Aesthetic Worlds of the Indian Heroine

Collaborative Group

Dr. Allison Busch, Dr. Molly Emma Aitken




The idealized female figure became the focus of intense cultural production among India's Muslim and Hindu elite during the Mughal period, 1526-1857. Aitken, an art historian, and Busch, a literary scholar, combine their disciplinary expertise to bring to light the cultural, social, and political significance of female ideals in elite Mughal society, upending a historiographical consensus that has tended to typecast cultural production as either indigenous and Hindu or exogenous and Muslim. Together, Aitken and Busch analyze new archival sources and relationships between visual and literary records to argue that aestheticized depictions of ideal women were the primary subjects through which Muslim and Hindu (primarily Rajput) nobility explored what beauty, pleasure, and desire meant in their overlapping worlds. They look at how these depictions opened up an expressive arena for Mughal and Rajput interchange, which facilitated the sharing of social enjoyment and the effecting of political compromise. An important aim of the project is to provide a model for understanding the mechanisms by which shared aesthetic realms were forged in profoundly multi-ethnic societies like India's. This collaborative study will result in Aesthetic Worlds of the Indian Heroine, a co-authored monograph (their first joint publication), which will make a compelling case for why Indian painting and poetry must be studied in tandem. Building on recent studies of transculturation, they trace sites of both poetic and pictorial transmission and exchange and map networks of complex circles of patrons and connoisseurs. Aitken has long been deeply interested in female agency and spectatorship in the visual arts, and in recent research Busch has shown how Hindi literature played a role in the education of courtesans and palace women. They come together to investigate the intersection between representations of ideal women and what can be known about the lived experiences of real women, building on the latest work in Indian gender theory to enrich the contribution of Indian perspectives to gender and social history. The monograph proposes new ways of thinking about hermeneutics, artistic agency, and connoisseurship and includes previously unpublished paintings and new translations of poems. Award period: January 1, 2015 - December 31, 2016