Unveiling Femininity in Indian Painting and Photography

Ahmanson Building, Level 4
August 11, 2012–July 28, 2013

This installation considers the depiction of women and femininity in Indian court paintings and photographs from the 17th to the 19th century. Women are often presented as archetypes inspired by characters in Indian literature and poetry, such as the devoted heroine, or nayika, who anxiously awaits the return of her lover in the Rasikapriya (The Connoisseur's Delights), or the ragini, a female personification of the classical Indian musical modes of the Ragamala (Garland of Melodies).

Other paintings offer a window into the private quarters of the zenana, where women of the royal household lived in seclusion from the king and male officials of the court. Traditionally, elite women wore veils for public appearances. In the zenana paintings, however, they are shown unveiled, enjoying each other's company and engaging in pastimes such as music, poetry and dance.

Because male artists were not allowed to enter the zenana, portraits of female nobility from this period are rare. More common are paintings of female types such as dancers and ascetics (yogini). The allure of Indian femininity continued to be a popular subject during the colonial period. Photographic portraits of female dancers or courtesans, commonly referred to as nautch girls, who attracted both the ethnographic and the tourist gaze.

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Image: Idealized Portrait of the Mughal Empress Nur Jahan (1577-1645), India, Rajasthan, Kishangarh, c. 1725-50, Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, Gift of Diandra and Michael Douglas, M.81.271.7

A Girl Playing the Tanpura While Her Companion Listens
c. 1660
Two Nautch Girls on a Bed
William Willoughby Hooper (England, 1837-1912, active India, c. 1860-80)
c. 1870
Royal Ladies Conversing across a Stream
c. 1775
First Wife of Malkos Raga, Folio from a Ragamala (Garland of Melodies)
Gauri Ragini
c. 1625-50

Eating Grass: Q&A with Filmmaker Alia Syed

On Saturday, September 29, LACMA is presenting a special screening of selected works by artist Alia Syed in their original 16mm format, in conjunction with her exhibition Eating Grass, which can currently be seen in the Ahmanson Building. In between screenings, Elvis Mitchell, Film Independent at LACMA curator, will join Syed to discuss her work. We talked to Syed about the stories and inspiration behind Eating Grass…