6 Badass Women at the National Museum Delhi

Any visit to the National Museum in Delhi is incomplete if you haven’t met some of the badass women who stay here. Every time I go back to the museum, I make it a point to at least say hello to some of them that I really love. Today was no different, and being #WomensHistoryMonth, I thought this would be the best time to introduce you all to these awesome women!

Meet these 6 badass women at the National Museum Delhi


Vasantasena, the drunk courtesan

The ‘Bacchanalian Scene’ from Maholi (in UP – part of the Kushana Empire) where the courtesan Vasantsena seems to have been portrayed drunk and losing control on her senses – National Museum

Vasantasena, is the protagonist of the ancient (and most widely-celebrated) Sanskrit play Mṛicchakaṭika (The Little Clay Cart) written by Sudraka. She is no conventional heroine – rather, Vasantasena is a rich courtesan and not the least bit shy about pursuing the man (Charudatta) she’s in love with. In fact, in the love affair between Vasantsena and Charudatta, it is she who plays a dominant role. In this Kushan-period Mathura sculpture, she’s a little high on spirits, but in this ancient legend, she stands out as an unconventional figure of  agency and strength.

Last year, at the Art+Feminism event hosted at National Museum, we created a page celebrating Vasantasena.

Photo Credit: National Museum, New Delhi

Note: The Bacchanalia were Roman festivals of Bacchus, the Greco-Roman god of wine, freedom, intoxication and ecstasy.

Queen Mandodari, Ravana’s strong wife

A leather puppet of Queen Mandodari, crafted in Andhra Pradesh

Believed to be even more beautiful than the revered Sita, Queen Madodari was a good, dutiful wife but pretty badass when it came to defending the honour of fellow women. She was the daughter of the King of Asuras (demons) but pretty calm when it came to handling the men she knew (her brothers as well as Ravan). When Ravan raised his sword on Sita for refusing to marry him, it was Queen Madodari who intervened, holding back his arm with all her strength. She protected Sita and stood up against her husband.

Leather puppets from-Andhra and the shadow-puppetry display at National Museum. Photo Credit: Somok Roy

This puppet definitely highlights the importance of the righteous Queen in the story of Ramayana and even to this day, the Ramakien version celebrates her portrayal!

Chand Bibi, the Warrior Queen of Deccan

Chand Bibi playing Polo

In this painting, you see Chand Bibi playing polo – but that’s not what makes her badass. The way she united the Southern Sultanates against the Mughals and stood up against the great King Akbar makes her a memorable figure in history. When the Mughal forces attacked the Ahmadnagar fort, Chand Bibi fought till she drove them away.  Her bravery inspired her own army and the Mughals ended up proposing a peace-agreement. Even though she was betrayed by the ruling elite towards the end , her legacy continued to shine through the golden rule of Ibrahim Adil Shah II, her protege.

Skilled in 5 languages (Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Marathi and Kannada), she also played the Sitar and painted. The miniature paintings often portray her hawking or playing Polo. She is such an inspiring figure, that it’s a shame Sanjay Leela Bhansali didn’t choose to make a movie on her!

Women enjoying wine and music

Women on the terrace, enjoying wine and music!

Time and again, there have been concerns around women drinking beer.  These women from the 17th century have a good time without a bother !  Despite the strict ban imposed by Islamic law, drinking remained a common feature of medieval India. Some drank socially, and some drank in secret. Do you think this painting, set on a terrace in the Mughal harem, has an air of secrecy around it?

Detail of a painting of Women enjoying wine and music.

Did you know, Princess Jahanara was extremely fond of wine imported from Persia, Kabul and Kashmir. In fact, the best liquor was distilled in her own palace!

Mohini, the slayer of Demons

Mohini, the Apsara – also considered to be the only female avatar of Vishnu

There are so many legends and myths associated with Mohini that have held my fascination with her since childhood. She is the one who prevents the Demons from accessing the nectar of immortality but my favourite story is the one where she cleverly turns Bhasmasura (another demon) into ash. Bhasmasur had the power to turn anybody into ash by just touching their head.  According to legend, Mohini winning his fancy, trains Bhasmasura to imitate her dance moves and in the process makes him touch his own head.
Mohini shows how women can use their charm to stop the Bad from overpowering the Good – and I love her for that!

Bani Thani, India’s Mona Lisa

Bani Thani, painted by Nihal Chand

Bani-Thani may not be technically “badass”, but she is considered to be India’s Mona Lisa and is a must-see at the National Museum! She is the very portrait of elegance and grace. Born as Vishnupriya, she was employed by the mother of Raja Sawant Singh in Kishangarh. She was a wonderful and talented singer, and quite fashionable too! It is her impeccable fashion-sense that set her apart and that’s how she gained the tag “Bani-Thani” (well-decked-up)! She even featured on a Stamp issued in 1973!

Bani Thani stamp, commemorating the Kishangarh style of Painting.

These women from fiction, history and myth are so much more fun to visit in person ! If you’re celebrating #WomensHistoryMonth, visit a museum in your city, and share your favourites with us!

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