Indira Gandhi (born Indira Priyardarshini Nehru, 1917 - 1984), prime minister of India. (Photo by Express Newspapers/Getty Images)
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Indira Gandhi: a gift from the gods?

How India’s first – and only – female prime minister exploited a Hindu goddess

The ear lobes of a goddess Kali sculpture currently on show at the British Museum are adorned with cadavers of children. The livid red and limp earrings are styled with an extravagant garland made from a mass of decapitated male heads. Each head is neatly clipped at the neck and stained with blood. Why not accessorise with your destructive spoils and trophies? Kali looks pretty happy about it as she proudly presses her weight down on Shiva, lying at her feet.

Kali was embraced as a vision of freedom

Tantra: Enlightenment to Revolution, the British Museum’s first in-depth foray into this philosophy, tells, in part, an absorbing history of Kali, the tantric goddess and audacious force of feminine power. In colonial India, Kali’s notoriety boomed. For in her both coloniser and colonised found a figurehead. Corrupted by the British, Kali was spun as a sexually depraved, blood-swigging black sorceress. As William Ward phrased it in his encyclopaedia, “She exhibits altogether the appearance of a drunken frantic fury…on whose altar victims annually bleed”. Such descriptions, deemed by Indians to be reductively fixated on her destructive powers to the omission of her maternal reserve, activated a movement for her reclamation and turned her into an icon in the struggle for Indian independence in the late-nineteenth century. Put on calendars, cigarette packets, matchboxes, and subject of hugely popular prints, Kali was embraced as a vision of freedom. The reverence for her was inseparable from politics. And it took just two decades after India gained its freedom for a politician to exploit it.

Tanta: Enlightenment to Revolution at the British Museum, published June 2020 in collaboration with the British Museum. Image depicts Kali pressing her weight down on Shiva, lying at her feet.

Indira Gandhi—the daughter of one of the freedom movement’s protagonists Pandit Nehru and India’s first and only female prime minister—chose consciously to co-opt this divinity in service of burnishing her own self-image. Indeed, during her first spell in office, from 1966-1977, Indira’s image was as prolific as the colourful printed pictures of the tantric goddess splashed across India’s towns and bazaars. Her appearance was, understandably, more benign. But in India’s jostling visual marketplace her image—big smile and bobbed black hair shot with a streak of white framed by a demure uttariya (veil)—was as inescapable as any deity’s.

Indira played the demagogue superbly. But just as her popularity among Indians soared, and her political confidence grew, those around her began equating her strong, intolerant, and cold politics with female divinities and their overwhelming powers. According to a hugely contentious apocryphal story, Indira’s young rival Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who would go on to succeed her as prime minister, was so overcome by devotion at the sight of her gallantry during India’s war with Pakistan in 1971 that he called her Ma Durga—Kali’s mother.

M. F. Husain’s “Mother India”.

Indira capitalised on the increasing comparisons with the phenomenal deity

Indira, always alert to the power in such portrayal, capitalised on the increasing comparisons with the phenomenal deity. During the Emergency period, when she suspended India’s constitution and ruled as a dictator for nearly two years, an image of her as Durga became part of her armature. Just as her government was forcibly sterilising millions of men in the cause of “population control”, one of the men it looked upon kindly was the Modernist painter MF Husain. He was welcomed into Indira’s court for publishing a sycophantic triptych in the Illustrated Weekly of India chronicling the steps leading to the Emergency that not only justified Indira’s actions but divinised the prime minister by depicting her as a goddess astride a tiger, grasping a trident and ready for battle. Her authoritarian onslaught was blessed by art.

Garlanded image of goddess Durga riding a tiger. (Photo by: Godong/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

There were, of course, many metaphoric parallels to be found between Indira and a goddess known to summon her power from male counterparts. Operating in a male-predominated environment, Indira had a reputation as a ball-breaker. Lal Bahadur Shastri, the prime minister who gave Indira her first job in government, called her “the only man in the women’s cabinet”. Indira certainly did not lose sleep over whether or not she conformed to the male idea of “woman”. Nor did she conceal her contempt for those who did conform. “I do not behave like a woman,” she once declared proudly. “When I think of how other women behave, I realise that it is a lack of sex and with it a lack of woman’s wiles on which most men base their views of me.” This made her an intolerable figure not only to hidebound men—but also even to supposedly liberal women. Jackie Kennedy considered her a “horrible woman” because she did not defer to the notion of men’s superiority.

What Indira relished—and what was lost on her critics—was not so much the power of feminine divinities to suppress men but their ability to destroy evil and restore order. Husain’s skill in fleshing out this quality endowed his drawing of the prime minister with political punch. His depiction of Indira as Durga was aired repetitively by the state broadcaster and disbursed widely in official literature.

India’s first female prime minister had a reputation as a ball-breaker

What was lost on Indira was that the destruction wrought by Kali and Durga was always a precursor to renewal. Indira’s autocratic impulses, on the other hand, were not tempered by a higher motive. Power, for Indira, was not a means with which to spur rejuvenation but an end in itself. Rather than regenerating India, the manner in which she deployed her authority may have quickened her own demise. After staging a remarkable return to office in the 1980s for a fourth term, she authorised Blue Star— a military operation at Sikhism’s holiest shrine in Amritsar to flush out separatists who had taken refuge there. For all her achievements, Indira proved ultimately unworthy of the comparison with divinity. Kali’s hands, as Indian nationalists of the nineteenth century protested to the British who delighted in simplifying her, were smeared with the blood of evildoers. Indians of the twentieth century could not always say the same about the blood on Indira’s hands. As we near the 36th anniversary of Indira’s assassination, Tantra: Enlightenment to Revolutionis a reminder, among other things, that the response to the sheer awesomeness of Kali is humility and amazement—not mimicry and imitation.


Tanta: Enlightenment to Revolution is at the British Museum until 24 January 2021.

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