intense tapas on inner divine Devi. She kills their ego and Maya bondages.
Please do your homework before writing.
I seriously don’t get it, why upper caste women ? Women from every caste worship these godesses … And seriously how much do you even know of hinduism? Seems a bit biased from your side as well as you blame the other side to be but it’s given, I guess human nature is inherently irrational …
sir /maam though you have tried to whitewash the entire thing , the minute you enter a hindu or a muslim word you communalize it , you should have acted smart , if you believe in feminism in india titles should have been different in an article where plight of women should have been dicussed entirely throughout the country you started dividing it in ghoonghat and hijab , isnt that we call double standards , also maam i do not believe in hindutava i am not related to that ideology but i follow hinduism , i am independent , my sister is a doctor , one is MBA from IIm, why to bring our goddesses people we worship to judgement in your arcticles please elaborate , it hurts my sentiments , male dominated society was responsible for this not our religion, as your writers divided the ghoonghat and hijab society why did not you analysed and judged allah for evils responsible for patriarchial society did you? why making cartoons of one faith , do not insult our relegion maam / sir it really did hurt, just wanted to say otherwise its your wish freedom of expression!!!!
Those Asuras shows our inner evil aspects not adivasi or dalits sorry for you cheap mentality you should have done more research the hatered for hinduiHi is so increasing that people are making story as they think and some leftist as well as anti Hindu people help them to destroy Hinduism and these people thinking themself as Intellectual don’t have even knowledge that those Asuras and demons represent our aspects not real asurs
Asuras are Dalits? Source please. Else one is free to blabber anything. I support Free Speech and it includes saying anything who cares!?
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