Visibility, Veiling And Voyeurism : The Unique Depiction of Women in Mughal Painting

By Moksha Kumar 

In a deeply riveting session with renowned art historian Kavita Singh, Saffronart hoped to shed light on the topic of the depiction of women in Mughal painting.

The visuals associated with the Mughal painting often bring to mind the regal and intricate illustrations of court life, princely pursuits, royal hunts, battle regalia and more. However, when one looks into the lives of women during this time, the information is minimal due to, of course, their limited depiction and the purdah(or pardah) system.

Kavita Singh began her examination by pointing out that the Mughal paintings were paradoxical in nature as the depiction of Mughal women itself would go against social norms, as they were not supposed to be seen in society. The purdah system was only related to an elite section of society making the depiction of other classes of women far easier in terms of treading the artistic boundary between veiling and visibility.

In a folio from the Akbarnama, a work by artists Tulsi and Miskin shows the construction of the Agra fort, with many women who are depicted working alongside. The stark difference here, would be in the comparison to the painting of women court members, often shielded by the ‘veil’ so as to preserve the norm at the time.

Mughal miniature painting  detail, Padshahnama, Mughal. Image courtesy
Mughal miniature painting  detail, Padshahnama, Mughal. Image courtesy

‘This formula for the depiction of women has been repeated across Mughal paintings from Jahangir to Shah Jahan’ said Kavita Singh. The stylization would essentially function as a ‘veil’ in order to protect the identity of the woman depicted. One would point to the fact that this was objectifying the woman’s identity, but these Mughal paintings were sometimes patronized by the women themselves, meaning there was some level of acceptance in terms of visualization.

Shah-Jahan honouring Prince Awrangzeb at his wedding (19 May 1637) 1656-57, image courtesy of Royal Collection Trust
Shah-Jahan honouring Prince Awrangzeb at his wedding (19 May 1637) 1656-57, image courtesy of Royal Collection Trust

In another folio from the Padshahnama, the depiction of the  men who are illustrated individually and given solid personas, is offset by the women who are drawn with repetitive features and bodies. Taking from the combination of Indian visual techniques with Persian traditions, the body shape and squarish angle of the faces are seen to be directly taken from the Chaupanchashika style of painting, that visualized women with pinched waists and voluptuous bodies.

Moving across the timelines of Mughal history, the complexity of the depiction of women is perhaps something that can always be explored and constantly updated, as their lives were so visibly constrained. We could even explore better into their individual lives, as their significance glows through the painting panels and a fantastic period of history.