Picture above: “The holy Cow personified as World Mother”, Wellcome Collection. Reproduced by permission.
Imagine taking a walk to an iconic landmark of India. Perhaps you are in Kolkata, staring at Howrah Bridge. Or you’re strolling past India Gate in New Delhi. Maybe you’re at the ghats of Varanasi, wistfully staring at the Ganges River. Suddenly, a man walks past you holding what looks like a black and white spotted mask. You look closer- is it an animal? Perhaps a cow? A woman accompanies him. She dons the mask (you now realise it is indeed a cow!) and poses in front of the landmark. He takes a picture. End scene.
What I have described above is a simple overview of India artist-activist Sujatro Ghosh’s Cow Mask project (2017-present). The essence of this project is an exploration of the safety of women in India.
“Do women need to be cows in order to feel safe in this country?”Sujatra Ghosh, artist-activist of the Cow Mask project
The artist is making a bold statement in the land of the Holy Cow: in India, women seem less safe and less protected than cows. Sujatro’s concept is rooted in an extremely simple yet powerful aesthetic, where a cow mask donned by a woman provides a layer of protection to the said woman; the woman is safer now, on account of having a cow’s face, than she will ever be in India.
Cow protectionism in India is, without a doubt, at the forefront of the nation. Reports of lynching and violence in the name of this innocuous animal are a daily feature in the news. An official government body, the Rashtriya Kamdhenu Aayog, also exists, cementing the cow’s status as being the most revered, respected and protected amongst living animals in India. The bull does not afford the same kind of respect and status that the cow does.
The roots of this nationalism and protection for the cow lies in late 19th and early 20th century calendar art images. The figure of the cow in these early images was characteristic of Kamadhenu or the divine cow and Gaumata or the mother cow; these were spread through India to help underscore the message of cow protectionism (see featured image). These images cemented the cow as symbolic of the nation itself, highlighted by the presence of 84 gods within the body of the cow: a Hindu rashtra (a Hindu country), a space that literally embodied the Hindu ideologies of the time. The cow became representative of a spatial phenomenon in terms of her material body. The protection of the cow then lay in protecting India as a space, the motherland, and the cow, all intertwined yet separated in a complex web of identity, pride and nationalism.
An important distinction to make at this point would be that cow protection lies in protecting the cow from those that are not Hindu (Muslims) and those that are lower-caste (like Dalits). Upper-caste Hindus are of the opinion that these communities are polluted for they deal with the dead cow in terms of meat and leather work. Therefore, the lynching that takes place in the name of the cow is primarily against men from these communities, and largely the perpetrators of this violence are also men.
So how do women come into the picture if cow protectionism is not typically against them? As mentioned earlier, the cow in India has been established as Gaumata and Kamadhenu, especially through the spread of calendar art images.
These representations are female tropes of motherhood, goddesses and divinity, thereby placing the cow above the realm of human. This placement, while seemingly positive, has actually enabled negativity for women and cultivated a culture where mother cow as goddess divine should be protected by men for men of the nation, but at the same time, mother, wife, sister and daughter do not deserve the same kind of reverence (and in turn protection).
As Sujatro Ghosh points out through his photographs, the only way a woman can potentially be safer is by wearing a cow mask. The materiality of the mask, interestingly the face of a Jersey cow (which is foreign) and not the native so-called holy cow, provides protection to the female population. The hybrid creature that emerges in Sujatro’s photograph, standing with her masked head held high in recognisable spaces in India, speaks of a way of the cow and woman coming together to represent the women of India as a strong voice against horrific crimes against the female.
The Jersey cow mask stands out for its associations with the ‘foreign’: is protection for the woman in India an unknown, strange phenomenon? Will it never be a part and parcel of our society?
The cow and its entrenchment in holiness and motherhood is demonstrative of the gendered trope of the cow and her protection by the men of India. This article has just presented an overview of the cow image and the strength of its iconography. Scope lies in detailing these ideas along with examining aspects of the male gaze and the cow as well as the cow in relation to caste-specific gender crimes.
What is important to take away is that while women in no way need to be protected by men, if the same kind of respect and reverence given to the cow is extended to women, India might become a nation with fewer gender-based violent crimes. The coming together of cow and woman might illustrate a coming together of animal and human, as well as nation and individual. Currently masked as a single hybrid, cow and women appear safer together like in Sujatro’s photographs. In the future, will the possibility of unmasking cow as woman and woman as cow offer solace or spread more fear? Or will the cow forever remain the single most important being protected and fought for in India?
Anisha Palat is a second year PhD History of Art student at the Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh. Her research focuses on the cow image in Indian visual culture. She is exploring the visual vocabulary pertaining to the cow’s history as a symbol of mainstream cultural nationalism and looking at ways to decentre the current hegemonic and casteist links that the cow has come to represent. Anisha previously completed her Masters in Art Business from Sotheby’s Institute of Art, London. She has researched the South Asian gallery sector as well as art and philanthropy in India for Art Tactic, London. She was also an art consultant and writer for Ashvita’s, an Indian online auction and gallery platform.
You can find Anisha on Twitter and Instagram through her handle, @anishapalat
Sujatro Ghosh is an Indian photographer artist-activist and feminist scholar from Calcutta, currently based in Berlin. Sujatro works on women’s rights, LGBTQI issues and environmental concerns. Website: https://sujatroghosh.com Instagram: @sujatroghosh