The idea of nationhood (or, say, the idea of empire) is predated by a long, animistic history of the idea of the earth itself as a fertile, maternal source. The emblematic figures (Britannia, Mother Russia, Marianne among them), almost always associated with revolutionary or consolidating eras, that have been taken to represent these motherlands are in many ways developments from that fundamental impulse, even without religious connotations. In The Goddess and the Nation: Mapping Mother India, Sumathi Ramaswamy turns her attention to Bharat Mata. The book contains 150 fascinating images of and relating to this modern “goddess” – a pre-Independent Indian invention of significant historical interest.

Ramaswamy’s accompanying text, however, suffers from a number of failings, both in proposition and delivery. Overly verbose and almost tediously academic, the writing could have benefited a great deal from a sense of irreverence. Ramaswamy deeply dislikes the icon who is the subject of her work, mostly on account of Bharat Mata’s Hindu-hegemonic associations. To have expressed this dislike with more pluck and spark instead of thinly veiled contempt would have made for far more engaging reading.

It helps to begin by considering a brief history of the image: it originated in Bengal several decades before Independence, and the first of its most notable appearances was in a painting by Abanindranath Tagore (circa 1904) of an unadorned, sadhu-like woman. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s hymn Vande Mataram (“I worship the mother”) was brought into the nationalist movement by Rabindranath Tagore in 1896 (the writer otherwise opposed the concept of nation as woman/mother, as in his novel The Home and The World). The hymn became associated, at least per Ramaswamy’s narrative, with an increasingly militant, Durga-like representation of Bharat Mata. During the five decades or so of its greatest popularity, the new demigoddess could be seen draped in the tricolor, suckling the children of her nation, riding a lion, handing weapons to her favourite sons and so on – all while sitting on, standing in front of, or literally embodying the map of India.

The author makes one noteworthy contribution to the field of visual arts theory: the rather poetic term “barefoot cartography”, referring to “a set of demotic practices and techniques whose primary creative influence and aesthetic milieu is the art of the bazaar”, with the bazaar being taken to mean the kitsch style seen on calendars, hoardings, film posters and the like. The term is lovely, but its use in this book is largely condescending.

Ramaswamy approaches the artists and activists associated with these images through a strangely skewed prism. Decontextualized, everybody from the nameless painters of mass-produced prints to Amrita Sher-Gil, Subramania Bharati and Sister Nivedita are tarred with the suggestion (if not accusation) of being in support of sectarian Hindu nationalism. The book is rife with bizarre logic: for example, that Sister Nivedita loved and wished to distribute Abanindranath Tagore’s benign painting while also being a devotee of Kali is “inconsistent”, as though spiritual leanings and aesthetic ones are always aligned (and how colonialist/Orientalist is the idea of a bloodthirsty, one-dimensional Kali anyway?). That Amrita Sher-Gil, who was once moved to declare that “India belongs only to me”, painted her Mother India as a dark-skinned beggar “seems sacrilegious” to the author, because it is unlike the recognizable luminous, light-skinned deity-figure who more popularly bore that name. Sacrilegious to whom? The purveyors of the Bharat Mata image, who essentially fashioned a new object of veneration, may have expressed themselves in traditional idioms but didn’t see ingenuity as blasphemy.

Consider also two examples of how non-divine women in propagandist paintings are read. In the first, in reference to a photo of women during a street march in the 1930s, there is this line: “women have a special claim on (a sari-clad) Mother India by virtue of being (sari-clad) females themselves”. In the second, after some discussion about how the female soldiers of the Rani of Jhansi regiment wore standard uniforms and not saris, she writes that “the barefoot cartographer[‘s] own vision of love-service-sacrifice could seemingly only accommodate the male body as the armed defender or map and mother”. What did women wear if not saris at the time, and why reduce them to their sartoriality? And how does realistically portraying the Ranis as they were dressed reflect an andro-normative worldview; would it be preferred that they fight in saris, too? Such an incredible disregard for historical context is frustrating and baffling.

Ramaswamy gives herself away in a series of adjectives midway through the book: “Bharat Mata’s offensive, divisive and embarrassing anthropomorphic form”. It is the last of the descriptors that is most revealing. Bharat Mata’s contemporary co-opting into the right-wing visual vocabulary is certainly problematic. But from a historical perspective, it is necessary to bear in mind that we are all bound by the orthodoxies, conventions and lexis of our times. She may be read as a Hindu nationalist emblem today, but through its heyday the symbol was, though naïve, mainly and merely nationalist – an allegiance that was less unpopular (in fact, downright subversive) in colonial times than it is today.

Multidenominational manifestations of the image, which could have benefited from deeper study, receive only cursory mentions: for instance a march in Rajahmundry in 1927 in which students sang Vande Mataram while carrying banners that said “Allahu Akbar”, or an image in Subramania Bharati’s Intiya magazine which also carried the Bharat Mata image as well as the Muslim phrase. And some omissions are evident: such as how, oddly, Ramaswamy completely misses the Christ-reference in a 1931 illustration of a crucified man within the outline of India.

The book’s most interesting chapter focuses on the first temple to the symbol, inaugurated in Benares in October 1936 by Mahatma Gandhi. Strikingly, the temple contained no idol: Bharat Mata was the cartographic India itself, a sprawling relief map in marble. Offerings such as flowers were not permitted. In many ways, this can be read as the most inclusive evolution of the symbol: non-religious, privileging the scientific, without demographic markers or restrictions. Yet here again, Ramaswamy chides the “refusal – in fact failure – to create a set of secular rituals”. What are secular rituals? Why should any rituals be created at all? The author suggests that their creation would have saved the monument from its relative obscurity, but it helps to remember that the symbol of Bharat Mata herself is a sort of anachronism from a time when such a symbol had, and to some extent fulfilled, its purposes. Aside from M.F. Husain (whose attraction to geopoliticizing the female form in a way that is possibly Hindu Ramaswamy seems vaguely uncomfortable with), there hasn’t been a contemporary visual artist in decades who has worked notably with the image.

The Goddess and The Nation is a passionless study about a subject that arose out of the passionate struggle of multitudes, then fell into disrepute. The book closes with a mention of the “delicious subversion” of the barefoot cartographers – something which the author otherwise refutes throughout it. Such contradictions are rife, but one in particular stands out – Ramaswamy writes that barefoot cartographers demurred from portraying the violent deaths of female martyrs for the nation, but when the assassination of Indira Gandhi is rendered violently, “the limits of patriotism’s barefoot cartographic imagination have been reached [because of] the risk of pointing to the death of the very mother and map for which many of its martyrs have given up their lives.” Barefoot cartography, by its nature, is diverse and constantly evolving. The only limits to such an imagination are those imposed by predisposition and condescension.

An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian.