Tasveer Ghar: A Digital Archive of South Asian Popular Visual Culture

The Constitution of India

A National Gallery of a Few Good Men


Competing Indian Masculinities: The Quick and The Dead
This androgyne-ascetic theme reverberates through the depictions of all the non-Islamic figures in the Constitution – stupefied Arjuna; meditative Buddha and Mahavir; aggregated Buddhist monks; dancing Nataraja; and penance-thinned Bhagirath (in the Mahabalipuram ‘Descent of Ganga’ panel – p. 267). Traces of asceticism – a line to represent a muscle here, another to highlight a sinew there – are not hard to find; nor are the traces of the androgyne – in the shaded roundness and slenderness of limbs (Fig. 10). Some of them (Orissan sculpture, Nataraja, Mahabalipuram) are chronologically situated firmly within the Islamic era, yet hermetically sealed from Islamic influences by the logic of nationalist historiography.

How this ascetic-androgynous ideal of masculinity emerges triumphant eventually can be understood by examining how the other ideals of masculinity were abandoned one after another by the wayside of history.


In the designated ‘Muslim Period’ section, the only Muslim depicted is Akbar (in Mughal miniature style). The other two portraits are of Hindu Shivaji and Sikh Guru Gobind Singh. From the caption of the illustration of Akbar (‘Portrait of Akbar with Mughal Architecture’, Fig. 11) it is clear that, according to nationalist historiography, the legacy of Islamic rule in India is strictly limited to and equally distributed between Akbar and architecture (the only other Muslim figure depicted in the Constitution is Tipu Sultan, the late 18th-century ruler of Mysore). The choice of Akbar as the ideal Muslim ruler, on a par in status with Ashoka not only in the expanse of his empire but also in being a proto-secular-par-excellence, is a carefully constructed arc in the nationalist knowledge system.9

The other images pertaining to the ‘Muslim Period’ show a corpulent Shivaji alongside a slender Guru Gobind Singh (Fig. 12), despite most of the historical visual references for the Guru showing him as a burly man. To understand the corpulence in the depiction of Shivaji as the Hindu answer to beefy Islamic masculinity (even though his navy had at least three Muslim admirals)10 and to locate the leanness of Guru Gobind Singh in religious asceticism, a brief summary of the fate of Islamic masculinity under colonial rule is relevant.


The elite Muslim masculinity which preceded the British Raj was thoroughly discredited by the post-1857 British knowledge system as decadent, effeminate and weak, thus legitimizing the fall of Muslim monarchy.11 The demotic Muslim masculinity – that of the poorer, working-class, converted lower-caste Hindus – was seen as raw and dangerous unless tamed appropriately. Swami Vivekananda’s concept of an ideal future India with ‘Vedanta brain and Islam body’ perfectly summarized the acceptable scheme of things. The political consciousness of the elite Islamic masculinity which was later spearheaded by the Muslim League and finally embodied in and by the atheist Muhammad Ali Jinnah, understandably had no place in the Constitution of newly-independent India after the trauma and horror of Partition.

The demotic Islamic masculinity archetype, that of the hardworking and headstrong peasant, survives and is tellingly represented in the illustration captioned: ‘Bapuji the Peace Maker – His tour in the riot-affected areas of Noakhali’ (Fig. 09). All the standing masculine figures who await him are Muslim peasants, placed behind bamboo fencing (as if restrained by a crowd-control device), their body language poised between curiosity and incomprehension. In comparison, the women in the foreground, the foremost probably Hindu with a vermilion mark on her forehead, know their roles perfectly well. Without hesitation, they pay obeisance to Gandhi’s presence. This juxtaposition of the peasant and the woman is not a coincidence if we follow Tanika Sarkar’s argument that puts them on the same rung as far as their assigned roles in the anti-British struggle are concerned. Apparently untouched by alienating Western education, they were supposed to best contribute to the nationalist struggle by carrying out their normative duties (almost like caste duties) with renewed fervour.12 Here, in the composition of the illustration, that message is reiterated with a reprimand, that the ‘rioter’ Muslim peasant would do better to follow the example of his obeisant female Hindu counterpart by following the Gandhian ideals of peace.

9 A nationalist cultural trail was suggested by Dr Kavita Singh in a classroom lecture on 10 August 2015 at Jawaharlal Nehru University, to show the transformation of Akbar to ‘Akbar the Great’, which besides books included cinema as well. It started with tomes as early as Mohammed Hussain Azad’s Darbar-e-Akbari (1910), continued with Vincent Smith’s Akbar the Great Mughal (1917) and culminated in Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India (1946).
10 Prasad, Rajendra, India Divided, Bombay: Hind Kitabs, 1946.
11 See O’Hanlon, Rosalind, ‘Manliness and Imperial Service in Mughal North India’, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 42, No. 1, 1999, pp. 47–93; O’Hanlon, Rosalind, ‘Military Sports and the History of the Martial Body in India’, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 50, No. 4, 2007, pp. 490–523, and Butler Brown, Katherine, ‘If music be the food of love: Masculinity and Eroticism in the Mughal “mehfil”’, Love in South Asia: A Cultural History, edited by Francesca Orsini, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006, pp. 61–86.
12 Sarkar, Tanika, ‘Nationalist Iconography: Image of Women in 19th Century Bengali Literature’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 22, No. 47, 21 November 1987, pp. 2011–15; see p. 2014.

Select Page Previous Next
Visit The Gallery
Tasveer Ghar Home - Gallery - Disclaimer on images - Contact us - UnSubscriber