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Partition and Mother India

Queering Mother India: History is a Woman’s Body

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Queering Mother India focuses on the Partition of colonial India into India and Pakistan in 1947 that dislocated 12 million Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. Genocidal communal riots erupted all over the sub-continent resulting in 2 million deaths. What is lesser known is that in the Partition riots, over 100,000 women were raped or abducted and disappeared from their communities.

No official memorial or monument exists in either country for this traumatic event. Especially, the mass-scale rapes and abductions of the women on both sides of the new border have been erased from history. Feminist historiographers in South Asia are collecting oral histories from survivors and their families in an effort to recuperate these histories. Therefore, my aim as a visual artist is help break this silence by creating a memorial offering for the women that died in the Partition riots, as well as those that survived fates worse than death.

Why did India as a nation acquiesce to forget these 100,000 women of the Partition riots? The answer lies in understanding the strategic deployment of the Nation-as-Woman trope as part of the nationalist propaganda. Throughout the freedom struggle, the protection of Mother India from the Britishers was a rallying cry for the male youth of pre-Independence India to rise up with courage and free Mother India from the exploitation of the colonial Empire. The figure of Mother India was often conflated with the mythological figure of the pure and chaste Sita, who in the myth of Ramayana, was also incidentally abducted by the monster, Ravana. By implication, the depraved figure of Ravana gets conflated with the sexually deviant Muslim abductor.

The national imaginary came to be embodied by the figure of Sita/Mother India, the ideal of a self-sacrificing and dutiful Hindu wife, mother, and sister, who was pure and chaste, and whose sexuality had been disciplined in the service of the Hindu family and nation. In the newly independent India, the figure of Mother India was also educated and modern – someone who could uphold both, Tradition and Modernity. As can be imagined, the reality of the mass rapes and abductions of Indian women, and the Hindu male as an abductor of Muslim women was hugely disruptive to this national imaginary.


Therefore, this exhibit aims to “queer” the image of Mother India in order to loosen the nationalist rhetoric surrounding the Nation-as-Woman trope. Firstly, Mother India has been depicted as a larger-than-life-scale but non-idealized, and anti-classical body. Secondly, Mother India has not been installed as a monumental sculpture of a whole figure on a pedestal, as expected for the uplifting image of Mother India. Instead, it has been displayed in fragments and the parts placed on the ground. Thirdly, the fragments have been displayed such that their interior is exposed showing Mother India to be a sexual woman, not an asexual abstract ideal.

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Queering Mother India: History is a Woman's Body

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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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