South Asian Studies Council Colloquium presents
Mrinalini Rajagopalan, History of Art and Architecture, University of Pittsburgh:
“Vixen, Warrior, Maven: A Spatial Biography of the Begum Samru (1750-1836).”
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A dancing girl who “employed all her arts of fascination” to advance in the world. A woman who led her army with “masculine firmness and intrepidity”, and whose courage was comparable to the legendary Persian hero Rustam. A ruler who was seen as a “princess in her own right with rank next after the royal family.” These were some of the descriptions that contemporaries used to describe Begum Samru, a courtesan who rose to become the leader of a mercenary army and later the sovereign ruler of her territory in North India. This spatial biography of the begum follows her life from the kotha (courtesan’s establishment) to military processions and encampments, and finally to her own durbar (court). I argue that these life-spaces of the begum represent an architectural continuum; environments where the begum learned to hold the attention of powerful and elite men and engage with them as an equal. From deploying her sexual agency in the kotha, to her military prowess on the battlefield, and finally to her statesmanship at court, the begum’s life was one of careful self-presentation and spatial choreography. As one, clearly embittered, English officer said about her, “Fate decreed that she should make other people dance instead of being herself obliged to dance for their amusement.” In addition to contemporary accounts, paintings and ivory miniatures that show the begum in various life stages are key to understanding Begum Samru’s self-fashioning as a powerful player in eighteenth and nineteenth-century North India.
Mrinalini Rajagopalan is an Associate Professor in the Department of History of Art of Architecture at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the author of Building Histories: The Archival and Affective Lives of Five Monuments in Modern Delhi (Chicago, 2016), for which she received the Alice Davis Hitchcock Award from the SAH in 2018. She is currently working on her next monograph, “Marks She Made: The Art and Architecture of Begum Samru, 1803-1836”. This book traces the built works and paintings commissioned by the Begum Samru, who rose from modest beginnings as a dancing girl to become the sovereign ruler of a prosperous territory in nineteenth-century North India. Rajagopalan is currently working on this project while she is a fellow at the National Humanities Center.