Giving the 4,500-year-old sculpture a new identity is an effort to sanitise and align it with a patriarchal perspective.
“The fallacious idea that the past can be changed through destroying the surviving present-day heritage from the past [is] a blatant attack on history.”Romila ThaparIn Defence of History
On May 18, 2023, Prime Minister Narendra Modi presented a dolled-up mascot, inspired by none other than the iconic Mohenjodaro icon of the young girl standing arm on waist, at a three-day International Museum Expo (IME) in New Delhi on the occasion of International Museum Day. The Ministry of Culture said in a release that the “Dancing Girl of the Sindhu Saraswati Sabhyata” served as the design’s main inspiration. It added that the mascot was “interpreted as a modern-day ‘dwarpaal’ or door-guardian who ushers the audience into the experience of IME 2023”.
Symbol of ancient culture
The original Mohenjodaro scupture is a small bronze figurine about 10.5 centimetres (4.1 inches) in height that dates back to about 4,500 years ago. The exquisite artefact is testament to the remarkable artistic achievements of the ancient Indus Valley Civilisation. Its captivating form and intricate detailing offer a glimpse into the culture and creativity of a civilisation long gone yet still capable of inspiring awe and admiration in the 21st century.
Recalling the different experiences of being mesmerised by the original sculpture, Shuddhabrata Sengupta wrote in a recent article on The Wire: “No one who has seen her can forget her carefree stance, one arm akimbo at the waist, and the other limb loosely, casually held, extending almost to her upwardly bent knee. She is possessed of an uncommon grace. One is always surprised by her diminutiveness, because it is as if, even at just 10 and a half centimetres, she stands tall.”
However, by giving the statuette of the young woman a new identity that aligns with contemporary and fragile notions informed by a patriarchal mindset, the naked sculpture has been whitewashed (quite literally) and clothed in a culturally constructed feminine artifice of both colour and garb, suggesting that such a modification was necessary to make her presentable to the world.
The act reflects not only a larger pattern of patriarchal control over women’s bodies and narratives, it constitutes an assault on heritage. The alteration implies that women’s bodies must conform to narrow standards of respectability, necessitating control and coverage. Moreover, the emphasis on femininity and the perception of feminine traits as delicate and fragile—and pink—further reinforce traditional gender roles and expectations.
Consequently, giving the sculpture a new identity can be seen as an effort to sanitise and align it with a patriarchal perspective. By imposing societal norms on the ancient sculpture, heritage is assaulted through the erasure of its original context and historical significance. This perpetuates the notion that women’s bodies should be controlled, modified, and presented according to current patriarchal standards, eroding women’s agency and autonomy that might have existed through history and are being recovered in contemporary society.
The moniker of ‘Dancing Girl’ was itself an artificial imposition on the figurine and, as many cultural writers have pointed out, she could well have been a warrior or a farmer, and now the further modification of her identity is in line with the broader pattern of patriarchal dominance over all cultural heritage that has been the norm. Women’s contributions and experiences have frequently been marginalised or erased, contributing to a male-centred narrative. Transforming the sculpture’s identity to conform to patriarchal values extends beyond the artefact itself and symbolises the systemic erasure and devaluation of women’s voices and experiences in heritage.
Here, it would be apt to mention that Pragya Tiwari, Rishi Majumder, and Kavi Bhansali, co-founders of the Indian History Collective, an online publication on Indian history whose mission is to make history accessible, also chose the same figurine as their mascot with the belief that she represents the marginalised and embodies the openness to interpretation that history should possess, without finding the need to sanitise her representation.
It is crucial that we address the concerns around historical accuracy and the reinterpretation of history that have influenced the depiction of the mascot at the IME. The term “Sindhu Saraswati Sabhyata” is a narrative propagated by the Hindutva school of history, which aims to rewrite history by asserting that the Harappan civilisation was, in fact, the Vedic civilisation situated along the banks of the purported Saraswati river.
In a paper titled “Vedic Sabhyata Ka Puratatva (Archaeology of Vedic Civilisation)“, published in the 2016 issue of Itihaas, published by the Indian Council of Historical Research, Prof. Thakur Prasad Verma supports the claim made by right-leaning historians that the god Siva was worshipped by the inhabitants of the Harappan civilisation. The author suggests that the statuette of the young girl is a representation of Parvati because “where there is Siva, there should be Shakti,” referring to the manifestation of the goddess.
Historians such as Romila Thapar have consistently refuted such claims, stating that the identity of the Saraswati river and its connection to the beginning of Harappan culture remain unconfirmed. The historian D.N. Jha has said that this narrative was a “political misuse of archaeology” that aimed to add a “communal dimension to Harappan and Vedic studies”. Cultural historians have disputed the identification of the icons as proto-Siva and proto-Parvati as wishful interpretation.
One cannot help but wonder if the 4,500-year-old Mohenjodaro Girl were to see this assault on her identity, would she have “smiled at the sculptor” as suggested in Agha Shahid Ali’s 1990 poem At the Museum?
“But in 2500 B.C. Harappa,
who cast in bronze a servant girl?
… But I’m grateful she smiled
at the sculptor,
as she smiles at me
a child who had to play woman
to her lord...”
Shruti Jain has worked as Editorial Associate for the Indian History Collective. Her research interests include feminist and subaltern perspectives in social sciences.