The art of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh is deeply intertwined with the hybridity of historical nostalgia and modernist intervention. In the early 20th century, the Indian subcontinent – a region that once shared all its collective history and heritage – was scrambling to separate itself and find a national identity that was entirely distinctive from the other. 1 This was a time period when South Asia was birthing a new consciousness in its people, with political activists, poets and artists alike trying to cultivate their own distinctive identities amidst partition and modernisation. Visual culture played a prominent role in propagating certain iconographies that would eventually build up to each nation’s desired prototype of nationalism, with the ‘idea’ and ‘concept’ of said nationalisms appearing to have taken a tangible form through the arts.
In the attempt to manifest a national identity founded on culture, language, and religion, one of the main iconographies used to propagate the idea of a new and modern nation for all three countries was often fashioned around the image of the woman. Connotations of the ‘motherland’, personifying the nation’s ‘natural beauty’, and representing the country’s ‘honour’ are some of the identifiable elements of nationhood in visual culture that have, evidently, been forced onto the female figure. 2 Differentiating examples of visual representation and reception of the female also allows for patterns to emerge wherein the state and general audience accepted and propagated the image of the woman only under specific circumstances, while certain other examples that did not fit the mainstream conservative or nationalist ideologies were met with widespread criticism, or overlooked entirely.
Creating a link to Eurocentric feminist scholarship from a South Asian context, we can also identify patterns of how the ideals of femininity and female beauty were used to propagate nationalist ideologies in the visual arts through the image of the woman, while also investigating how the art practice of female artists remained ignored and overlooked by the state, especially in contrast to male artists who were producing similar work around the same time. The position of women, both as artist and subject, within the context of the art historiography of this region during the early 20th century can be used to question the factors that may have curtailed female participation as artists from that time period, while also questioning the representation of femininity in identifying South Asian nationhood.
While male artists were often credited as the ‘masters’ and ‘geniuses’ of their field, female artists were most often just granted acceptance into that space as the exception or kept out of art scholarship entirely. 3 In pre-partition South Asia, women were commonly left out of entering professional circles through societal limitations of gender roles. Predominantly patriarchal constructs of society, like that existing in India at the time, limited female participation in the professional sphere by design. Therefore, gender and sexuality act not only as a means of propagating, but also marginalising.
Reinserting female art and women artists into art history has been attempted by feminist art historians throughout the mid-20th century to now, with feminist authors like Linda Nochlin aiming to answer the age-old question of ‘why have there been no great women artists?’ 4 However, similar to Euro-centric feminist art historiography, the case of South Asian art also observes that the matter is no longer about whether or not female artists existed or were making work throughout history, but rather about addressing that gap in art history and analysing why the art practice of female artists remained marginalised and overlooked by the state, especially in contrast to male artists who were producing similar work around the same time.
To briefly contextualise the patriarchal constructs at the time, we can observe how the average, working class woman in this region was not provided with career opportunities beyond labour work, and women from aristocratic families or the nobility were discouraged from pursuing careers that were deemed ‘beneath’ their family status’. 5 An example of this can be seen with the artist Mangalabai Tampuratti (1865-1954). Considered one of the first female artists of India, Tampuratti, who was born into an aristocratic family and Indian nobility, took up the practice of painting following her uncle and brothers, who were already practicing artists. 6 She produced work throughout her life up until the age of 84, despite being largely overlooked during her time and never quite gaining status as a professional artist, since it was ‘taboo for noblewomen of the upper class to take up a profession’. 7
Looking at the contrast between Tampuratti and her brother, artist Raja Ravi Varma, Varma was celebrated as an icon of Indian art even during his lifetime, and remains so today, with critics and historians crediting him for even the limited attention his sister received by claiming she ‘remains unknown apart from her one portrait of her brother.’ 8 Despite not having any formal training, Tampuratti’s art style rivalled that of her brother and Western classical painting. She produced work during a time when the field of fine art, and society in general, would not have accepted or encouraged her, being one of the major reasons why she remained overlooked. What becomes even more problematic is that she was overshadowed by the fact that her brother was an established artist, giving him credit for her recognition and stripping her of something that was rightfully already hers to begin with.
Similarly, regarding Pakistani artist Zubeida Agha, author Iftikhar Dadi also prominently notes that gender had a pivotal role in her marginalisation. 9 In the mid-20th century, social circles revolving arts and culture in Pakistan consisted primarily of men, who were known to socialise and gather at artist cafes, or at galleries run by their male friends. 10 Such social spaces allowed men from different circles to interact and collaborate together, for example, artist Abdur Rahman Chughtai and the nationalist poet Allama Iqbal. 11 Such collaborations also gave way to wider recognition within their professional circles, as well as in the general public. Women, on the other hand, very rarely had opportunities that expanded their place in their respective professions, often isolating them within their own personal sphere. Noting this, it is not surprising that Agha remained ‘isolated from circles of critics and artists’, according to Dadi. 12
However, the ‘feminisation’ of a country, i.e. the concept of personifying the nation in the image of a woman, is not an idea restricted to just South Asia. The notion of a country being personified as the ‘motherland’ can be seen happening throughout history in different variations. According to Amanda Sztein: ‘The nation is most often imagined as a woman, and in fact born of a woman, whereas the state is almost always male’. 13 Sztein also states: ‘This feminisation has created representations of the nation as one ‘under threat and sexual danger, and construes invasion or colonisation as male heterosexual rape’. 14 Arguably, the reason women’s bodies have been used to represent territory is because they have historically been treated similarly during conquests – either claimed and taken ownership of, or treated as something to be protected from gendered violence. 15
The idea of fashioning the image of the new, ‘modern’ Indian nation was, then, consciously structured around (and relied heavily on) the image of the ‘modern’ Indian woman. According to Suruchi Thapar, the concept of liberating the female gender from patriarchal constructs was one of the mechanisms used to present a modern, liberated nation in front of the British, who looked at certain Indian traditions and customs (like child marriage and sati) with disdain. 16 Indian nationalist leaders like Mahatma Gandhi emphasised on the public participation of women in the Independence movement, stressing the need for them to step out into the public and partake in political rallies. 17
It becomes ironic, then, that these national identities used the imagery of the female subject to represent their distinctive modernities, while excluding works by actual female artists, simply because they were not considered ‘patriotic’ enough or did not directly relate to political or national themes. Thus, instead of reiterating the already existent scholarship on nationalist art from the mainstream, and consequentially male context, this becomes a very conscious attempt to alternatively shift the focus on the paradigm of representation and participation of women in nationalist art in early-20th century South Asia.
Looking at examples in the visual arts, one example of the personification of a country as motherland in the form of a woman can be seen in early depictions of Great Britain as ‘Britannia’ on Roman coins, dating as far back as the 2nd century AD. 18 Britannia was further modelled after Duchess of Richmond and Lennox, Frances Theresa Stuart, by artist John Roettiers in the 17th century, which is the image followed by English coins and bank notes today. 19 Britannia was also represented extensively in the visual arts, including a wall painting titled The East offering its riches to Britannia (c.1778).
Following the French Revolution in 1789-1799, the personification of France and the country’s ideals of liberty, freedom and equality have been embodied by the female figure of Marianne. 20 Although the image of Marianne continues to be used on official French currency and postage stamps, the origin of the image might best be known from painter Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (c.1830). We see Liberty depicted as a Goddess, bare-breasted and carrying the French flag in one hand and a gun in the other. She is painted in a heroic stance, standing atop a pile of fallen men, leading a group of followers behind her. A prominent symbol of freedom in Greek and Roman history, she wears a Phrygian cap, which was historically worn by freed slaves. 21
While the male character of ‘Uncle Sam’ acted as an embodiment of America and as a call to arms to the US army in 1812, an earlier personification of America was in the form of the female figure ‘Miss Columbia’, dating as early as the 17th century. 22 Deriving her name from Christopher Columbus, Goddess-like depictions of the young, attractive Miss Columbia displayed her in robes and a liberty cap, often shown in scenes as a ‘protector of immigrants’. 23 Artistic interpretations of Miss Columbia were further implemented in mass-produced posters in recognition and awareness of America’s participation in World War I and II. 24 Later representations depicted the female figure adorned in robes similar to the US flag with stripes and stars, for example, James Montgomery Flagg’s colour lithographic poster Wake Up, America! (c.1917), in which Miss Columbia is shown sleeping, ‘sounding the alarm’ for the war. 25 What is interesting to note here is that through this, the image of America as Columbia is always represented as white and Christian, reinforcing the narrative of the white saviour who is divinely pure, evidently ruling out other native and immigrant narratives from the representation of the nation.
With fictional personifications like that of Marianne of France, Britannia in Great Britain, and Miss Columbia in America, the idea of personifying the independent nation of India as a woman and the development of the icon ‘Mother India’, therefore, may have been a response to these female figures that had embodied nationhood for other countries in the past. 26 While the idea of Mother India was undoubtedly conceived through influences of existing visual examples of European nationhood, it must also be analysed within postcolonial, socio-political subtexts. Kedar Vishwanathan states: ‘this consumption of European modernity in its specific appropriation of woman to service nationalism creates a particular problematic not only in hindsight but also impacting current artistic and social environments of India.’ 27
From the Sanskrit ‘Swa’ meaning ‘own’, and ‘Desh’ meaning country, Swadeshi then translates to ‘of one’s own country’. 28 In boycotting British rule, Indian nationalism was primarily propagated by Hindu nationalists, insinuating that India, or the Sanskrit Bharat, was a predominantly Hindu motherland. 29 This further manifested as an ideology within art production and symbolism, moulding the idea of the country in the image of the mother, nurturer or caretaker, resulting in the commonly used term Bharat Mata, directly translating to ‘Mother India’. Shaping ‘Mother India’ within a Hindu nationalist ideology came with the idea of using the female figure to resemble deities and Goddesses from Hindu mythology. The image of the Hindu woman, thus, became a vital tool for the manifestation of ‘Indianhood’ in nationalist iconography. Tapati Guha-Thakurta states: ‘What nationalism in this context was placing the highest value on was less the specific issue of Indian tradition, but more some rarefied ideals of beauty and sublimity which it saw as the birth right of the Indian nation.’ 30 This ‘feminisation’ of the nation, hence, was appropriated particularly for the Swadeshi (or Swaraj) movement only to retaliate against British colonial rule, basing the idea of the liberated woman on European modernity.
With Abanindranath Tagore’s (1871- 1951) watercolour rendition of Bharat Mata (c.1905), Mother India is meant to represent the ‘ideals’ of Indian femininity, depicted holding ‘the four gifts of the Motherland to her children’ (Ramaswamy, 2010). 31 Her fragility is enhanced through her delicate figure, while at the same time maintaining her modesty with her head covered and body wrapped in saffron clothing. The emblematic motif of white lotuses at her feet, with the halo surrounding her head, further symbolises her divine, Hindu ‘purity’ and spirituality. The popularity of the image gained further momentum through its position in print culture, being reproduced and printed in enlarged forms through posters and banners. 32 The image was then carried throughout rallies and protests in the Swadeshi movement as placards, the ideology of ‘one’s own country’ and ‘Indianness’ manifesting in a tangible form by a wider population. 33
Ramaswamy further goes on to talk about the feminisation of India in the form of ‘Mother India’, stating: ‘Mother India is one among such female bodies that are emblematic of the bourgeois fetishisation of property and propriety in an age that witnessed the transformation of national territories into enclosed objects of possession and protection’. 34 By imposing the feminine ideals of Indian nationhood upon the female, gender roles were inscribed upon Indian women into assuming goddess-like qualities to service society in general, or as Vishwanathan states, ‘reaffirmed the patriarchal division of labour, investing women with more of a “spiritual” load’. 35
Across the border, Abdur Rahman Chughtai’s style of miniature painting also primarily adopted the motif of the female figure as his central subject.
As an attempt to counter the Hindu majority of India, one of the ideologies supplemented by Pakistani nationalists was to formulate a national identity on the existing Muslim majority of the population. 36 Muslim poets like Muhammad Allama Iqbal were credited for generating solidarity in and strengthening Muslim communities in India, Iqbal also often being credited as the visionary behind the idea of creating a separate Muslim state and using ‘Islam as the binding force which would integrate the Muslim community’. 37 However, it cannot be denied that in trying to define a purely Muslim identity, certain artists and art styles were propagated and supported more often by the state as compared to others, leading to an observable pattern in regards to what was seen as the ‘national’. Perhaps not as overt as the training of the Bengal school or iconographies of the Swadeshi movement, Pakistani patriotism had more or less relied on the idea of uniting the Muslim community, aligning themselves with Islamicate traditions of art and culture, i.e. mainly through finding a way to reclaim Indian Mughal miniature into a more Pakistani context. 38 The Mughals, being a Muslim dynasty that ruled India for over two centuries, became the epitome of ‘Muslim glory’ and achievement, acting as the perfect example of what the new Pakistani nation could base its identity on. 39
The ‘Islamicate and Persianate aesthetics, Mughal nostalgia, and Urdu poetic symbolism’ very obviously existent in Chughtai’s work only made it easier to situate him within the nationalist context of a Muslim state. 40 Chughtai’s aesthetic influences vary from Persian floral design to Bengal school miniature. An obvious lingering influence from the Bengal school was how the female figure was depicted, which according to Thakurta, was the ‘rarefied, delicate figure’ that depicted ‘certain ideal ‘feminine’ qualities: like gentleness and dignity, stoicism and self-sacrifice, reticence and spirituality’. 41
According to Lala Rukh, Chughtai had ‘unabashedly objectified the bodies of women’. 42 In the painting A Woman Holding A Lotus With A Song Bird (c.1920), like most of Chughtai’s works, the female figure is shown with elongated, slanted eyes, presumably holding a seductive expression. With slender limbs and an exaggerated bosom, the female’s body is painted draped in flowing garments, further accentuating her fragile physique. Like in common clothing for Muslim women, her head is covered with the hijab, but the plunging neckline of her blouse blatantly reveals one breast and nipple, creating a suggestive eroticism while aiming to retain a passable sense of modesty at the same time. Saira Khanum claims that, to Chughtai, the ‘young girls’ he painted were ‘the manifestation of innocence, purity and beauty’, while also ‘sweet, idealised and imaginary’. 43
Dadi points out:
“Figurative work, especially in the case of the female figure, was seen not from the viewpoint of realism but from woman identified as the symbol of the beloved of the ghazal, who is not a realist or bodily figure but an “other,” a sum of symbols and metaphors, totally self-absorbed and indifferent, even sadistic, in inducing madness and ecstasy in the poet.” 44
What can be observed here is that despite India and Pakistan now being two separate nations, their cultural influences were still conjoined in many aspects, particularly in the patriarchal constructs that represented femininity as submissive, pure and beautified. Although there is no precise Pakistani equivalent to ‘Mother India’, the concept of the ideal Pakistani woman being ‘beautiful’, ‘innocent’ and ‘pure’ overtly borrows its aesthetics from the Goddess-like renditions of the female in nationalist Indian art. These shared ideals of female beauty were further used strategically as a cultural signifier to represent the Pakistani nation, similar to the way ‘Mother India’ was.
In defining what was ‘Pakistani’ and what was not, certain binaries were being created, not just in state-sponsorship in art, but generally in nationalist contexts. Minority groups in Pakistan, particularly the Bengali-speaking part of the population, often felt excluded and overlooked at that time because of such nationalist ideologies, causing a distinct Bengali sub-culture to be formulated, separate from what the state was propagating. With Bangladesh attaining independence, the region was divided once more and a third national identity materialised.
Bangladeshi modernism built its primary foundation on the idea of reclaiming a national identity that was not enforced by West Pakistan. The region of East Bengal had witnessed several socio-economic depravities post-partition, with years of political instability, famine, and poverty. 45 Separating from India and then from Pakistan also culminated in a large diaspora that was now choosing to embrace a third, new national identity. Nationalist art in Bangladesh, therefore, looked not only to embody the Bengali struggle, but also to reclaim the ideals of a new nationhood.
With the separation of East and West Pakistan in 1971, many Bangladeshi artists chose to locate themselves within specifically local, Bengali contexts. 46 While a Pakistani identity relied on Mughal nostalgia through Chughtai’s miniatures, Bangladeshi identity relied heavily on the ‘folk’, ‘rural’ and ‘traditional’. Bangladeshi artists have often incorporated motifs of folk life in their works, including imagery of labourers, farm animals and rural women. 47 The image of the rural woman, thus, became a standard motif in terms of depicting ‘traditional’, quintessentially Bengali scenes, also manipulating the female figure to personify the nation’s ‘beauty’.
Zainul Abedin (1914-1976) painted women from India’s native Santhal tribe, like in Santhal Maidens (c.1950), dressed in white robes and flowers in their hair, with an apparent submissiveness. 48 Highlighting the subtle objectification of women in his paintings, Selima Quader Chowdhury says they carry a ‘certain sensual appeal’, as they are depicted mostly with their backs turned towards the viewer, creating a voyeuristic experience of the male gaze upon the soft-skinned looking women and their bare backs. 49
The depiction of the sensual, beautified Santhal women with smooth skin and hair adorned with flowers tries to instil the image of a culturally enriched Bengal, trying to emphasise on the natural beauty of the region. Abedin’s female figures carry an aesthetic that ultimately manipulates the image of the woman to represent Bengali nationhood. Without trying to incorporate overt nationalist iconographies, Abedin’s aim was to provide subtle representations of rural Bengal, acting as a means to glorify Bengali tradition amidst marginalisation of the Eastern region by West Pakistan, once again borrowing the aesthetics of the female figure from his Pakistani and Indian counterparts.
However, an alternate example of female representation can be seen in Amrita Sher-Gil’s (1913- 1941) Mother India (c.1935). Unlike her male counterparts’ deified, aesthetically pleasing or provocative depiction of the female, Sher-Gil presents a version that beckons the viewer to look at an alternate reality – the Indian woman not as bountiful mother who comes bearing gifts or a provocative goddess, but as an almost despondent, yearning mother, much closer to the reality of India’s rural women from humble, working class backgrounds. With two children, one on her lap and one by her side, depicted with forlorn expressions, this rendition showcases a more believable image of what an average South Asian woman would be like as an actual mother, and not just a fictionalised ideal.
Despite having quite literally the same title and speaking about the same subject matter, while Tagore’s image was reproduced and consumed by the masses, and also actively used as the quintessential image to symbolise Indian nationalism, Sher-Gil’s image did not receive anywhere near the same kind of recognition, and in fact, remained as one of her lesser known works. 50 This speaks volumes about how the reception and propagation of an image can vary vastly in terms of nationalist ideology. Painting her figures as ‘dark-bodied’ and ‘sad-faced’, Sher-Gil consciously chose a representation that was separate from the ‘voluptuous, colourful, sunny, and superficial’ India that was represented in travel posters. 51 Her dark colour palette and sombre tone conveys the polar opposite emotion from that of Tagore’s light washes and bright, golden hues. Sumathi Ramaswamy calls Sher-Gil’s painting a ‘striking political visual statement’, saying that it presented a feminist critique on how the representation of the female was used to accommodate nationalist ideals of Indianhood.52
According to several art historians, Partha Mitter to name one, Sher-Gil was not ‘traditional’ in the most conventional ‘Indian’ way. 53 The fact that she participated in the professional field, especially at a time when it was still uncommon for women in India to do so, could have possibly been what made her stand out. However, scholarship about her has often put the focus on her ‘sexual emancipation’. 54 This only adds on to the notion that despite having achieved success in the professional sphere, a lot of the enigma surrounding her was still due to the fact that she did not fit in to the conventional narratives of Indian womanhood, particularly with notions of adopting the role of the wife or the mother. When exhibiting her work in France, she was often characterised as ‘a mysterious little Hindu princess’, her work usually being discussed in relation to her own ‘beauty’. 55 Her sexual history, partners and relationships were often the area of focus when discussing her work. An oversaturation of this can be witnessed in Mitter’s book The Triumph of Modernism, where he uses overly sexualised descriptions to analyse her work, for example: ‘Highly sexed, Sher-Gil led a wildlife in Paris with multiple lovers, showing off her voluptuous body without inhibition in sensuous nude self-portraits’. 56
This can be seen as an almost unnecessary detail, redirecting the narrative away from Sher-Gil’s art practice and instead putting irrelevant emphasis on her personal life and physical appearance. An overly sexualised analysis in discussing a female artist’s work has also been seen to happen with the works of Georgia O’Keeffe and Cindy Sherman, to name a few. 57 Such was also the case with Sher-Gil, as historians often chose to place her oeuvre directly in relation to her personal history. Perhaps it was difficult to place Sher-Gil in mainstream narratives particularly because she was unlike her other female contemporaries at the time. However, other female authors, like Pradeep A. Dhillon, have often stressed the need to look at Sher-Gil from a cosmopolitan perspective, pointing out that studying her work from an entirely nationalist perspective would ultimately stagnate its influence. 58
Several such occurrences in art scholarship have been recognised and challenged by feminist art historians, questioning existing misogynistic representation of women artists, or their lack of representation altogether. Griselda Pollock and Roszika Parker therefore argue that gender is used ‘as an axis of power on the one hand and, on the other, as a mark of exclusion and devaluation’. 59
Gender itself plays a vital role in such institutional marginalisation, not only through gender roles that limited women artists in the professional and social sphere, but also in the way Indian ideals of femininity were induced. While the woman was accepted and hailed as a nurturer and caregiver, the same kind of praise was not given if the image had more of a sexually provocative nature. Even political leaders like Gandhi initially instigated the notion that a woman’s primary ‘duty’ was to be a homemaker and nurturer, reasserting common Indian ideals of ‘modesty’, ‘purity’ and ‘caregiving’ upon the role of women in India. 60 While Indian women coming out into the public and participating in the movement was instigated by nationalists for their political agendas, the problem then was how this was allowed only under very specific ideals of ‘Indian womanhood’. One such example can be seen from an incident during a civil disobedience movement in the 1930’s, where Gandhi was calling on Indian women to partake in rallies and picketing, but publicly turned away women sex workers for being ‘unfit to sit near other ladies’, while deeming their profession ‘unworthy’ and would not allow them to become Congress members. 61
In a more recent example, Indian artist Maqbool Fida Husain’s (1915-2011) painting Bharat Mata (c.2005), personifies India as a nude woman in the image of a Hindu Goddess, intertwined with the geographical map of India. Unlike the artworks mentioned above, this painting was met with widespread, public disapproval, also apparently hurting the ‘religious sentiments’ of Hindu nationalists, which further embroiled the artist in legal cases put against him for ‘defaming’ and ‘disrobing’ Mother India. 62
The discourse that emerges here is that on the one hand, the female body is glorified, beautified and used as a form of worship, while on the other, it is manipulated, restricted and subjected to strict policing. A comparison can again be seen with Tagore’s Bharat Mata, where the image gained widespread praise for its personification of the nation as a woman, whereas in comparison, Husain’s version of Bharat Mata was met with instant distaste, primarily because the female was not represented as a haloed beauty, but instead as a comparatively provocative nude, or like in the case of Sher-Gil’s Mother India, remained largely ignored. And although Pakistani and Bangladeshi art was pertaining to the more Islamic sentiments of avoiding deified imagery, the idea of the quintessential ‘traditional’ woman was borrowed and continued into mainstream ideologies, nonetheless. The case studies of female artists mentioned are of women who were all heralded and recognised as the pioneer modernists of their time in that region, but still kept out of the mainstream narratives, either because of social and patriarchal restrictions, or because their practice did not coincide with the kind of nationalist iconographies that were being promoted by the state or consumed by the masses.
Whether it was due to Hindu mythology, Mughal miniature, or folk aesthetics, in trying to define a purely ‘Indian’, ‘Pakistani’, or ‘Bangladeshi’ national identity, state-sponsorship in the arts very conveniently found its heroes in male artists like Tagore, Chughtai and Abedin, who strategically developed their art practices using the female figure as their main subject. With Tagore’s Mother India, Chughtai’s ‘young girls’, or Abedin’s Santhal Maidens (among many other male artists perpetuating the same ideals at the time) an obvious pattern emerges where the apparent ‘ideal woman’ is meant to be submissive, gentle, beautified and, most consistently, ‘pure’. This ‘ideal woman’ comes out on to the streets in service of her nation, but then returns home to her ultimate duty as a nurturer and caretaker. She is not provocative, she does not reveal her body in a way that disrupts religious sentiments, but she must always possess goddess-like beauty. What cannot be denied here is that these three countries (while crafting distinct national identities) were birthed from contiguous ideologies and traditions. Their nationalisms were manufactured and tailored to fit a specific ‘brand image’ that could easily be attributed to the nation. The feminine ideals inscribed upon the woman were, hence, commonly used to commercialise this idea of nationhood, in turn, creating a convenient tool to also marginalise and oppress women in the form of gender and body policing, which has subsequently managed to exist till present day in South Asia.
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