Rani and Malka: Royal Women in South Asia

The royal women of greater South Asia - rani signifying “queen” in Hindi, and malka in Urdu - have been the subjects of a wide range of paintings depicting their quotidian routines as well as their rarified roles in sacred and secular celebrations.

A Female Courtier and Her Attendants" from a Ragamala: Raga Malkauns series (c. 1750 CE)Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design

In this series of folios, women of the courts are being waited on by attendants, while traveling and/or relaxing, and almost always in the presence of — or interacting with — other women.

Depictions of female-centered spaces in which women held primary roles would have been familiar to the courtly patrons who commissioned and owned these paintings as many of whom were female.

Ragamala is a Sanskrit term meaning "garland of ragas [melodies]”. Celebrating these musical performances was a popular motif of court paintings in Rajasthan in the 18th-19th centuries. Depicted is a reclining noblewoman, surrounded by musicians and attendants, including a woman preparing food.

It is an intersection of sound, sight, and taste — as well as scent, indicated by the flowering chahar bagh garden. This loose-leaf folio would have been part of a set, celebrating the seasons, and stored in a special box for safekeeping.

A Courtly Procession with Camel-Mounted Princesses (20th century)Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design

The viewing of such paintings would have been an enjoyable diversion for courtiers and their guests. Larger-scale versions of some of these paintings would have also been seen as decorative murals on the walls of the zenana (women-only sections of the palace).

Although few murals have survived, these smaller scale paintings offer rich insight into the rarified world of royal women, many of whom exercised political and financial power beyond the walls of the palaces: erecting buildings, founding charities, and even ruling in their own name or on behalf of their male family members.

This golden-tinged landscape depicts a royal procession with two princesses — each in a palanquin — mounted on a camel.

Numerous attendants, on foot and on horseback, surround the princesses —

— while on-lookers regard the scene from behind the rocks.

The elaborate textile patterns and architectural domes of the palanquins suggest the palaces in which the princesses dwell. The women, with their faces uncovered, regard their surroundings from their open windows — wholly unaffected by the scene their caravan has excited.

Credits: Story

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