The fascinating story behind this 19th century portrait of three princesses from Mysore

This portrait, painted by the Irish-born painter Thomas Hickey, marks a crucial point in India’s colonial history, and Mysore, in particular. In the painting, you see Pattamahisi Devajamanni, the senior-most Queen of Mummadi Krishnaraja Wadiyar whom he married in 1801. On the right is Maharani Devajamanni of Lakshmivilasa Sannidhana, the Junior queen of the King Mummadi Krishnaraja Wadiyar.

Thomas Hickey travelled to India in 1795, looking for commissioned work from the East India company. Like other traveling painters of his time, he too, probably wanted to paint the fascinating ‘oriental & exotic’ during his time in India. This painting was created around the year 1806.

From ‘Temple Dancers / Courtesans’ to ‘Three Royal Princesses from Mysore’ : a portrait by Thomas Hickey

Large scale portraits of royals were rare in the time this portrait was painted. The artist had proposed himself as the East India Company’s “historical & portrait” painter, and this painting formed part of the project. The project was rejected on financial grounds. / Image : Sothebys

This painting was initially identified as ‘India Princesses’ but attributed to the wrong artist. Later, Mildred Archer, an English art historian corrected the attribution to Thomas Hickey, though ended up suggesting that the women were ‘temple-dancing girls or courtesans’.

Her description stuck around until another academician, Dr. Nigel Chancellor challenged the view, going deep into clues such as the gold-bangle on the blouse sleeve (a sign of the women of the Arasu royal clan), the jewellery on the forehead connecting to either side of the head (usually worn by patranis / queens), and the crescent shaped jewel on the hair (tracing the mythical origins of the Mysore Wadiyars; re-aligning them with royalty, and specifically established the connection to Mysore Wadiyars. The painting was soon re-labelled as ‘Three Princesses from Mysore’

Interestingly, this is a rare example of an artwork used for health-awareness, featuring royal women (who were in a position of influence)

A viewer’s eye probably goes first towards the exquisite jewellery, and then to the Maharani on the right. Is she adjusting her saree? What if we told you, this is a portrait of royal women posing to gain public confidence in small-pox vaccination?

Mark Wilkes, Resident at the Court of Mysore had been tasked by Lord William Bentick (the then Governor General of India) to promote small pox vaccination. Aided by Purniya, the Chief Minister of Mysore, and Rani Lakshmi Ammani, the development of this well thought out campaign was portrayed through Thomas Hickey’s portrait of the three princesses.

thomas hickey mysore
Purniya : the Chief Minister of Mysore

The three women had been persuaded by Rani Lakshmi Ammani, the grand-aunt of the senior Queen (on the left) to take vaccination shots in public so people wouldn’t have any apprehensions or doubts (possibly about revealing parts of their body to a Doctor). She was particularly interested in spreading awareness since she had lost her husband to smallpox. The Queen on the right in the portrait, points to her upper arm; she had announced her readiness to be vaccinated in July 1806.

Disease, Worship & Medicine

It is not an unknown fact, that in many parts of India even today, disease and traditional healing practices go hand in hand. In (pre)-colonial India, diseases were perceived to be god-sent punishments, which could be cured only by a specific God or a priest dedicated to it’s worship. In case of Small Pox, it was the Goddess Shitala Devi.

According to the scriptures, she is an incarnation of the Goddess Durga, who cures bacterial fever. Here’s a Kalighat style painting of the Goddess.

kalighat small pox
The Goddess carries a broom, a pot of water, a fan (to collect the ‘germs’ in), a bowl and a pot of Ganga-water for purifying thereby suggesting the importance of hygiene.

A company-style painting depicts worship of Sheetala Devi in South India as well, although perhaps a little differently:

company painting small pox
From the collection of the V&A London: The man carrying five pots containing tulsi or ‘Holy Basil’ on his head is a devotee of Shitala or Mariyamma (‘Death-Mother’). The woman in the dark blue sari holds a shrine containing a seated figure of Bhairava (Shiva), while her husband beats a long drum (mridanga). The man on the extreme right carries a stick, a bowl and a razor, while his wife holds their baby in a sling round her neck.

The disease invoked widespread fear and was blind to castes / community or race. Well, Maharaja Ranjit Singh is said to have survived small pox during infancy, but lost an eye to the disease! In 1796, Chamaraja Wodeyar IX, died of small pox (which is when Tipu Sultan deposed the Wodeyar dynasty). In 19th century India, British officials in India met with little success when it came to introducing small pox vaccinations.

In South India, people worshipped the Goddess Mariamman – associated with bringing rain, and curing diseases like cholera, small pox, chicken pox, etc.

The Small Pox Ceremony: From the collection of the V&A

Small Pox & Vaccination in Colonial India

In his book ‘An account of the manner of inoculating for the smallpox in the East Indies‘ written in 1767, Dr. J.Z Holwell claimed that small-pox inoculation was practiced in India by Brahmins (variolation).

In the book Small Pox & Vaccination in British India, the author indicates the state of vaccination in the Bombay Presidency – in 1835, there is no mention of the practice, although difficulties in promoting vaccination were confirmed.

The most surprising record comes from the Bengal Presidency : by 1850, there was at least one “ticcadar” (inoculator) for every 8-10 groups of houses and in Calcutta alone, 68 names & addresses of ticcadars were known.

The Madras Presidency map

A research report by Niels Brimnes, highlights the status of small pox vaccination in the Madras Presidency. After successful scattered attempts, the Madras Government under Lord William Bentick (the first Governor General of India), decided to launch a campaign to encourage variolation in September 1800. The campaign went beyond soldiers in the Company’s army and was directed toward the civil population. This gained much success owing to indigenous agents and inoculators.

But then in 1802, cow-pox vaccine reached Madras, and the Government immediately changed the campaign to promote vaccination instead.

The journal further outlines the causes of resistance to the European-vaccination technique, but more importantly highlights how the resistance was perceived by colonizers:

  • ” … their opposition to everything which was not transmitted to them by their forefathers
  • a fear of irritating the Goddess of small pox, Mariamma, and being exposed to her revenge
  • distrust about the way a Government functions since they were very used to living under oppression; the poor people “imagine that so much trouble is taken, and the great expenses gone to by their rulers not to benefit but to injure them; and that their Children when grown up, shall be carried away, or that at least an heavy tax shall be levied as a compensation for the benefit bestowed on them by vaccination.”
  • But the obstacle which is not the least of all, and which cannot be easily removed, proceeds from the apathy and want of forecasting in the Hindoos. – The former makes them insensible to every evil which is yet distant; and the latter makes them perfectly indifferent about the perils which are not near at hand”

According to the available records on small-pox mortality in colonial presidencies, Madras recorded 3-11% deaths in the years 1855-84.

Deeper Connections : Looking at Colonial Art (in the classroom)

Classroom Ideas

Colonial Encounters

Discuss the colonial view of women / female figures in art.

Compare the painting of the Three Mysore princesses by Thomas Hickey to Tilly Kettle’s painting, ‘Dancing Girl’. Then consider the following questions.

tilly kettle dancing girl

> What is different or alike? Why do you think Mildred Archer assumed the three women to be Temple Dancers / Courtesans?
> Do the portraits make the women look important? How?
> Discuss the Raj’s relationship with Indian royals in different presidencies.

Indigenous Practices & the Impact of Colonization

# Explore the connections between Faith & the History of medicine or health
# organize a classroom debate discussion on indigenous practices and the impact of colonization on these; for example on the crafts industry.
# Ask students to compare and contrast the work & training of medical practitioners with that of someone in a similar role in colonial India
# Discuss the class-conflict and modernization during the British-Raj

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