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Mainstream, VOL LII No 11, March 8, 2014

Glorifying Motherhood: The Power of Identity

Monday 10 March 2014

by ambika dutta

Motherhood has always been glorified in the Indian social reality from the ancient times. From her image as Goddess to as Motherland or to a women’s role as mother; she as Maa-Mai-Mother has always explored a distinct identity and has secured a place of significance in the Indian social reality. The role of women as daughter-sister-wife-mother are the markers of womanhood, but motherhood as a gender-identity reveals a more complex picture in relation to the politics of identity. Motherhood enables to re-think empowerment and provide a more nuanced understanding of power in the discursive contexts.

 The purpose of this paper is to have a qualitative study over how a women’s role as ‘Mother’ exercises the power of ‘identity’ enabling us to understand and re-think empowerment both us a process and outcome. It sheds light on two lines; the first part deals with the case study of renowned social activist and social worker Sindhu Sapkal, also known as the ‘Mother of Orphans’. And the second part deals with the significance of Motherhood as a gender-identity in relation to empowerment and space in the Indian social discourse.

‘Mee Sindhutai Sapkal’—Exploring the Shades of Womanhood

‘Mee Sindhutai Sapkal’

, a Marathi bio-pic inspired by the true story of Sindhu Sapkal, produced by Sachiva and Bindiya Khanolkar and directed by Ananth Narayan Mahadevan. (Hindustan Times, Marathi, September 14, 2010) It’s the journey of the survival of Sapkal who grew up facing a lot of troubles, hardships, challenges, as a daughter, wife and even mother. But she explored a new ‘self’ through the lenses of motherhood, and now she is a social activist and social worker also known as the ‘mother of orphans’. Universally acknowledged as ‘Mai’, is a true inspiration for all those who are broken, weak, downtrodden and orphan.

Sindhutai Sapkal, named in childhood as ‘Chindi’ meaning torn cloth, disliked her name as it means unwanted. She grew up grazing the cattle in the interiors of Vidarbha known as Pimpri. Sindhu Sapkal was the daughter of Abhiman Sathe, an illiterate cowherd in Pimpri, who was keen to educate her much against his wife’s wishes. There was no money to buy even a slate; so she practised the alphabets on thick, palm-sized leave of the bharadi tree and used its thorns to write. After facing numerous troubles she studied up to the fourth standard before being married at the age of 12 to a 30- year-old man.

Though she wanted to study more, hardly understood what was marriage all about, she behaved as a docile body with the least power to protest. She says: “I was told there are only two processions in a woman’s life. One when she gets married and the other when she dies. Imagine my state of mind when they took me in procession to my husband’s home in Navargaon forest in Wardha.”

After her marriage, from the age of 12 she tolerated all forms of domestic violence from her husband and in-laws. Due to her keen interest in education she continued to read the newspapers, in which the groceries came wrapped up, for interesting poems which she loved.

Sindhu created a sensation in Navargaon in 1972, when she demanded that the Forest Department pay the village women for the cow dung they collected. Before this the Department used to auction the dung to landlords and pocket the cash. Sindhu says: “We won the fight.” But she had to pay a heavy price for this victory. She said that a landlord, Damdaji Asatkar, took the revenge by spreading the rumour that the child she was bearing was his. She was beaten up by her husband and dumped in a cowshed when her daughter Mamata was born. Mai expresses with pain: “I cut the umbilical cord with a sharp edged stone lying nearby”.

The marriage was an unhappy one and eventually Sindhu Sapkal was thrown out of her in-laws’ house at the age of 20, on grounds of adultery. The patriarchal discourse is so very prevalent in Indian society that it has set certain expected behaviour-pattern in the gendered-roles. Sindhu Sapkal’s story was no different; she was not even provided shelter by her mother. Questioned on grounds of ‘satitva’, Sindhu Sapkal was left helpless and destitute, and even attempted suicide twice. Once she climbed to the top of a cliff and prepared to jump into the ravine below. She was stopped by the cries of her infant daughter whom she had placed under a tree. Sindhutai wandered from town to town singing and begging near temples. Those were the days when she strongly started empathising for those suffering like her. The idea started taking route when she found herself in Chikaldhara, a section of the Melghat jungles on the border of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Sindhu fought there for the rehabilitation of 84 villages.

Today she is around 65, the mother of over a 1000 orphans, another 2000 have been married off and some even hold good jobs. Sindhutai Sapkal, popular as ‘Mai’, in the last 30 years is raising orphans and unwanted children and women in five centres across Maharashtra. Sindhutai’s work has won her more than 200 awards, the most prominent being the Maharashtra Government’s Savitribai Phule award in 1998. The Marathi bio-pic, ‘Mee Sindhutai Sapkal’, which is based on her life story, has been screened at the South Asian Inter-national Film Festival. The prestigious Asia Pacific award held every year in Brisbane has also nominated this film. (Hindustan Times, Mumbai, September 14, 2010) So inspiring has her life been that the Karnataka Government included a chapter from her autobiography, ‘Mee Vanvasi’, released in 1998, in its Marathi textbook for 10th standard students. (www.-tripod.com)

When asked if she would like to return to her husband, she said that she cannot be a wife again. But if her husband comes she would accept him as a child. She says: “I will serve him as Mai.”

Sindhutai as the daughter was ‘chindi’ or torn cloth, as the wife was put into question on her chastity and thrown out like an used object of her own home. It was only through her identity of motherhood she gained acceptance, honour and prestige in society. Though Sindhutai was the same woman who also played the role of daughter, wife and many more, but it was only through motherhood that she exercised power not only in the private but also in the public space. Though motherhood is also just another private role of a woman like others, the concept of the private—public space blurs when it comes to motherhood as a power of identity. Needless to say, there are many such instances like Sindhutai Sapkal in the Indian context, where motherhood as an identity is glorified beyond the private-public dichotomy.

Significance of Motherhood

Izzard explores women without children: they are a challenge to the bipolar division of sexes, and must pioneer a pathway in which they can experience themselves and be experienced as fully female while not fulfilling conventional expectations. (Izzard, Susannah, 2001) From a cultural standpoint, marriage and motherhood are considered the primary gender roles for women across social classes. Indeed motherhood is seen as the essence of womanhood and marriage, the context within which women should bear children. (Puri, Jyoti, 1999)

As Dube suggests, marriage is seen as the gateway to motherhood. (Butler, Judith, 1999) Motherhood is expected to smooth out the rough edges of the marital relationships as well as provide a more clearly defined position for a woman within this setting. Available scholarship on matters of motherhood confirms the primacy of women’s role as mothers. (Puri, Jyoti, 1999) Das and Kakar, summarising the importance of women’s status in the psycho-analytic study of childhood in India, say that regardless of a women’s caste, class or regional background, and whether she is a young bride or an older woman who has experienced repeated pregnancies and child birth, an Indian woman knows that motherhood confers upon her a purpose and identity that nothing else can. (Ibid.) Therefore not only does motherhood enhance the status of women in their conjugal family, but it also makes child-care a mother’s primary responsibility. What seems indispu-table in the literature and narratives on mother-hood is that women’s status is not only significantly enhanced but also made more secure as they become mothers. (Puri, Jyoti, 1999)

Indian society always had a special place for mothers. Motherhood as a gender identity plays a very important role in the politics of identity as certain hegemonic code helps her to get the consent of others and exercise the power. Motherhood as a shade of womanhood is paradoxically related to the concept of empowerment. At one end motherhood as a gender role restricts woman in active participation in the public sphere because of her primary responsibility to children; on the other hand motherhood in the private space somehow helps her to regain her status and better her position. Even the space has become a part of this identity politics. Though motherhood is a private role like the other roles of women such as daughter, wife etc., motherhood alone exercises power and consent even in the public space. In fact it’s the only private role in relation to gender identity that regardless of a woman’s caste, class, religion or regional background it holds a distinct identity that enhances her status, position and recognition and relates to hegemony in the discursive contexts.

As argued by Jane and Kathleen, empowerment can only be understood and facilitated if we bring the four dimensions into both analysis and praxis. They are, firstly, empowerment must be analysed in global and national as well as local terms. Secondly, understanding and facilitating women’s empowerment requires a more nuanced understanding of power; empowerment involves the exercise rather than possession of power. Thirdly, empowerment takes place in institutional, material and discursive contexts. Fourthly, empowerment is both a process and outcome. (Jane, Parpart and Others, 2002)

If empowerment is defined, argued and analysed following these four dimensions then motherhood in the Indian social reality and structure relates to hegemony that helps us to understand the relationship between identity and power politics, as well as how motherhood is glorified in both the private and public space, as space is also a socio-cultural construct. From religion to mythology, literature and scriptures, motherhood as an essence of womanhood has always been glorified. Even the national move-ment in India was addressed by ‘Bharat Mata’. Needless to say, motherhood as a gender identity adds a new dimension to the understanding of empowerment as a process and a practice.

To conclude, the case study of Sindhutai Sapkal is a small attempt towards the qualitative understanding of motherhood as a role and as an identity that holds a distinct position and power in the discursive contexts. The examples like Mother Teresa or films like ‘Mother India’, the mother-like political figures in Indian politics or a social activist and social worker like Sindhutai Sapkal in the social sphere show that every-where Motherhood as an essence of Womanhood has been glorified in various ways and accepted by the masses. This leaves us to think and re-think over many questions related to empower-ment, the power of identity and the significance of motherhood in the Indian context.

[Note : Face to face interview of Sindhutai sapkal used as primary resource.—A.D.]


Butler, Judith (1999), Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity., Routledge, New York, p. 8.

Bhattarcharji, Sukumari (1990), Motherhood in Ancient India, Economic and Political Weekly, October, 20-27.

Izzard, Sunsannah and Barden, Nicola (ed.), (2001), Rethinking Gender and Therapy: The Changing Identities of Women, Open University Press, Philadelphia,           pp. 3-4.

Parpart, Jane and Others (ed.) (2002), Rethinking Empowerment: Gender and Development in a Global Local World, Routledge, London, pp. 3-4.

Puri, Jyoti (1999), Women, Body, and Desire in Post-Colonial India: Narratives of Gender and Sexuality, Routledge, New York, pp. 136, 138-158.


• Mothers of Orphans http:// ckpally.tripod.com/mother/


http://www.indiaprwire.com/pressrelease/entertainment/2010326466744-Great Bhet with the Universal Mother

• Sindhutai Spakal on IBN-Lokmat — March 27, 2010


Ambika Dutta is affiliated with the Vasantrao Naik College and Dr B.A.M.U., Aurangabad. She can be contacted at ambikadutta@gmail.com