Princesses Visiting Hindu Holy Woman
Mughal India, 18th Century
Gouache on wasli heightened with gold. Painting size, 9 3/8 inches x 4 3/4 inches (24 cm x 12cm).
Two Mughal women visit a female Hindu ascetic and her attendants outside their hut. The ladies are kneeling on the left dressed in the fine peshvajs and jewels. The three Hindu women wear pale, semi-transparent garments with their hair tightly pulled back into buns. They surround a group of objects prepared for a ritual.
Before the 17th century women were very rarely the main subject of Mughal paintings. However, the emperor Jahangir appears to have encouraged an unusual amount of freedom for his court ladies. Dating from his reign and that of his successor, Shah Jahan, we have numerous individual portraits of Mughal ladies as well as depictions of life inside the harem, women out hunting and visiting important holy figures. From their fine clothes and jewellery, we can tell that the ladies in this painting are Mughal princesses. However they are not portraits taken from life but an established type.
Even though the highly-educated and cultured women of the zenana certainly did commission albums and paintings, the imperial artists would not have been allowed into the zenana to get a glimpse of them. There are a few portraits of this period which appear to be of actual women, taken from life, and it has been suggested that these were executed by female artists within the zenana (there are signed works by at least two female artists from Jahangir's reign). Evidently this holy woman, with her attendants and various ritual accoutrements, was based on a real female mystic and the painting was commissioned to record a visit to her by the princesses.