1800s India. A mystery blue-eyed, pale skinned redhead is painted alongside those of 28 Mughal royals. An anonymous court artist evokes how richly the Indian “1%” lived, in these exquisite and rarely seen paintings.
The ginger hair, blue eyes and pale skin make it very obvious. An European woman in Mughal costume and jewellery. She (unlike the women in the other portraits here) is bare-headed with nothing to cover her hair. Her fingertips are dipped in henna, she wears elaborate jewellery and holds something to her cheek, or perhaps she’s putting on another huge earring to match the other.
Who is this woman, and what is she doing in a Mughal palace in the 1800s?
This group of 28 beautiful, unidentified portraits were discovered in the Wellcome Collection, a huge, ecclectic medical sciences archive in London. It’s unclear exactly who these people are. What is clear is that they were painted by an Indian Mughal noble people. Mughal rulers, their wives, their children, their courtesans – and among them our mystery redhead and perhaps two other women who appear European.
From its beginnings in 1567, the Mughal empire was huge for some 200 years. It stretched from the Indus basin in the west, to Afghanistan and Kashmir in the north, to the highlands of Assam and Bangladesh in the east, and south to India’s Deccan Plateau. By the 1700s it ruled over a quarter of the world’s population, its elite milking money and living it large.
After a century of growth and prosperity, historians blame depravity in high places, excessive luxury, and the narrow-mindedness of Mughal rulers unprepared for external challenges like the rise of Britain’s East India Company, as factors that led to the Mughal Empire’s spectacularly rapid collapse between 1707 and 1720.
When our anonymous painter to an unknown Mughal court painted these intricate, richly detailed and accomplished portraits sometime in the 1800s, empire was a shadow of it’s former self. The the dying embers of Mughal decadence then. Yet, somewhere in India, likely under British rule, these folks are still wealthy, still living the empire lifestyle in the 1800s. Isolated in a regal bubble, the Mughal empire evolved it’s own unique aesthetic. Mughal style. They wore precious gem encrusted jewellery and fashion that utilised richly decorated muslin, cotton, silk, brocade and velvet. They sat on custom made furniture in outlandish palaces and fortresses designed by architects in Mughal style. They built the Taj Mahal.
They celebrated their niche culture, enjoyed their wealth and liked to show it off. Captured and preserved for posterity. This is us. This was us. Hence these (Mughal style) portraits.
It’s the details. The women’s henna-ed hands, a Mughal ruler with his falcon, a wife with her exotic pet bird, the hands holding ornate hookah pipes, the fabric patterns, the plump cushions, hanging drapery and, almost like an accessory – the red-haired blue-eyed girl.
It really is too much. Our anonymous painter evokes how the Indian “1%” lived in style in the 1800s.
The other 2 suspects for potentially European women are noted in bold captions.
Credits : The Wellcome Collection, Fashion And Designing Under The Mughals, Akbar To Aurangzeb. A Historical Perspective. دكتور محمد نصر