A Conversation on Womanhood in the Arts of Islam and India

A Conversation on Womanhood in the Arts of Islam and India

In Ways of Curating (2014), Hans Ulrich Obrist, curator of the Serpentine Gallery in London, wrote that to make a collection is ‘inevitably, a way of thinking about the world’. As items for our sales are found, acquired, organised, and presented, connections and juxtapositions between objects emerge. In this blog, we will be following a conversation between the Head of Sale, Beatrice Campi and Co-ordinator, Ghislaine Howard from our Islamic and Indian Art Department, as they draw connections and offer suggestions about items relating to the theme of womanhood, in our upcoming Islamic and Indian Art sale.


GH: Having studied Islamic and Indian art at both BA and MA levels and having worked in the field for over seven years, what is an item(s) in the upcoming sale that resonates with your idea of womanhood and why?


BC: It is always hard for me to pick a single item among many because I conceive each one as part of a much bigger story. But if I had to choose just one lot, it would be no. 365, A lady attending her daily toilette, a 19th-century Bundi painting of a lady attending her beauty rituals assisted by her attendant. What fascinates me about this painting is both the confidence and the naturalness of the female protagonist. I fail to see in this painting the charge of exotic erotism Western travellers would have seen in the 19th and 20th centuries. Instead, I see a woman attending her daily routine; getting up; getting ready; taking care of her body and ultimately, of her image. What is more natural and genuine than this? Don’t we perform the same actions every single day? The canons of beauty may have transformed in time, but certain rituals lingered and are shared across the whole globe, no matter what religion we believe in or the colour of our skins. I see the care of the person, especially in the case of women, as a common daily activity, shared by millions of us. In a way, this painting makes me feel close to that lady, busy with her beauty rituals, an action that transcends time and location. At the end of the day, whether for vanity or for our own well-being, we feel good and empowered when we take care of ourselves, and I think this is a feature shared by all women.


Lot 365. A lady attending her daily toilette. Bundi, Rajasthan, North-Western India, ca. 1860 - 1880.



BC: Coming from an anthropological studies background and having approached the Islamic and Indian cultures recently, what is an item(s) in the upcoming sale that resonates with your idea of womanhood and why?


GH: There are many items in the upcoming sale which resonate with my experiences of what it is to be a woman today; we are fortunate to have several beauty-related items, including a collection of cosmetic boxes (lot 167) and a number of mirrors (Lots 144, 148 and 160). Paintings such as Lots 297, 338 and 365, present clear beauty standards and expectations of passive/benevolent behaviour that have crossed cultures. After studying gender theory, my own idea of gender, and of womanhood, has been informed by the principles of intersectionality (Kimberlé Crenshaw) and gender performativity (Judith Butler), and can be summarised by saying that to be a woman today, is to be in conflict. As such, it is the depictions of Hindu goddesses, in their ability to inspire and position as role models for women and girls, that interests me.


Looking on from a Western viewpoint, it is unusual and therefore of interest, to see powerful divine female figures. All goddesses undergo intense challenges, and often hardships, whether regarded for their loyalty or for their warrior ability. Recently the British Museum, held the exhibition Tantra: Enlightenment to Revolution which attempted to emphasise how Tantra’s focus on divine feminine power (shakti) affected real women’s lives. The exhibition described how Kali was adopted as an anti-colonial symbol during the fight for independence, and how contemporary female artists have employed her to challenge the expectations of women’s social roles within the home. Durga, the warrior goddess who defeats the buffalo demon, Mahisha, has however a similar radical potential. Typically, Durga has not been understood as a role model for women. She encompasses a powerful duality; she is a creator, the personification of shakti and also a destroyer. An article published by The Times of India in 2019, encouraged women and girls to notice Durga’s duality, suggesting that they should value her ability to be a ferocious warrior and a compassionate care-giver (2019, Accessed 4th April 2021). Our painting of Durga, comprising lot 352, shows her as active, she rides Gdon (the tiger) and holds each of her characterising attributes.


Lot 297. Two ladies in a palatial garden. Possibly Amritsar, Punjab Hills, Northern India, mid to late 19th century.

Lot 338. A gathering of courtly ladies in the zenana. Possibly Delhi School, Northern India, late 19th century.

Lot 352. The Hindu goddess Durga riding on her mount (Vahana). Kota, Rajasthan, North-Western India, ca. 1860.


GH: When did women first appear in the arts of Islam and India of their own right, as their own person rather than collateral imagery to their husbands / Sultans etc?


BC: This is a brilliant question, and a proper answer would require a space we do not have on this occasion, so I fear I’ll have to go for the short cut this time.


In Islam, images of women as their own person start making an appearance already during the Umayyad period (661 - 750 AD), residues of the strong cultural heritage of the Byzantine Empire in the Eastern territories. The main forms in which women appear tend to be half-clad dancers and attendants decorating the halls of caliphs’ palaces, like in the case of Khirbat al-Mafjar (please see M. Hattstein and P. Delius, Islam: Art and Architecture, 2013, p. 83). This tradition of depicting women as dancers, entertainers and “objects of desire” lingered in the arts of Islam for several centuries, being replicated in a variety of media, from metalwork to paper. An excellent example is the painting on paper of a semi-naked tattooed female dancer dating to the Fatimid period, 11th century, found in Fustat (Cairo) and now part of the Israel Museum’s collection. With time, however, artists and painters started introducing less stereotypical images of women, firstly showing them as mothers and later, as figures on their own right, busy with their daily tasks, or enjoying a break from them and frolicking with other female companions. One of my favourite images representing women and womanhood in an Islamic context is the Childbirth scene depicted by Yahya ibn Mahmud al-Wasiti in Al-Hariri’s Al Maqamat, ca. 1240, in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, which demonstrates that women were not only present but also important figures in the artistic repertoire of early Islamic societies.


In India, images of women as their own person have been circulating since at least the Indus Valley Civilisation, a Bronze Age civilisation which settled in the north-western regions of South Asia and lasted from 3300 to 1300 BCE. Women’s icons were not only produced as symbols of fertility but were also welcomed as part of religious worship of the deity in a goddess-like form. This practice dates back well before CE. Therefore, the arts of India have always been more receptive to female images and as such, they present a much richer and varied repertoire than the Islamic arts. In my opinion, wonderful examples of early Indian matriarchal, female-centred cults can be appreciated in the early terracotta findings of Chandraketugarh, in West Bengal dating 1st century BCE – 1st century CE. Several excavated moulded plaques present hieratically enlarged central female figures, often naked except for their heavy accessories, jewellery, and massive hip belts. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York owns an impressive plaque with similar imagery (acc. no. 1990.281).


BC: What are the commonalities in the depiction of women in both Western and Islamic / Indian arts? 


GH: I think that there are many, the imposition of beauty standards is of course one of them; the depiction of women as dancers and entertainers is another. However, I would say that the imagery most common and ubiquitous, is that of women as givers and preservers of life, as mothers.


In the upcoming sale, there is a qalamdan (pen box) originating from 19th-century Iran. It features a mother and child theme, includes gatherings of mothers, children and men (possibly fathers) seated and playing within tree-lined landscapes. Female portraits are interspersed with these scenes, one sees a mother placing a hand on her child’s back whilst he sleeps, a comforting and protective gesture. The style of painting, the choice of clothing and landscapes are Western-inspired and portray a common romanticised view of motherhood prevalent in the West at the time. 


Moving further east, we have an Indian carved ivory plaque featuring a breastfeeding mother (part of Lot 289). Shown in side-profile, and framed in the centre, this composition resonates with icons of the breastfeeding Virgin Mary. In the same lot, we also offer a carved figurine of the Goddess Parvati holding baby Ganesh on her lap. As the goddess of fertility, this is not only symbolised through her motherhood but also in the making of her halo as a ring of rosette heads, which connects her to nature. In kinship with this, the mothers portrayed on lot 286, are youthful which is a common symbol of fertility found cross-culturally.


The position of nature differs between cultures in the East and the West. In Indian philosophies, nature is conceived as the mechanism through which the divine realm manifests itself in our world and human beings are a part of it. Thus, for this and many other reasons, nature occupies a central position in the Indian culture.


I recently read that “nature should be met with affection” and it is no better embodied than by Bharti Dhayal, painter of lot 325 whose livelihood and artistic practices generate a deep connection with natural life. Taught Mithila painting by her mother and grandmother, Dhayal says that it is quite literally “in [her] blood”. Nature is a centrally positioned subject within all Mithila paintings and any blank space is surrendered to natural motifs (see our lot 325, where Krishna is enveloped by leafy branches). Another connection is the use of natural pigments, which must be extracted from the environment, and the use of rudimentary tools such as twigs and the artist’s own fingers to paint with. The final connection is the most organic and deepest of them all, and that is the connection it forges between mother and daughter.

Dhayal has been instrumental in the revival of Mithila Painting, a traditional practice founded by women and passed through the generations.

Lot 325. Bharti Dhayal (Indian, b. 1961). A Mithila painting of Shri Krishna playing the flute.

Lot 286. A Qajar lacquered papier-mâché qalamdan (pen box). Iran, 19th century.


Lot 289. λ three Indian carved ivory decorative elements. India, 19th century.


GH: The canons of female beauty differ from one culture to the other. What were the standards of female beauty in Qajar Iran and how do they differ from contemporary Western society? 


Beauty canons in Qajar Iran have been a very debated topic for several years now, as they substantially differ from the ones in the West. Indeed, women with plump curves and visible dark facial hairs, in the form of upper lip moustache or thick eyebrows with a tendency to be joint in the middle above the nose (what in jargon we would call a “monobrow”), don’t really resonate with the idea of female “objects of desire” built by Western societies. We lost contact with the concept that plumpness was indicative of the privileged lifestyle led by the upper classes, who had more direct access to large portions of food than others. Moreover, women of larger size were considered healthier child-bearers and could cast a stronger impression on their audience, given that their presence was much more noticeable, especially in a royal context.


I believe that in the West, some may consider Qajar women as female subjects that rebelled against male-driven stereotypical beauty canons and tried to achieve a physical transformation with features that would make them equal to men (e.g. with moustaches and sideburns). Some may also see them as feminists’ precursors that did not care about their image, refusing to conform and freeing themselves from the futile and mundane concerns of taming their hair(s) and perfecting their appearance. I disagree with these outlooks. Thick eyebrows require as much care and maintenance as thin ones; dark sideburns ought to be kept in shape and trimmed as much as regular hair. Qajar women were not necessarily rebelling against beauty aesthetics (which is a very Western-centric Weltanschauung); they were instead establishing new ones and following them slavishly. As it can be seen in our lot 144, a painted and lacquered wall mirror, Qajar women tended their bodies and performed their beauty rituals as much as any woman today. The care of their image was a crucial concern to them, and the assistance of attendants was often an inevitable requirement, especially in the upper classes. More than feminists’ precursors, I see Qajar women as trendsetters, as Cara Delevingne’s forerunners, undaunted by unorthodox female aesthetics and sticking to the canons they established for themselves. Canons may vary in time and place, but ultimately beauty stays. Let us not forget that “Il mondo è bello perché è vario” (the world is nice because it’s varied).


Lot 144. A painted and lacquered wall mirror. Iran, 20th century.


I find that through the study of women, you get to the heart - the ultimate truth - of the culture.” - Shirin Neshat


Islamic & Indian Art, Friday 16 April at 1pm. For more information get in touch with Head of Sale, Beatrice Campi.



Ulbrich Obrist, Hans., 2014, Ways of Curating, London : Penguin Books

Bajoria, Kartik., 2019, Durga – A symbol for women’s empowerment, The Times of India, [online: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/rummage-room/durga-a-symbol-for-womens-empowerment/ Accessed 4th April 2021]

Ramos, Imma., 2021, Curator’s tour of Tantra: enlightenment to revolution exhibition at the British Museum, the British Museum, [online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5jOGh6j7T0 Accessed 4th April 2021]

Chandraketugarh Terracotta Plaque, the MET, acc. no. 1990.281: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/38518

M.Hattstein and P. Delius, Islam: Art and Architecture, 2013