Miniatures: Harem Scenes

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Miniatures: Harem Scenes

The practice in India of having segregated accommodations for women is very old. Large residences of the wealthy and the titled always had a separate protected enclosure for women, known as the antahpur, or inner courtyard. Detailed descriptions of the antahpur abound in Sanskrit literature, especially in the dramas and epics. The Valmiki Rāmāyaṇa (1.5), describes the various buildings of the city of Ayodhya, including theaters, gardens, and sporting areas for females. The women, who generally resided on the top floors, were provided small windows (gavāksha), which gave them a glimpse of the outside world (Tulasi Rāmāyaṇa 1.224). When leaving on exile to the forest, Rāma says to his people, "Gaze upon Sita to your fill since you may look upon a royal lady only at the time of the yajna (sacrifice) and marriage, during a calamity and vanagamana (exile to the forest)" (Pratimā Nātaka by Bhasa, 1.29).

Cloistered they may have been, but the women enjoyed creative freedom, as reflected through the dramas of the period, which depict the heroine and other women as generally distinguished in the various performing arts. They play musical instruments like the vina and the flute, and are often artists and painters. Once a center of cultural activities, the antahpur was labeled harem, meaning a forbidden area with restricted entry, during the medieval period (Arabic, harim; Turkish, harem). Other names for it were haramgarh, zanana (from the Persian zan, meaning "women"), and ranivas (abode of queens). A velvet-lined cage for its women, the harem reflects the social structure of the male-dominated medieval society.

The trend of maintaining a large harem was set by the Delhi sultans, beginning in the late twelfth century in pre-Mughal India. Both the Mughal emperors and the Hindu rajas adopted the tradition. Fazal Abul writes in his Ain-i-Akbari about Akbar's harem: "His Majesty has made a large enclosure with fine buildings inside where he reposes. Though there are more than five thousand women, he has given to each a separate apartment. He has also divided them into sections, and keeps them attentive to their duties" (Abul, p. 46).

The size of the harem was a status symbol among kings. Along with the wives, all the other female members of the family—mothers, sisters, daughters—resided in the segregated area. The king's first wife was designated chief queen and was given accorded special privileges. Each queen was provided a special room and a staff of attendants.

At the next level came kaniz, or concubines, then kanchanis, or slaves of a higher rank, who provided entertainment like dance, drama, and music. Further down were bandis, who worked as maidservants. Women captured in war were also placed within this hierarchy. There was some upward mobility as well. A king could maintain relationships with any of the attendants. If a slave girl pleased the royal, she was given concubine status, with her own chamber and a high salary.

A governess and a chief eunuch supervised security. Eunuchs guarded the consorts so that they could not see or meet any man other than their husband. There were also female guards. The interiors were lavishly decorated, but the buildings were designed to preclude outside views. Gardens complete with flowering bushes and fountains were also incorporated into the royal harem. The only glimpses the women had of the outer world was through jharokhas, or roofed balconies located at great heights.

Niccolao Manucci, the Italian resident in the Mughal court who had a privileged access to the harem, described the miserable conditions of these women. He says, "The women, being shut up with this closeness and constantly watched, and having neither liberty nor occupation, think of nothing but adoring themselves and their minds dwell nothing but malice and lewdness" (Manucci, p. 352).

Nevertheless, there are notable cases in which the harem played a decisive and aggressive role in dynastic politics. The most notorious example is from the early life of Akbar, who was enthroned as a teenager. His wet nurse and foster mother Mahem Anega made her impress on politics by combating the ambitions of the young emperor's regent. Nur Jehan, consort of Akbar's son Jahangir, was entitled to signed firmans, or official orders. Neither were the princesses and queens illiterate. They had basic training in reading and writing and in the fine arts. Miniature paintings from Hyderabad and Golconda elaborately depict women writing, reading letters, and playing musical instruments.

Through Artists' Eyes

Royal memoirs, official records, and accounts by travelers and historians do provide some information on the harem, secret and guarded though it was. The subject fascinated artists, and the miniature paintings provide interesting glimpses of life in the women's quarters of the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries.

Earlier, the Delhi sultans, who possessed large harems, strangely did not favor it as a theme for their paintings. There are some scenes of women engaged in various activities in the inner chambers, but in design and decor they pale in comparison to the later lavish harem pictures of the Mughal era.

In the time of Akbar (r. 1556–1605), harem scenes were depicted as part of a biographical series. One painting in Akbarnama depicts the birth of Prince Salim in the Fatehpur Sikri palace harem. The subject was favored by painters of the post-Jahangir era and by the Rajasthani miniaturists, particularly of the Bundi and Thikana styles. Among the Pahari schools, mention must be made of the Guler style, particularly the paintings done in the time of King Govardhana Chand (r. 1741–1773), whose capital was Guler. Govardhana Chand was married to a Basohli princess, Balauria Rani, who is well represented in the paintings of this period. A painting in the collection of the Retberg Museum, Zürich, bears the inscription Harem Patsah ki (the king's harem). It may have been part of a series depicting various events in the women's quarters.

The Queen Prepares

Most commonly, the artists depict the king seated with his queen or concubine in a beautiful garden with fountains, drinking and enjoying music, with a range of women attendants at his service. Royal paraphernalia, such as perfume bottles, a betel nut box, goblets, and a rosewater sprinkler, all find their place within the scene, especially in the Thikana paintings. A eunuch stands guard. A Ruler with his Zanana, Jodhpur, Rajasthan, from the Maharaja Gaja Singhji Umed Bhavana Palace Jodhpur Collection, provides a good representation of the pavilion, garden, and their overall grandeur. The king seems to have the full harem in attendance.

Each night the king would select a particular queen of his thousand-odd wives to visit. The extensive preparations of the privileged queen to make it a memorable evening for the king was another favorite theme. Beautiful women prepare sandalwood paste, decorate the bed with flowers, dance and sing, and adorn themselves in pleasurable anticipation of the evening ahead. However, for every woman it was not a cherished moment. Some paintings show a eunuch or a female guard forcing a young girl to surrender to the king. One of the Malwa paintings from the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya Collection depicts a eunuch forcing a young girl to have a drink so that she will be in no condition to resist.

Drinking and smoking were common practices among the royal women, especially during the Mughal period, to escape their loneliness. A well-dressed woman, looking despondent though surrounded by attendants and musicians, is another common theme of the miniatures. Drinking scenes depicted during and after the rule of Muhammad Shah are pointers to the decay in the court culture so carefully maintained by Akbar.

Other Subjects

Terrace party scenes are commonly depicted in the later Mughal and Deccani paintings. Bathing and sex scenes are in abundance, with the king and his partner inevitably surrounded by attendants and guards. In By the Light of the Moon and Fireworks (1740, Kishangarh School, Harvard University art museums, Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cambridge) an elderly and drunk Mughal king is titillated by a beautiful young woman. He is almost lost among the many intoxicated ladies surrounding him, some of whom have taken lesbian partners. Among the women, the dark-skinned eunuch stands out.

Certain areas in the harem, such as the rang mahal and the sheesh mahal, whose walls were lined with mirrors and colored glass, were designated for various kinds of pleasurable activities. Some special rooms in some zananas were decorated with paintings of erotic themes (for example, Raja Shreenathji in the Zanana, Thikana, Marwar, 18th century, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya collection).

On very few occasions, the women were allowed to emerge from the palace doors. A visit to a religious place or a spiritual guru, hunting, playing polo, and hawking were some of these occasions. Women playing polo became the favorite theme of the Deccani paintings, especially those from Golconda. In quite a few paintings Chandbibi, the queen of Ahmednagar who bravely defended the Mughals in 1600, is shownplaying polo. Hawking was another favorite game of the Mughal queens, who enthusiastically adopted this Iranian sport, as did the Rajput queens. This theme is depicted in the Pahari miniatures, particularly those of Guler.

Playing chaupar (chess), buying jewelry, flying kites, and taming pigeons were some of the indoor activities depicted in paintings. A common subject painted by the Bundi school is a cat catching a pigeon or a parrot, with the agitated women trying to save the bird. Other paintings show the king enjoying festivals like Teej, Holi, and Gangaur with his queens. One of the beautiful illustrations of a king enoying the Teej festival, painted in 1770 in the Bundi style, is in the collection of Victoria and Albert Museum, London. In the same museum can also be seen a painting depicting Maharana Chhatarsal of Kotah Celebrating the Festival of Gangaur, painted at Kotah in 1870.

Painting by Hearsay

A large number of terrace party scenes showing the queen attending a musical concert were done during the later years of Muhammad Shah (r. 1719–1748). Due to the king's inability to govern, his wife Udham Bai became politically powerful. A very interesting painting by Meer Moran, in the collection of Edwin Benny, depicts women in European dress entertaining the queen, who sits authoritatively on a decorated chowki (throne). The inscription on the painting states that it was a New Year's gift to the queen in the twenty-third regnal year of Muhammad Shah, 1742.

How were these depictions of the forbidden areas painted? As male outsiders were not allowed inside the harem, it is likely that these paintings were based on eyewitness accounts, with information provided by one of the queen's attendants supplemented by the artist's imagination. And some of the artists were women. A famous artist of the Mughal period, for instance, was Safia Banu, who was well-known as a painter around 1620. Some women were also experts in the art of calligraphy.

Kalpana Desai
Vandana Prapanna


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