The (In)Visible Begam: Royal Mughal Women and the Visual Language of Kingship



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Imperial Mughal art of India was inherently political, and paintings made by artists of the royal ateliers gave the ideology of Mughal kingship a visible form in portraits, reproducing the likeness of emperors in codified, allegorical representations. From emperor Akbar in the late 16th century to Jahangir and Shah Jahan in the 17th century, miniature painting became a powerful device for communicating imperial power, and the depiction of courtiers as witnesses to the trappings of imperial power became commonplace in the representation of emperors. Thus, the conception of visibility and observance as a manner of acknowledging power became an integral component of Mughal imperial art. The depiction of women of the royal household, however, required a different approach than the images of their male counterparts. Women were immensely powerful in their own rights in the public sphere, but their lives rendered their representation more challenging to fit into the visual conventions developed for the visibility of emperors. Mughal women lived within the rules of purdah, or a social order that separated royal women from the bulk of the men at court, keeping them guarded and out of sight from all but the most high ranking men of their families. Their invisibility ran counter to the conceptions of visibility that dominated images of royal men. Yet, my research shows an abundance of painterly moments where the issues of women's visibility and imperial gaze crystallize and resolve themselves in the images of Royal Mughal women. The thesis examines those instances that demonstrate how painters grappled with the purdah rules regarding the visibility of women. A detailed analysis of images where women were idealized and eroticized, or included as a group of witnesses or performers to affirm the imperial gaze, shows the various ways in which the Mughal painters leverage visual conventions of painting and ideology to communicate the political power of those women. The thesis draws primarily on art historical research on how Mughal kingship was constructed in visual terms. I use a large body of scholarship and engage with scholars including Ebba Koch, Annemarie Schimmel, Mika Natif, and others, for understanding the conventions for imperial presentations in Mughal art. I also rely on works by historians such as Ruby Lal and Ellison Banks Findly on royal women and their political role in court. In emphasizing women, this work serves as an intervention into the larger art historical understanding of Mughal visual ideology that has remained centered around images of men. It seeks to both explore how the Mughal political ideology was enacted using images of women, as well as offers an understanding of an innovative hybrid visual language that translated both purdah rules and the visual language of masculine power to indicate the female imperial presence in Mughal painting.


Awarded Magna Cum Laude with High Honors


Mughal, India, Indian Painting, Mughal Painting, Women in painting