That Graceful Presence

Prof. BN Goswamy

Prof. BN Goswamy reflects on women as subjects, and sometimes artists, in the history of Indian art.


There is incredible elegance, and refinement, in the manner in which the painters of the past treated of the feminine form in India. For centuries together. All those supple forms, those faces of porcelain beauty, come rushing to the mind: nayikas languishing on moonlit terraces, stepping out in the dark of stormy nights to keep a tryst, haughtily glancing down with a bare look to spare for lovers massaging the soles of their feet, peeping seductively from behind bamboo curtains, daintily gathering flowers with henna-ed hands. In this painting from the collection of the Museum of Art & Photography (MAP), Bengaluru, the artist has depicted the popular scene of a nayika practising shringara, or adorning herself for her lover, or nayak. A woman, dressed in a delicate, diaphanous robe, is putting on an exquisite necklace strung with gold, rubies, emeralds and pearls, while looking into a small hand mirror that is being held up for her by an attendant. It is a magical world, as Coomaraswamy once wrote, in which “all men are heroic, and all women beautiful and passionate and shy.” 

A Nayika adorning herself in the Mirror, Late 19th to early 20th century, Punjab Hills, India, Opaque watercolour and gold on paper, H. 21.8 cm, W. 15.3 cm, PTG.01525

And yet, even when that magic begins to work upon audiences, it is interesting how often, at the end of a lecture or a presentation, especially at a foreign university, I am asked this question, prosaically, in matter of fact manner: “Were there any women painters in India? Was painting exclusively a male domain?” Or, as some kind of a supplement: “Were true portraits of women ever painted in India? If not, are all those images that one sees labelled as “Noor Jahan” or “Mumtaz Mahal”, or even “Chand Bibi” of Ahmednagar, imaginary then?” 

The questions are fair, but require somewhat complex answers. And it takes a bit long to do that, especially if the cultural context is only partially known to or understood by the questioner/s. After answering the first query then — and the answer to that is that the work of not many women painters is documented and that many of them did work in the form of assisting their men by preparing pigments, filling in details, and so on — I generally nudge them towards two things: one a fact, the other a story, both of which elicit some interest. The fact first. Some years ago we acquired for the National Museum in Delhi an album of old nineteenth-century photographs, consisting of the portraits of the ‘Talukdars of Oudh’. The photographs must have been needed for some official purpose: an inventory of landholders of substance or something like that. On each album leaf were pasted in neat columns four portraits with the name of each person carefully noted below in Urdu. Most of the portraits were those of elegant, or at least affluent-looking men, formally dressed, posing for the cameramen. However, some of the spaces where portraits should have been inserted were blank, although the names were neatly inscribed below those spaces. All of these missing portraits were those of Muslim women who must have inherited the properties and were therefore title-holders in their own right. The inscriptions read something like “Feroza Begum”, or “Usmani Bibi”, followed by the words: “pardanasheen” meaning “she who is behind the veils of chastity” as the phrase goes, and — understandably — could not be photographed before. That I still find telling.

The other is a story from a Rajput context, one that many painters tell when speaking of the great skills of one of their forebears, and which I have told before in an earlier piece. It goes a little like this. This painter, an ancestor, was once asked by his patron, a Raja, to paint a ‘portrait’ of his favourite Rani which he intended to present to her on her birthday. The painter had a disadvantage though: he was not supposed to see the Rani in real life, for she did not appear in public. Thus, the portrait that he was to execute was to be an idealised one. The painter went about his task with diligence, summoning to his aid all the traditional descriptions of feminine beauty, filling in features like eyes that resembled those of a doe, eyebrows that took shape of a stretched bow, a nose sharp like the beak of a parrot, lips like a bimba fruit, and the like. It was in other words a ‘portrait’ endowed with all of the lakshanas or characteristics appropriate to a delicate feminine form of the padmini kind: a ‘lotus lady’, so to speak. But, as the painter was giving the finishing touch to the work and lifting his brush from the painting, a small black dot fell from its tip onto the body of the Rani. Upset by this but unable to remedy it at that stage, he hoped that the tiny dot would not be noticed. The next day, when the painter presented the painting to the Raja, he received high praise for his work. The Raja was well pleased with the portrait, but when he examined it with care, something that the work demanded, his eye fell upon the tiny black dot which happened to be on the thigh of the Rani. Knowing that the Rani had a black mole on her thigh exactly at the same spot, the Raja became suspicious and wondered whether there was a secret liaison between the painter and his Rani, for how else could the painter have placed that mole on the correct spot in the portrait? Now incensed, he ordered that the painter be thrown into prison. But, fortunately, things took a turn for the better for the painter, as the story goes. The following night, the Great Goddess appeared to the Raja in his dream and chided him for having been unfair to the painter who, she said, was a great devotee of hers. It was she, the Goddess said, who, sitting at the tip of the painter’s brush, had made that little black dot fall on the Rani’s body so that her portrait would acquire a certain feel of reality. Convinced and repentant, the story concludes, the Raja ordered the release of the painter the next morning who was allowed to return home, laden with honours. 

I realise that in what I have said till now, there is information and, possibly, some interest. But not many answers. Except one: that ordinarily women of high rank were not portrayed as observed from life but as idealised beings, and it was only women of lower rank — performers, working women, attendants and the like — who, if at all, were painted from life. Of other unanswered questions, another time perhaps.



The essay was originally published in The Tribune, Chandigarh and it is being reproduced here with the permission of Prof. BN Goswamy and The Tribune.  This has now been adapted to feature an artwork from MAP, and thus slightly modified. The part that has been removed from the original essay is replaced by …. and the part that is added to the essay is in italics, (to make it relevant to the image from MAP).

Prof. BN Goswamy is an Indian art historian and critic, best known for his scholarship on Indian miniature paintings, particularly Pahari painting, and is the author of over twenty books on arts and culture.

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