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Four Centuries of Paintings and Manuscripts from the Indian Subcontinent

CAT. NO. 78

Wajid Ali Shah and his wives listen to a performance by Najib al-Daula Lucknow, c.1850

Fol. 117v from a manuscript of the Ishqnama (see cat. no. 77) | Painting in opaque watercolour including gold metallic paint and gum heightening with ink on paper | 27.7 × 44.4 cm (folio) 20.9 × 36.7 cm (image) | RCIN 1005035 |

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As a Shi'a Muslim, Wajid Ali Shah could marry up to four women in official nikah ceremonies but as many as he liked through temporary mut’ah marriage contracts. He is believed to have married more than 375 women over the course of his life, many of whom were talented, high-class courtesans (tawa'if), whom he named paris (‘fairies’). They lived guarded by African women within the palace in the pari-khana (‘fairy-house’), where the King and the city’s foremost music masters tutored them in music and dancing. 

Wajid Ali Shah’s wives are invariably depicted with their hair tightly combed leaving their foreheads bare in the stark British fashion. The painters evidently based their portraits on photographs, probably by the gentleman amateur Ahmad Ali Khan, the King’s court photographer. Their faces are beautifully detailed but frank and unsmiling, their eyes downcast as if avoiding the photographer’s eye.[264] Some of the women’s faces are either not shown, covered with fans or parasols, or depicted from behind, possibly because the women refused to sit for the camera. 

  • [264] See Gordon 2010, pp. 148–51. For later photographs in a similar style see Beauties of Lucknow.

  • From a manuscript presented to Queen Victoria by Sir John Lawrence, 1859