Many authors have tried to define culture. Varnum and Grossmann synthesize these definitions and state that culture is “a shared set of ideas, norms, and behaviors common to a group of people inhabiting a geographic location”1. This suggests that culture can have multiple levels as there can be different groups with different beliefs. Nonetheless, in this article we will focus on national culture, which is regarded as one of the strong influences on how members of the group shape their ideologies.
The agents and institutions of culture like family, school, neighborhood, governments, and many others, teach and instill the norms, rules, rituals, and ideas to individuals born into that culture. By the same token, motherhood as a gendered role is also taught in culture inculcating ideas of how a woman can be an ideal mother–what is permitted and what is prohibited.
Cultural texts, such as, cinema, photographs, books, food, clothing, and jewelry, are some of the multitude of instruments that carry cultural meaning. The possession of cultural meanings in these texts enables us to use them to understand the beliefs and norms prominent in that culture. This article, with the help of Bollywood cinema, will chronologically discuss how changes in culture changed the definition of motherhood in India. Finally, the article will give a glimpse of how focusing on changing cultural codes can help brands that speak to mothers.
The first instance of a nation-wide maternal figure
Cultural forces over the years have shaped the dominant characteristics of an ideal mother in India. While different subcultures created her for varied reasons (Tamil Nadu created her to protect the language of the land, Karnataka created her to instill unity, Bengal created her as an icon for democracy), her virtues remained similar otherwise. Even though religion and mythological books have defined who an ideal mother is, the first instance of a nation-wide construction of the maternal figure came in the form of Bharat Mata (Mother India)2.
The pure yet fragile mother
When the nation was struggling for independence from the British colonial rule, the nationalists stitched the country together in the form of a female entity, embodying her as the mother of the land, called Bharat Mata2. The aim of this exercise was to evoke a sense of nationalism amongst Indians by harnessing the role men would play toward their mothers, the role of a protector2.
Bharat Mata was beautiful, truthful and innocent. So much so, that it made her fragile and perishable and therefore, it became the duty of her sons to safeguard her purity3. Tagore further personified Bharat Mata as goddess Sarasvati who was a giver to her children and was righteous. And as long as she was untouched, she remained pure and perfect3.
A strong nurturer who conforms
After India became independent, the baton of nation-building was passed onto Indian Cinema. Along these lines, Mother Indiaa, a film from 1957, introduced the identity of a mother inspired from the metaphors of Bharat Mata from pre-independence times4. However, the film modified certain symbols of motherhood by one, further expounding the role of an ideal mother in the family and two, encapsulating the cultural norms for her in society4.
In Mother India, Radha is shown as a strong and mighty woman, although only for her family and her community. No matter floods or droughts, she overcame it all when she had to protect her children. No matter how poor she was, her satisfaction lay in the respect she garnered from society for her truthful and honest nature. She rejected the immorality of westernization and followed the rules laid down by her virtuous society4. Being virtuous was so essential for Radha, that she even eliminated her son who broke the cultural laws of the land4.
The lyrics of the famous song from the movie “Aurat hai woh aurat jise duniya ki sharam hai, Sansaar mein bas laaj hi nari ka dharma hai, Zinda hai jo izzat se woh, izzat se marega” translates that, for a woman it is her duty to conform to the society, so that she can live a respectable life and also die respectfully. Thereby, showing how her respect is embedded in following the norms of the society. It is interesting to note the terms “laaj” and “sharam” which loosely translate to “shame” or “shyness” in English. However, this shame is specifically a feminine shame, a protective type of shame that helped Indian women maintain their sanctity in society.
Also, every time she was disrespected, she needed her sons to help her survive and regain her respect in the society. In Deewarb (1975), Ram Lakhanc (1989), and Karan Arjund (1995) the mother secured a social standing only when her virtuous sons helped her get the power that she lost to patriarchy5. The famous dialogue of Rakhee from Karan Arjun, “Mere bete aayenge, mere Karan Arjun aayenge, zameen ki chaati phad ke aayenge, aasman ka seena cheer ke aayenge” conveys how the mother is sure that no matter the circumstances, her sons will come to protect her. And when they did, she regained her esteem in the society.
In all, the cultural texts from 1950s-1980s projected and promoted a dominant identity of the ideal mother – she was fragile, pure, virtuous, nurturing, selfless, conforming, and dependent. This identity remains dominant even today. That being said, culture is not always constant and can evolve due to multiple reasons – contact with other cultures, changes in geography and ecology, technological advancements, and others.
Fly away…But with guilt
In India, an influential change in culture began as an aftermath of the liberalization and globalization policies of the 1990s. As a result of which, women in India got increasingly exposed to westernization, leading to the rise of west-inspired modernity. Linehan says that modernity is the set of relationships shared by individuals where the relationships are defined based on rationality, progress, and individuality6.
This means, with the increased exposure to modernity came an increased sense of self and individuality. Today women have developed a stronger desire to form an identity beyond just being a mother. In English Vinglishe (2012), Shashi who was always seen as a homemaker and a mother by her family, ventures out to pursue her dream of learning the English language. In the iconic English speech that Shashi gives in the movie, she emphasizes on focusing on the self, saying “When you don’t like yourself you tend to dislike everything connected to you. When you learn to love yourself then the same old life starts looking new, starts looking nice”. Similarly, an ambitious Sulochana in Tumhari Suluf (2017) ends up taking a night show at a radio station despite being a mother of a school-going child.
However, the rise of modernity also results in a tension between the dominant culture (tradition) and the emergent culture (modernity). And so, a woman’s exposure to modernity is also a threat to her traditional role and choosing one over the other makes her feel guilty, creating anxiety in her life7. She feels guilty because her desire for the self will not only raise questions on her maternal instincts but also deem her as selfish by society. And so, she legitimizes her personal desires after negotiating it with the patriarchal representative in her life, like her husband, her in-laws, her son or her parents.
For example, she can go out and work as long as she can raise her children on her own and not depend on nannies, or, she can visit her friends if she attends all family functions and hosts them too. A frustrated Jaya in Pangag (2020) says, “Saari badi badi baatein women empowerment ki. Main ek maa hoon aur maa ke koi sapne nahi hote hain” translating to how all this big talk on women empowerment is of no use as she is a mother and a mother has no dreams. This shows her guilt, her anxiety, as she struggles to choose between her dreams and her maternal duties. Still and all, she is able to return to her game after so many years when both her husband and her son come in support of her ambitions.
All this being said, it does not mean that the dominant archetype of a self-less mother is not popular in the culture. Nonetheless, there is an emerging modern, individualistic yet rooted, identity of a mother in India today. And as culture continues to change, this emergent identity is reckoned to get stronger.
What’s in it for brands?
Through products and propositions, brands are capable of resolving cultural conflicts in the lives of the Indian mothers today. Understanding the cultural nuances of motherhood, and struggles for the self, can enable brands to build resonance in two different ways.
First, the consumption of brands can help ease the anxiety. To harness this opportunity, brands can unearth maternal anxieties in the modern day and position their brands in order to resolve these anxieties. Ariel’s share the load for equal sleep8 resolved the anxiety of a mother, who juggles home and work, by talking to those in her life to support her in a household chore like laundry.
Second, the consumption of brands could legitimize the adoption of the emergent culture for the mother. In order to drive this, brands need to position themselves as the custodian of the changing culture by riding the emergent wave. Titan Raga’s mom by choice9 expresses how a mom-to-be will not choose to sacrifice, rather, she will continue to love her life as much as she loves her child.
As the meaning of brands in the lives of consumers is evolving and becoming more complex, uncovering insights in the cultural context promises a deep understanding of the consumer. In this sense, this article showed how culture influences, and even changes, the dominant codes of motherhood, hence impacting the consumption pattern of a mother in India.
- Varnum, M. E. W., & Grossmann, I. (2017). Cultural change: The how and the why. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 12(6), 956-972.
- Gupta, C. (2001). The Icon of Mother in Late Colonial North India: ‘Bharat Mata’, ‘Matri Bhasha’ and ‘Gau Mata’. Economic and Political Weekly, 4291-4299.
- Jha, S. (2020). The Life and Times of Bharat Mata Nationalism as Invented Religion. ResearchGate.
- Schulze, B. (2002, September-October). The cinematic ‘Discovery of India’: Mehboob’s re-invention of the nation in Mother India. Social Scientist, 72-87.
- Sarkar, S. (2013, July 5). From Sacrifice to Selfhood: Representations of the Mother in Hindi Films. Retrieved from www.academia.edu.
- Kitchin, R., & Thrift, N. (2009). International encyclopedia of human geography. Elsevier
- Naidu, Y. G. (2006). Globalisation and its Impact on Indian Society. The Indian Journal of Political Science, 65-76.
- India, A. (2020, March 21). Unequal division of household chores is keeping women awake. #ShareTheLoad – for equal sleep. Retrieved from www.youtube.com.
- Watches, T. (2017, January 20). Titan Raga #MomByChoice. Retrieved from www.youtube.com.
About the Author
Jayeti Anand is a PhD student in marketing at IIM Udaipur. Previously, she has helped brands build their positioning through cultural strategy in India. She is passionate about culture studies and hopes to pursue her research in consumer culture theory.
The views in this article are of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the institute.