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Four Centuries of Paintings and Manuscripts from the Indian Subcontinent

CAT. NO. 38

Painted and lacquered album covers Mughal, c.1730–50

Covers for an eighteenth-century Mughal album (see cat. no. 37) | Painted leather | 42.5 x 27.3 cm | RCIN 1005068.a

In an exhibition, MK Gallery [Milton Keynes]

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By rare good fortune, the original eighteenth-century covers for cat. no. 37 survive. They are made of leather onto which the decoration has been painted, the outlines highlighted in gold then covered with a lacquer varnish. Although the covers are unsigned, the refined painterly style depicting short, slim figures with strong aquiline noses and heavy jaws, and the delicate rendering of the birds and animals suggest the work of one of Muhammad Shah’s leading masters.

While the exterior is decorated with floral designs, the interior depicts a magnificent landscape scene incorporating two literary themes. On the right are the protagonists of a popular love story, Baz Bahadur and Rani Rupmati, hunting blackbuck with bows and arrows on horseback. Baz Bahadur (‘Brave Falcon’) was the Muslim Sultan of Malwa in Central India, defeated by Emperor Akbar’s forces in 1561. Rani Rupmati, a Hindu Rajput princess, was his beautiful and talented wife who committed suicide rather than marrying Akbar’s general after he stormed Baz Bahadur’s palace at Mandu. On the left is a seated woman wearing a plumed turban shooting blackbuck with a matchlock. She is Chand Bibi, the warrior queen who defended the Deccani fort of Ahmednagar from Akbar’s forces in 1595. Both of their tales were popular themes of poetry and song in Hindustan in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and equally became favourite subjects for painters.[148]

Perhaps more intriguing than the main characters of this scene are the incidental details depicting women riding on horseback, fishing, roasting food and casually smoking hookahs. Although most respectable Mughal women lived in the zanana, secluded from all but their closest male relatives, this did not mean they lived sheltered lives. Many of the women in the imperial family were extremely powerful, amassing great personal wealth, and enjoyed the same leisure activities as their male counterparts. 

  • [148] For the Baz Bahadur and Rani Rupmati romance written in 1599 see ul-Umri 1926. For another painting of the same subject see Bodl. MS Douce Or. b1, fol. 17b. For Chand Bibi see Hutton 2016.

  • From an album presented to George III by Lord Teignmouth, Governor-General of India, c.1798