Miniature, Memory, Masquerade: Mastani with a twist
If you’re familiar with Mughal miniatures, you must have seen a number of images of dainty young ladies, dressed in the finest of sheer silk garments, standing in palace gardens with lutes in their hands.
Now picture a contemporary recreation of this scene, with the lute replaced by a radio. A photograph of a tree stands in place of majestic palace gardens. And instead of the courtly ladies, two young artists pose against a printed teal background.
This is just one of six images that form part of the series Miniature, Memory, Masquerade, in which Samira Bose, an arts and aesthetics student at the Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Bengaluru-based illustrator Pakhi Sen, both 23, are re-imagining Mughal and Rajput miniatures. This is their third photo performance project, following the series, Re-printing Amrita Sher-Gil and If Klimt Could Pop With Photoshop, Would He?, which the young artists who are longtime friends created last year and showcased on social media.
It was while working on the Klimt series that the duo decided to take up miniatures as their next project. “The iconic painting of Bani Thani, from the Marwar school of Kishangarh, has really made an impact on popular culture. The image is believed to be of the lover of king Sawant Singh, who later became one of his wives. Taking a cue from that, and other miniature portraits of women, it triggered the idea of looking at how people perceived such images today, and how to bring these back into people’s imagination,” says Bose. While the duo have worked on these three series together, they have their individual artistic practices as well. For instance, Sen has a new series, Body, on Instagram, which explores the anatomy as shape and form.
Just like their past projects, Miniature, Memory, Masquerade too is a collaboration with their closest friends. “Even though it is Pakhi and I who are directing the series, the project brings together the creative energies of our friends as well. They have been holding up sheets, putting things together, posing for the photos, and more,” says Bose. It is no wonder then that each participant has lent his or her unique personality to the images—whether it is in the interpretation of gestures, perception of themes or deviating from the usual portrayals of popular subjects such as Mumtaz Mahal, Mastani and Jahanara.
“It was amazing to see our friends transform in front of the camera. My sister, Maira Bose, who posed as Mastani, wanted to see how the lady could be portrayed differently, other than the one made famous by Deepika Padukone in Bajirao Mastani,” says Bose.
When they worked on Re-printing Amrita Sher-Gil in August last year, the two artists, along with their friends, were surprised to find out just how much they connected with the fierce, strong and independent spirit of Sher-Gil in their own ways. Each series, in fact, has led to a set of revelations: It has brought to the fore issues of body image, self-consciousness, and more, which had been lying dormant, or which they had had trouble tackling in the past. For instance, in Maybe Mumtaz, an image from this series, Mohammad Daniyal, an English honours student, took his issues with androgyny head on. He can be seen wearing a maang tikka, earrings and a dupatta. “People are always painful about androgyny, often strictly categorizing what constitutes feminine and masculine,” says Bose. The idea was to turn such notions on their head, and question notions of gender and masculinity too. “Especially for men who don’t look masculine and have to prove their masculinity, it’s very toxic. One can be straight and still dress up like a princess,” says Bose.
The other thing they realized was that there has always been a performative element to elaborate Indian dresses. “How can this performance make us more comfortable with ourselves? This jewellery, the masquerade shouldn’t weigh us down. Rather, let’s look at how we can shine through that,” she says.
The making of the masquerade
The putting together of Miniature, Memory, Masquerade saw backdrops being created with bedsheets, saris and heirloom fabrics and dresses picked out from the family wardrobe. “We are trying to create a new kind of living archive. There is one skirt, which is 100 years old. We came across this miniature of Jahanara holding a scroll—we were attracted to it because it showed her access to knowledge in some way, which was a source of power at that time. So, instead of a scroll, we used an ancient map, which we had at home, in the recreation,” says Bose.
It’s a coming together of personal and broader histories. After all, each heirloom used in the project must have lived so many lives in the past and seen so many stories. “There are personal anecdotes behind these images. Pakhi and I were given a project in school to create our own miniatures. We still have those hanging at home. So, in some sense, our own history has got attached to the series,” she says.
The duo will be working next on a project based on Bollywood posters from the 1960s-70s, which they will be re-imagining with their mothers.
Miniature, Memory, Masquerade can be viewed on the duo’s Instagram handles—@pakhi.sen and @samirabose, from the second week of August.