Celebrations in the Palace Zenana

West Bengal, Murshidabad, Mughal
Opaque watercolor and gold on paper
Folio: 14 ¾ by 13 in. (37.5 by 24.5 cm)
Image: 7 ½ by 4 ½ in. (19 by 11.4 cm)

Claude and Françoise Bourelier Collection, France

At the center of this lively composition, a mother cradles her newborn on a terrace divan, beneath the protection of an elaborately-decorated tent replete with colorful textiles. She is surrounded by offerings of food and drink, which have been brought by the multitudes of women who have assembled in the palace zenana (harem) to celebrate her child’s birth. In addition to nourishment, gifts of jewels lie in trays scattered across the floor, and hookahs and fabric-wrapped pillars enhance the celebratory sense of occasion. Musicians create a festive ambiance, and abundant candlelight from lanterns on the ground, walls and roofs casts a warm glow across the evening sky.

Although the image itself is quite small, it is replete with finely delineated figures, which the artist has beautifully individualized despite their diminutive scale; each of the women, of varying ages, has a different garment, posture, and even skin tone. Of particular charm is the pairing of a white-haired, elderly woman with her youthful counterpart, who stand outside the terrace wall. Another unusual feature of the composition is that the tent strung across the top of the painting suggests that the author’s vantage point is from within a separate palace area, where he captures the scene before him unbeknownst to his subjects.

Given its opulence and overall jewel-like quality, there is no doubt that this was an image made in homage of a very special nawab’s child’s birth.