17th century Mughal paintings also show women engaged in leisure activities within the harem or away from it hunting or visiting holy figures. By the 18th century, when Mughal artists worked for a clientele beyond the imperial elite, these became more idealised representations, sometimes showing women simply lounging on terraces or caught in an embrace with a prince. When Mughal artists went to work for provincial courts such as Lucknow and Faizabad, they brought this genre of painting with them where it achieved instant popularity.
Because many Indian paintings illustrate religious and literary texts the women are typically presented as archetypes, often the heroine (nayika) awaiting her lover’s return, or the ragini, a female personification of the classical Indian musical modes of the Ragamala. Over the centuries, they tended to display much the same characteristics: voluptuous proportions, angular faces and large almond-shaped eyes.
In Mughal India however, miniature paintings often illustrated historical texts and the women portrayed are therefore specific to the event being recorded. The depiction of Mughal women evolved from a mixture of Indian, Persian and European models, and the Rajput, Mongol and European women can be identified by their different physiognomy and clothing. However, since male artists were not allowed to enter the zenana, these were still archetype depictions rather than individual portraits.
During the period first half of 17th century, many portraits of Mughal court ladies were painted and these often include individualised depictions. The emperor Jahangir seems to have encouraged more freedom within his zenana and a number of paintings in albums dating from his reign bear women’s signatures. It is likely that the true-to-life female portraits from the time were also made by women.
17th century scenes of life in the harem painted by male Mughal artists feature more generic female types. Many paintings exist of Jahangir and his sons being entertained by court ladies who often all look alike. Nevertheless, depictions of the most important women appear individualised and were therefore probably based on portraits.