The Portrait of a Begum

The Portrait of a Begum

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Item Code: OR29
Oil on Canvas
36 inches X 48 inches

This large canvas, rendered in oil, besides portraying the likeness of a begum, represents a true picture of the lifestyle of Islamic royalty of the period from around the mid nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the extravagance that always characterised it. The lady it portrays is obviously a begum from a medieval Islamic court, perhaps Murshidabad, some Muslim state in Bengal, or eastern India for the style of putting on at least her outer wear still has its traces in costume-styles of those parts of the land. Despite that the posture, with the figure’s feet turned leftwards, neck and head tilted to right, and eyes, again to left, giving it a rhythmic curve, appears to be formal, the portrait is quite realistic, if not informal, for it realistically shoots its subject. Even her formal style of costume, being an element prevalent as part of the real lifestyle of those days feudatory, not Islamic alone but also Rajput, and not the artist’s creation, does not adversely affect his realistic approach.

With her tilted figure, vibrant with rhythm and endowed with the beauty of form, as if giving a formal posture, the artist has caught on his canvas the begum holding her veil – a white sheet, with her left hand, while with the right, carrying her chaadara, a many meters long semi-stitched length of textiles, obviously one of silk, embellished fabulously with gold and silver embroidery and zardozi. This outer wear – veil and chaadara, alternates the usual burqa, an essential component of the ensemble of Muslim womenfolk. The chaadara, in black, the prescribed colour of a burqa, has been embellished on borders with five courses of gold zari and silk embroidery, and its part covering the forehead, with precious stones. Worn covering the entire back and a large part of the front, its two ends are collected in the right hand in such manner that its lower ends and edges gain a stepped rise looking like a gradually rising rampart of a fort and reveal exceptional beauty.

The begum is wearing a yellow garara – a pajama with lehanga-like broad bottoms, painted with flower-and-leaf motifs and embroidered with gold thread dividing the breadth with vertical courses of thick gold lines. Its bottoms are embroidered lavishly using rubies, emeralds, beads and gold thread. Besides a light blue inner tunic she is wearing a full-sleeved upper garment, a tight blouse-like ensemble, designed with maroon and blue stripes and with fabulous gems, especially its sleeves’ bottoms and breasts-pieces, further beautified by a couple of wheel-like projecting bracelets and rich armlets designed with gold, emeralds and rubies. Besides a gold neck-ornament inlaid with a large ruby in the centre and smaller ones and emeralds around it, she is wearing a large ‘satalada’ – a seven-stringed necklace, on her breast.

This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of literature and is the author of numerous books on Indian art and culture. Dr. Daljeet is the curator of the Miniature Painting Gallery, National Museum, New Delhi. They have both collaborated together on a number of books.

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