Amidst the many treasures of Indian art at the Bharat Kala Bhavan, Varanasi, is a rare painting from the Shahjahan-period. It shows a female artist, making a portrait of another woman. The painting raises many questions, but primarily one wonders, where are these portraits made by the women (artists) of the Mughal zenana?
Historians believe, that in the Mughal zenana, women appreciated paintings as much as their men did, commissioned art and even painted. In fact there is enough evidence pointing to the existence of art instruction in the women’s quarters, but unfortunately there does not seem to be much information on the artists and their work!
In an exhibition catalogue ‘Indian and Persian Painting 1590-1840‘ J.P Losty identifies a self-portrait of a woman artist in a 17th century painting! He writes:
The group at the bottom left corner includes a woman holding an album or portfolio, a well-known sign in the work of artists such as Bichitr, Bishndas or Balchand that is taken to mean that this is a self-portrait of the artist of the main picture. This would suggest in our painting that the artist is a woman in the zenana…the artist has obviously been influenced in her depictions of women with heavy jowls and low foreheads by the artist Bishndas…
We know from other Mughal paintings that Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan, Dara Shikoh – all patronised painters and commissioned art-albums. Did any of the women-artists contribute to these commissions? Possibly! The 17th century Muraqqa-e-Gulshan, compiled for Prince Salim (later Emperor Jahangir) – widely recognized as one of the world’s greatest books of the times – includes works by at least 3 Mughal women artists! This 300-page album is filled with paintings by known names of the Mughal atelier such as Aqa Riza, Basawan, Nanha. It must have been a prized possession for it was among the treasures that Nadir Shah took with him to Persia.
Take a look at these paintings made by 5 women artists of the Mughal court :
1 . Sahifa Banu
Sahifa Banu was undoubtedly one of the best-known women artists of the Mughal court. We found at least 3 paintings that have been attributed to her.
The Son who Mourned his Father, ca. 1620, Aga Khan Museum | CC BY NC
This painting illustrates a scene from the Persian poem Mantiq al-Tair (Conference of Birds). In the poem, a bird voices its fear of death (as everyone readies to undertake an arduous journey to meet the Simurgh). In response, the Hoopoe narrates the tale of “the son who mourned his father”.
In the tale, the son walking behind his father’s coffin expresses his unbearable grief. A Sufi, offers him solace explaining that his father’s pain was much more and that no one can avoid death. The scene occurs outside the gate of the cemetery. The painting also shows the next stage – where the body is moved to the cemetery and the final stage is symbolised by the bird flying towards the white cage hanging from the tree (the bridge between two worlds) – through which the soul must make way to heaven.
The painting is strikingly similar in composition to a 15th century painting attributed to calligrapher Sultan ‘Ali al-Mashhadi. According to Mughal authors, the paintings of the Timurid painter Behzad, and the calligraphy of Sultan ‘Ali al-Mashhadi were benchmarks of excellence, against which other works were to be judged.
Another painting attributed to Sahifa Banu is made after an original by Behzad. It appears in the Gulshan-e-Muraqqa. How different are her aesthetic choices? (Her painting on the right)
The Building of the Castle of Khawarnaq, ca. 1654 | Golestan Palace Library, Tehran
While making a copy, Sahifa Banu introduces some new elements, and manages to display her skill in creating a three-dimensional effect for the building.
Shah Tahmasp of Iran. By Sahifa Banu, 17th century | Victoria & Albert Museum
This painting features the Shah Tahmasp of Iran, known to be a patron of Safavid painting. It is believed that two painters from his court travelled to Humayun’s court to train Mughal imperial book-illustrators. In the painting, he sits on a Persian carpet, at the edge of a stream under a tree – the branches of which seem to be swaying in the wind. Art Historian, Fred S. Kleiner, points to Sahifa Banu’s use of two distinct perspectives in the painting. While the Shah, and the Tree are at eye level, the carpet and the stream are painted employing a top view. Kleiner also hints that the calligraphy on the borders could possibly be attributed to a female calligrapher of the court. The borders though, were painted by the artist Mansur, known for his excellent skills of depicting flowers and animals.
2. Ruqaya Banu
The works of European masters (such as Dürer, Haerten Van Heemskeick, Pieter Vander Heyden) were not unknown to Mughal painters – and that includes women artists too – Ruqaya Banu, Nuri Nadira Bano & Nini were known to have made copies of European engravings and prints in their own style. This could have been prompted by their art instructor.
In ‘Mughal Occidentalism’, Mika Natif reveals several such paintings:
Seated European Nude Man, ca. 1630 | Chester Beatty Library
This painting is based on an engraving by Flemmish artist Johannes Sadeler which itself is based on another painting by Crispin van den Broeck. Natif highlights that while these two men might look visually similar, they convey two very different concepts. Art Historian Yael Rice refers to these works as ‘disjunctions’ – and not imitations. In Ruqaya’s Mughal version, the emphasis on the muscular male body is visibly toned down, evoking a contemplative, calm ambience. Natif also draws attention to Ruqaya’s placement of the dog, who is often spotted in Mughal paintings as a companion of ascetics. Like an ascetic, Ruqaya’s man is positioned right under the tree.
It is however, the text accompanying the paintings that suggest how they differ from each other. While the European engraving is a visual depiction of a biblical text, the Mughal version draws on allegory. If one were to go by the ‘Akbarnama‘, it would appear that Akbar was a descendent of Adam (who was the perfect combination of knowledge, power and beauty). Ruqaya, thus, takes a European subject, and gives it her own cultural spin. The painting also includes text in Persian, borrowing lines from the 13th century poet and philosopher, Baba Afzal al-din.
Composite Page, with painting by Ruqaya Banu and Ahmad the painter, early 17th century | Golestan Palace Library, Tehran
The nude figure makes another appearance in the Gulshan-album, attributed to Ruqaya Banu. This time it is part of a composite painting alongside drawings by ‘Ahmad the painter’, suggesting the value of her skill. Do you spot the differences ? The tree and the dog don’t make an appearance in this one.
3. Nuri Nadira Bano (not to be confused with Dara Shikoh’s wife Nadira Banu)
Following the trend of creating art based on European and Christian paintings, another composite painting appears in the Gulshan album. Prof. Kavita Singh, points to the painting of St. Mathew with the lion which is attributed to Nadira Banu who signs as “Nadira Banu, student of Aqa Riza”.
The Martyrdom of St. Cecelia is believed to be a copy of an engraving by Hieronymus Wierix. The painting, though similar in composition, is different from the original in many ways. For instance, Nini decided to remove the wounds from the neck thereby limiting the violence in the painting. According to Mika Natif, “In contrast to the somberness of the European engraving, light and beauty radiate from the Mughal painting, and the figures’ facial expressions are soft and even peaceful.”
Saint Cecelia, first half of the 17th century | V&A, London
The calligraphy below the painting is a ghazal by Amir Khusrau. The theme of the ghazal is one of abandonment or the suffering caused by love, and the pain of a creative process. The description of the poet as half-asleep is mirrored in the figure’s languid expression. Instead of martyrdom, the theme of the painting has thus becomes one of loss of love. This probably explains why the wounds from Saint’s neck have been removed. Was it the story of Cecelia that appealed to Nini? A woman who faced death boldly, for having stood up for her beliefs and faith.
The alterations in the painting and the use of Khusrau’s poetry remove the image from its original Christian context of martyrdom. Even so, the repurpose of the image shows just how far Christian and European ideals permeated in the Mughal workshops during Akbar and Jahangir’s reigns.
5. Khurshid Banu
Elephant fights were a popular court entertainment in Mughal times. Here a tussle between elephants becomes lively, as the mahouts (elephant trainers) urge their beasts on. Some are also hanging on to the ropes for dear life! This painting is attributed to Khurshid Banu; there seems to be little information about the artist though.
Two Elephants in Combat, ca. 1600-1650 | Howard Hodkin collection
There is extensive scholarship available on Mughal art and artists such as Mansur, Basawan, Bishandas, Abul Hasan; one cannot say the same for women artists. Even as we learn about 5-women-artists of the Mughal court, many more remain anonymous. Over the years, historians and scholars have written about women with agency, those who built forts, tombs and cities; those who yielded power – yet their interests in art and art commissions remain a missing detail.
This story is part of our Women’s History Month campaign #ChangeTheNarrative [March 1-31, 2021]. Learn more about how you can participate in making women in art, visible on the internet.