History of Art and Architecture

Mrinalini Rajagopalan Colloquium


Wednesday, April 9, 2014 - 12:00pm to 1:00pm

 “From Common Courtesan to Designing Dowager: The Architectural Projects of Begum Samru, 1806-1836” 

Mrinalini Rajagopalan

Assistant Professor, History of Art and Architecture, University of Pittsburgh


In 1820 Delhi artist, Muhammad ‘Azam made a painting that has since been titled "The Household of Begum Samru". The subject of the painting is rather remarkable for its time in that it shows a begum (a title held by an elite woman in Mughal India) at the center of a large entourage of Indian and European men, including her adopted heir (seated to the left) and the British Resident of Delhi (seated to the right). The artist's positioning of Begum Samru at the center of the painting and holding the hookah is a clear sign of her authority over this particular domain. Even more remarkable is the environment that the begum and her entourage occupy. While a large carpet defines the foreground, the background is framed with a series of neoclassical pilasters and pediments that frame several large doors. This was a depiction of Begum Samru's mansion in Delhi, built in 1823, and employing a blend of European features such as a neo-classical façade and formal living room with elements of the Indian Muslim house such as the zenānā (women's quarters) and the hammām (bathing rooms).

This colloquium will introduce one of my new projects on the architecture built by Begum Samru who began her life as a nautch girl (courtesan) in Mughal India. At the age of fourteen she became the minor wife of a Walter Reinhardt—a wealthy European who managed a standing mercenary army that he farmed out to the several warring factions in Northern India. Following Reinhardt's death in 1778, Begum Samru inherited his very large estate in Delhi as well as the independent territory of Sardhana (60 km northeast of Delhi) granted to him by the Mughal Emperor. In this colloquium I will present three large architectural commissions of Begum Samru–her two mansions: one in Delhi and another Sardhana (60 km northeast of Delhi) and a basilica that she built in Sardhana following her conversion to Catholicism in 1781. Through these projects I hope to begin a discussion on how the begum used architecture to maneuver between her sovereign Christian identity and her Indian Muslim origins; to mark the transformation from her common and somewhat profane beginnings to her powerful and pious end; and most importantly to establish her female position within an exceedingly patriarchal world.