Queer intimacy - A depiction from the 1700s

Updated: Dec 6, 2020

- by Mr.Vinit Vyas, Art Historian

Today is the first anniversary of Section 377 being decriminalized- a small step to liberate the LGBTQIA+ community in India, but much more remains to be achieved. I also stand by our Trans* folks as they have largely been ignored and oppressed. For many, Indian court paintings equate to just gods and kings- but there’s much more which remains to be explored. I have been looking at and trying to make sense of rare paintings which depict different sexualities and scenes of orgies, bestiality and many “unusual” or “vulgar” scenes which probably have a lot to offer about the past. One of the rare and “explicit” portrayals is this painting from Kishangarh, a small but important center of painting which is best known for blooming under the famed poet-prince patron Savant Singh in the 18th century.

While the genre of satire and humor in Kishangarh painting has been explored by scholars, this painting has a lot to unravel- the dazzling fireworks and moon are as captivating and dramatic as the painting itself.

By the light of the moon and fireworks, circa 1740 CE, Kishangarh, Rajasthan

Let us start from the upper part- in all probability, an unidentified Mughal ruler (or nobleman?), surrounded by a bunch of beautiful ladies is barely able to open his eyes, let alone respond to the female who has specially unbuttoned her garments for him- it is clear, everyone’s drunk! More interestingly, she has the guts to touch the ruler’s turban, which itself is a disrespectful gesture. As we move ahead, large candles, colorful bottles, including a Chinese porcelain bottle all signify to the royal night. On the left, some ladies are seen fighting- one is about to bat a musical instrument while the other pulls her hair mercilessly and another is seen biting her hand- their expressions speak more clearly than my words. Further, some ladies are seen smiling, dancing and also griming over some thoughts which we or the painter may never get to know- one old lady is puzzled by all this while another spits out the paan or vomits blood (?) - there’s also a black eunuch- on the extreme right are two “friends” who are “lost in each other”. On the lower part, a variety of food served in dishes and the musical instruments give a glimpse of the grand night. Again, one lady is seen sleeping while another is too drunk to see all this. While she is lost in her own world, another quietly gulps food from the royal platter. But the most intriguing part of this scene are the two figures engaged in coitus- at the first glance they seem to be two ladies being intimate but as one observes more carefully, one of them has a penis! Dr Navina Haidar notes it as "a riotous scene of debauchery on a terrace" and "a tour de force of humorous painting" (Haidar,2000, pg.85). This enigmatic painting which is richly painted in gold, with such sensitivity reminds us that Trans* folks exist from time immemorial. The scene also reminds us of the very nature of being humans- we party, laugh, fight, get drunk, think and engage in sexual activities.

Image: By the light of the moon and fireworks, attributable to Bhavanidas or Nihalchand, circa 1740 CE, Kishangarh, Rajasthan, India. Private collection. Inscribed on the reverse, "a gathering of the uninformed, wine-drinking, restless ones". Published in Welch, Stuart Cary. 1985. India: Art and Culture. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, pages 372-373.

The painting can also be viewed online, with more clarity: https://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2011/c-welch-part-ii-l11228/lot.20.html?locale=en About the Author: A graduate in Art History from MSU Baroda, Vinit Vyas is an Art historian who works on a range of subjects, most importantly South Asian painting and literature. From gender and sexuality, religion, early Hindi languages and poetry, Vinit has been actively researching on Indian painting traditions, especially from the Rajput courts of Rajasthan. He worked as an intern at the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, Jodhpur for 4 years and also authored the introductory essay for an exhibition on “Contemporary Miniature”. Most recently, he published a book review and also served as a visiting faculty at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad.

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