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Eastern Encounters pattern
Eastern Encounters

Drawn from the Royal Library's collection of South Asian books and manuscripts

CAT. NO. 41

Portrait of a Mughal lady and a specimen of Persian calligraphy.

Mughal, <i>c</i>.1730–50 (portrait <i>c</i>.1650)

Fol. 21r from an eighteenth-century Mughal album (see cat. no. 38) | Painting in opaque watercolour including gold and silver metallic paint on paper; set into composite margins of dyed papers with opaque watercolour and gold metallic paint ornament, edged with gold paper | 42.2 × 28.0 cm (folio); 18.8 × 11.4 cm (image) | RCIN 1005068.w

Whereas Mughal portraits of men typically show them standing as if in a durbar ceremony and had a specific function[161] most single representations of women depict them as figures of beauty and desire, usually holding a flower or a small cup. In this superb painting, a regal Mughal woman bedecked with pearls and gems stands holding the long stem of a poppy. The flower directs the viewer’s gaze towards her smooth-skinned face, painted with extraordinary refinement. She represents the ideal feminine characteristic of nazakat, ‘delicacy of demeanour’, while the red flower alludes to beauty, passion and pleasure.

Several versions of this painting exist which label the lady as Bibi Farzana or Farzana Begum, the sister of Shah-Jahan’s wife Mumtaz-Mahal.[162] Farzana was married to Shah-Jahan’s vizier Jafar Khan and according to bazaar gossip was taken by ShahJahan as his mistress. A Venetian traveller to India in the late seventeenth century wrote: ‘The chief of the women, one that he [Shah-Jahan] thought a great deal of was the wife of Jafarcan [Jafar Khan], and from the love he bore her he wished to take her husband’s life, but she saved him by praying that he might be sent as governor to Patana [Patna], as was done.’[163] What, if any, truth lay behind the rumours remains unknown.

Although women certainly did learn to paint in the harem, the extent to which contemporary portraits of Mughal women depict true likenesses has yet to be determined.[164] The distinct attention paid to the rendering of this woman’s face in comparison to the rest of her body, with her slightly protruding upper lip and tight black ringlets hanging on either side of her neck, would suggest that it was intended as a recognisable likeness. Most of the paintings of women in this album are however generic portrayals, including an early eighteenth-century near-mirror image of this painting which faces it on the opposite page.

  • [161] See Aitken 2002, p. 256.

    [162] See Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (60.1139), Los Angeles County Museum of Art (M.72.88.4) and Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (RP-T-1993-187). See also Khalili MSS 1026 in Leach 1998 pp. 94–5, cat. no. 29.

    [163] Manucci, vol. 1, pp. 186–7.

    [164] A painting in the Bharat Kala Bhava, Varanasi (3/682) shows a female artist at work (see Desai 1985, p. 70, no. 60). A handful of Mughal paintings are ascribed to the female artists Sahifa Banu, Nadira Banu, Ruqayya Banu and Khurshid Banu, and it has been suggested that the artist ‘Nini’ was female. John Seyller suggests that drawings of Mughal women in the Mittal Collection may have been taken from life: see Seyller and Mittal 2013a,  pp. 85–91. 

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