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Queering Mother India:
History is a woman's body

Partition and Mother India

He lifted the corner of the sheet... took a deep breath, and whipped the sheet away.

A woman's body lay beneath, each limb severed at the joint. The body was sliced into six parts, then arranged to look as if she were whole again... Her legs cut neatly at the thigh... her body was also cut just below the ribs... her womb had been ripped out.

"What the Body Remembers" by Shauna Singh Baldwin, pp 446-7.

Urvashi Butalia titled one of the chapters in The Other Side of Silence, her ground-breaking work of feminist historiography of the Partition, as “History is a Woman’s Body,” showing how history was played out on women’s bodies during the Partition. Men mutiliated, violated, and massacred women in the name of religion. 

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Pritika Chowdhry. Queering Mother India, 2007. Ceramics, raw clay, wood, paper. About 1000 sq. ft. installed dimensions.

 

The twice life-size, dismembered female body represents the violated Mother India.

In "Metaphorizing the Body in Shauna Singh Baldwin’s What the Body Remembers," Pinky Sarma writes, "Thus the partition of the nation was a metaphorical violation of the body of Mother India implemented through the actual violation of the female bodies. In What the Body Remembers the description of Kusum’s dismembered body “sliced into six parts, then arranged to look as if she were whole again” (page 575) metaphorizes the territory’s partition on the one hand and the community’s self-legitimization on the other. Papaji [Roop’s father] thinks that for good-good women death should be preferable to dishonor. He kills Kusum so that her body does not get violated by the men of the other community. Unaware of his father’s actions, Jeevan returns to his father’s home and discovers the body of his wife Kusum that has been dismembered, rearranged and placed beneath a white sheet. He thinks... “Why were her legs not bloody? To cut a woman apart without first raping—a waste, surely."

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Another view of the Queering Mother India installation showing the legs.

Rape is one man’s message to another: ‘I took your pawn. Your move” (576). Jeevan understands the arrangement of the limbs after ripping out the womb from her body. Kusum’s severed body bears the message that, “Independence and its dark ‘other’, Partition, provided the rationale for making women into symbols of the nation’s honour” (Butalia 192). Thus body becomes the metaphor for the nation’s partition. Baldwin herself claims that “the metaphor of the 30s and 40s in undivided India was the body - the country as body, woman as womb for the tribe. And the story (of Partition and loss of the country's "children") is what the whole country remembers as part of its creation story, its birth pangs.”

Queering Mother India

This installation presents the fragmented, twice-life-size female body as the mutilated and brutalized body of Mother India. When outside  the traditional depictions of Mother India as a serene, demure maternal figure who reproduces the nation as expected of her, the icon of Mother India itself becomes "queered" by communal violence.

Partition narratives bear testimony to the fact that women of all ethnic and religious backgrounds were the greatest victims of the newly created border between India and Pakistan in 1947. Women's bodies were abducted, stripped naked, raped, mutilated (their breasts cut off), carved with religious symbols, and murdered to be sent in train wagons to the "other" side of the border.

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Close-up of Queering Mother India installation.

I made this installation in November 2007 while doing my MFA, and it functioned as a draft of my thesis shows – What the Body Remembers in 2008, and Silent Waters in 2009. It is included here as an epilogue to the Partition Memorial Project. The motif of the hollow lower-half of the female body, and the motif of the feet arranged in caravans comes from this installation.

Use of Rape as a Weapon in Partition

No memorial exists in either country to honor the one million people that lost their lives as a result of the Partition. Even if an “official” monument was made could it ever address the experiences of the women of the three countries? How does one memorialize the thousands of women who committed mass suicides to avoid being abducted? And the thousands that were killed by the men of their own families to save the honor of the family and the community? And the thousands that were killed by their family after being rescued from their abductors and restored to their families? And the women who technically survived but were violated in ways worse than death in the Partition riots? 

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Anti-memorial

This anti-memorial aims to trouble and problematize the image of Mother India. The national imaginary of India has come to be embodied by the figure of Mother India, the ideal of a self-sacrificing and dutiful Hindu wife and mother, who is pure and chaste, and whose sexuality has been disciplined in the service of motherhood for the Hindu nation. In the new independent India, the figure of Mother India was also educated and modern – someone who could uphold Tradition and Modernity, both. 

The “queering” of Mother India is essential to get under the nationalist rhetoric in both countries and acknowledge the reality of the mass rapes and abductions of women on both sides of the border. Therefore, the anti-memorial comprises fragments of larger-than-life clay sculptures. However, these sculptures are not installed as monumental whole figures on pedestals as expected for the uplifting image of Mother India. Instead, they are in fragments and the fragments placed on the ground, or on rickety wooden structures.

 

This anti-memorial excavates the troubling counter-memory of the women that survived extreme violation in the Partition riots but were made invisible by official histories of the Partition. Each larger-than-life-scale foot placed on the gallery floor. as a fragment is a surrogate for a woman, as an incomplete trace.

Another view of the Queering Mother India installation showing the legs.

Unbearable Memories

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A view of the Queering Mother India installation showing the mid-section.

This tenuous installation was an attempt to come up with a visual language that could express the extreme brutality of how the female body was mutilated and re-territorialized through communal violence. It became a site of demarcating religious identity to literally mark and incise religious symbols.

When a memory is unbearable, how do we memorialize it?

Borders and Bodies

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In "Borders and Boundaries: Women in INdia's Partition," Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin write, "women have been subsumed only symbolically into the national body politic, because no nationalism in the world has granted women and men the same privileged access to the resources of the nation-state. Moreover, as Mosse points out, "nationalism had a special affinity for male society, and together with the concept of respectability, legitimized the dominance of men over women." The Passionate brotherhood of "deep comradeship" that Benendict Anderson talks about is an essentially male fraternity in which women are enshrined as the Mother, and the trope of nation-as-woman "further secured male-male arrangements and an all-male history."

An alternate view of the Queering Mother India installation.

Fragments of the Queering Mother India installation

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The head, hand, and an arm.

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The footprints left by the migrating caravans

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The head and a hand, close-up

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The feet-slippers of Mother India

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An alternate view of the Queering Mother India installation.

Bibliography

Baldwin, Shauna Singh. 1999. What the Body Remembers, 446-7. Anchor Books.

Sarma, Pinky. “Metaphorising the Body in Shauna Singh Baldwin’s What the Body Remembers.” International Research Journal of Interdisciplinary & Multidisciplinary Studies (IRJIMS), vol. II, no. VII, Aug. 2016, pp. 107–11.

Butalia, Urvashi. 2000. In The Other Side of Silence, 106. Duke University Press.

Memon, Ritu; Bhasin, Kamla. 1998. In Borders and Boundaries: Women in India's Partition, 109. Kali for Women.

Foucault, Michel. 1977. In Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, by Donald F. Bouchard, 160. Cornell University Press.

Young, James E. 1997. "Germany’s Memorial Question: Memory, CounterMemory, and the End of the Monument." The South Atlantic Quarterly, vol 96, no 4 855.