History of Art and Architecture

Colloquium - Mrinalini Rajagopalan

Wednesday, February 26, 2020 - 12:00pm

202 Frick Fine Arts Building

"About Face: The Portraits and Architectural Façades of Begum Samru (1805-1836)"

This presentation explores the art and architecture patronized by the dowager ruler Begum Samru (b. circa 1750 –d. 1836). The begum rose from humble beginnings as a dancing girl in Mughal Delhi to become the favored companion of a European mercenary, Walter Reinhardt. Following his death, she inherited his army and estates, both of which she considerably expanded. The begum amassed wealth, position, and power through savvy alliances with the Mughals and the English East India Company. She built several mansions where she hosted, entertained, and consulted with her male allies. In this presentation, I analyze the facades of two of the begum’s buildings (her large mansion in Delhi and the Catholic church she built in her territory of Sardhana) alongside her portraits, which she commissioned and often gifted to her political counterparts. While the architectural façades were spatially situated mechanisms by which the begum announced her willingness to engage with powerful counterparts in the immediate region, her portraits functioned as portable façades establishing connections as far as the Vatican and the French court. I argue that these faces of the begum functioned as agentic surfaces that blurred the boundary between the intimate private self and the public political arena. As they mediated the male gaze, political ambitions, religious piety, and domestic invitations these facades created unique possibilities for the begum to accrue power within and outside northern India.