The Woman-and-Tree Motif in the Ancient and Contemporary India

In Retracing the Past: Historical Continuity in Aesthetics from a Global Perspective. Santa Cruz: International Association for Aesthetics. pp. 79-93 (2017)
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Abstract
The paper aims at critical reconsideration of a motif popular in Indian literary, ritual, and pictorial traditions – a tree goddess (yakṣī, vṛkṣakā) or a woman embracing a tree (śālabhañjīkā, dohada), which points to a close and intimate bond between women and trees. At the outset, I present the most important phases of the evolution of this popular motif from the ancient times to present days. Then two essential characteristics of nature recognized in Indian visual arts, literature, religions and philosophy will be distinguished: (1) a dynamic, creative, self-sufficient and inexhaustible power, and (2) a passive, merely reproductive or vegetative, and dependent field of potentiality. The paper is to demonstrate the interdependence of the popular concepts of nature identified with femininity, and their iconic representations circulating for centuries in Indian culture, with a specific line of argument repeatedly used in social practices and public debates. While doing so, I consider the semiotic function of a cultural topos which proves to be an effective instrument for construing and supporting the gender roles and gender identities. As a modern example illustrating vitality and persuasive power of the motif of yakṣī and śālabhañjīkā, I refer to the Chipko Movement, a group of rural women based in the Garhwal Himalayas (state Uttarakhand), who fought against the mass cut of trees in the 1970s. They were involved in the wide-spread environmental campaign which significantly affected the ecological policy of the local and state authorities. Thus, a traditional motif of the visual arts has been revived and re-elaborated by the activists of this ecofeminist movement through converting the symbolic potential of yakṣī/śālabhañjīkā into social and political power.
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