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Book Review: Sumathi Ramaswamy, The Goddess and The Nation: Mapping Mother India (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2010), Pp. 380.


Gendered bodies are used to propel and signify national agendas. These bodies are disguised to send blatant messages of what it means to be a citizen. Citizenship, ultimately shows its final loyalty with its permanent act towards the nation-state. This willingness to die for ones country—  the ultimate sacrifice. Sumathi Ramaswamy’s book entitled, The Goddess and The Nation:Mapping Mother India, takes on these themes. Ramaswamy mobilizes the body to illustrate the way nationalism is produced not inherent to any locale. Ramaswamy’s analysis discusses how the female body, specifically, becomes a map in “making” the narrative of the gendered national ideal. Highlighting the use of cartography, Ramaswamy has engendered the use of the female, and how the female ideal propels the male citizenship idea to ultimately die for their “mother” nation. 

The book tracks the importance of a “pictorial history [that] challenges us to dwell dialectically in the overlapping zone between the sayable and the seeable” (233). Ramaswamy’s methodology is identified as an analysis that tracks “the myriad ways in which Mother India has been visualized in painting, print, poster art, and picture, with a view towards developing a key proposition…she is a tangled product of charged encounters between new and old and of a fraught and conflicted modernity that is India’s late colonial and postcolonial experience of history” (2). This study thus highlights the way in which the nation is used to produce ideology of the body. To drive this home Ramaswamy identifies the gendered aspects specific to the map of India’s stating, “the map of India—that proud creation of a self-consciously rational and modern science—is deeply gendered” (7). This is what the author calls the “‘geo-body’” which is the “convergence of the form of the mother/goddess with the mapped form of the nation” (8). Moreover, Ramaswamy identifies the way in which the empire needs notions of gender, race, and sex to be particularized either for colonial or anti-colonial agenda. Ramaswamy asserts, “this study demonstrates the entanglement of the secular sciences of modern cartography and geography in the is dangerous liaison, and its charts the salience of visual productions in the reproduction of the nation’s territory as a deeply gendered, divinized, and affect-laden place” (11).

The book takes on the different manifestations of female divinity and the map of India, but most interestingly identifies the influences of colonialism (notions of modernity and science). This is demonstrated through accounting for the appropriations that  colonialism has deployed onto  anti-colonial body within the nation-state, producing a “graphic politics” of  pictorial regimes (125). For example, the tie between Europe’s class divide is imbedded in the representation of representation through the female Indian body. Ramaswamy states, “ Mother India is one among such female bodies that are emblematic of the bourgeois fetishization of property and propriety in an age that witnessed the transformation of national territories into enclosed objects of possession and protection” (76). The female body become a form of property now for the nation and male militarized bodies, also become constructed through this lens, to protect the female bodies.  The use of feminizing the land genders the space as well as the people. For example Ramaswamy points that “the turn of feminizing India as a once-powerful but now venerable devi (mother goddess) under duress was culturally (and psychologically) enabled by an environment in which new goddesses were emerging and old devis were being revamped…if nationalism had to succeed and the new project of India to gain votaries of its own—to chart a different course of Bharat Mata (India Mother)” (98-99). This creation of national agenda to propel new efforts of modernization lead to the recreation of femininity in India. 

Fraternity is another element of the feminized manifestations of visual production of  the nation. Specifically in sacrificial citizenship, in which Ramaswamy highlights the “creat[ion of] a brotherhood dedicated to living—and dying—for Bharat Mata” (147).  This is one of the most important offering of this narrative—the connection of the visual, citizenship, and sacrifice to empire. Ramaswamy states, “the inanimate geo-body of the nation by the anthropomorphic form of the mother/goddess pictorially converts the citizen-subject from being a detached observer of the cargo-graphed image of India into its worshipful patriot, so that its territory is not just lines and contours on a map but a mother and motherland worth dying for” (176). This notion of sacrifice for empire and the stakes that particularizing the female body play  in protection, lends to a very specific kind of gender project India and British history. And lets not forget the female body has a certain type of patriotism and sacrifice as well. Ramaswamy notes this as “invisibiling of women…women’s lives become entangled with the national movement” (238). While simultaneously the female body is at the center it is reified and flattened into one homogenous group.

In closing, the author ends the monograph with a very similar sentiment as Benedict Anderson, the imagination that forms the idealized nation and its power. Ramaswamy’s last thoughts on the matter state, “she [Bharat Mata] has morphed yet again into another form—perhaps offering a new trajectory for another century” ( 298). Nationalism and the nation-state are once again re-imagined for the interest of the nations powers. Ultimately the nation leaves the bodies that inhabit that space to be called into question, redesigned, and reimagined.

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