National Museum exhibition in Delhi shows us 'what was it like to be a woman in colonial era'

An ongoing art exhibition in Delhi brings to life bygone faces, tastes and traditions of women who lived in India during the early British era
A royal woman on a terrace (probably in Hyderabad); (right) a tribal woman/courtesan (South India)
A royal woman on a terrace (probably in Hyderabad); (right) a tribal woman/courtesan (South India)

Begum Samru’s life was eventful and full of intrigue as many questions about her life remained unanswered. The life and times of the 18th-century dancer who married a European mercenary, ruled Sardhana (present-day Meerut district) and left a massive inheritance in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, are the stuff legends are made of. A snapshot of Begum Samru’s life shows her alongside George Thomas, her lover and head of her troops. This portrait is currently on display as part of the catalogue accompanying an ongoing exhibition at Delhi’s National Museum. Titled Company Painting: Visual Memoirs of Nineteenth-Century India, the show (ends on July 20) invites the viewer to travel back in time when India lingered on the threshold of change.

The canvases also departed from the then-existing sensibilities. Instead of preparing the handmade paper, artists were working on imported machine-made paper. While the paper was the most popular medium, ivory and new materials such as mica and glass were also seen during this period. The majority of paintings in this exhibition and catalogue are executed in watercolours, a characteristic of this style, preferred for their delicate tones. The quick western techniques adopted for the use of watercolours were also a departure from the laborious execution of traditional gouache paintings, which required layering and burnishing.

The exhibition is a tour de force of art commissioned in the dynamic period of the 18th and 19th centuries. The collection of over 200 paintings from the time is replete with intriguing details of the people, architecture, rituals and portraiture styles, but, above all, it sheds light on the women of the era. 

Most of the women represented in the collection are not familiar faces because the artists documented their ethnographic details such as region, costume and jewellery, and other aspects of material culture, rather than the individuals they were.  

Pointing to a painting of a tribal woman from South India, Dr Savita Kumari, curator of the show, says, “This one is significant for several reasons. For example, her gaze is compelling and provocative, unlike before, where portraits of women were idealised and distant from the viewers.” The paintings are also, in a sense, snapshots of the personal and professional lives of the women of the era. For instance, a portrait of an Indian lady sitting on a chair and reading a book reflects an affluent background and the growing European influence on an Indian woman’s lifestyle. 

In contrast, a painting of a bare-bosomed woman, sensually brushing her hair, depicts her as a courtesan. Architectural drawings such as the tomb of Itimad-ud-Daula and his wife Asmat Begum in Agra, and that of Delhi’s Qudsia Bagh Palace resonate with the role of women in shaping tradition. The mausoleum was commissioned by Nur Jahan, the wife of Emperor Jahangir for her father Mirza Ghiyas Beg, who enjoyed the title of Itimad-ud-Daula (pillar of the state). “Each aspect of the building reflects Nur Jahan’s refined taste in art and architecture. The delicate ornamentation of the Taj Mahal borrows from the trends she set in architectural projects,” says Kumari. In another painting where Nur Jehan is seen smoking a hookah, the Mughal Queen has been modelled after the British Empress Victoria.

During this period, stylisation and canonical beauty ideals gave way to the realistic portrayal. For instance, one of the paintings is of a woman with wrinkles. This was unthinkable in the past. Another work from south India, which is a departure from the tradition, is the documentation of a medical condition known as neurofibromas (a benign tumour that develops along your nerve cells) in the work titled ‘A lady seated in a yellow sari’.

The pan-Indian series also features regional variations. The realism seen in the paintings from south India is different from those from Punjab. In the latter, the emphasis is on decorative elements and stylisation, which can be seen in ‘A princess and friend riding on horses’ and ‘An armed woman from Sikh court’.

The exhibition has a wealth of information on the dress and ornaments of women from all over India. Some of the paintings from south India show ladies with distended earlobes and heavy earpieces. Though mainly produced to cater to colonial tastes, today, these artworks enrich our understanding of 
the 19th-century life in India and shed light on the material culture and professional practices of the period. 

The patrons of this genre predominantly included British officials and their families who took them home as souvenirs for relatives and friends who could get a taste of India, just as today postcards from far-off lands. bring stories from foreign lands.

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