“I’m here for the pornography.”
These are not words anyone plans to utter on sarkari premises in Uttar Pradesh. Certainly not at 11 am.
Though I am aiming for a brisk, businesslike tone, my voice sounds unnaturally loud in the 117-year-old interiors of the Raza Library in Rampur.
Housed in a majestic palace of the former princely state, the Raza Library holds manuscripts, documents, paintings, artefacts and other forms of material heritage (particularly of Indo-Islamic culture) spanning hundreds, and in some cases even thousands, of years. Originating in the 18th-century toshakhana (treasure house) of Rampur State’s founder Nawab Faizullah Khan, the collection was established as a public library in 1957 by his descendent Nawab Raza Ali Khan.
In its official catalogue of paintings, compiled in 2002 by Barbara Schmitz and Ziauddin Ahmed Desai, four albums spanning the period from the early 19th century to the early 20th century are labelled “pornographic”. They are listed as belonging to the Pahari (Kangra), Rajasthani and Lucknow (and/or possibly Delhi) schools of painting, with one-line summaries of the subjects featured on each page. The inventory reveals scenes involving a variety of carnal encounters – heterosexual and same-sex couplings, intercourse involving multiple participants, sexual gymnastics, acts of voyeurism and bestiality.
Since stumbling upon mention of the albums, I became interested in seeing them for a number of reasons. To begin with, these images didn’t seem to be available online or have been reproduced in books on Indian painting. Secondly, although sexually explicit paintings meant to arouse pleasure were not exactly uncommon in northern and western India from the 18th century onwards, the description of these is somewhat unusual. The use of the term “pornographic” rather than “erotic”, the standard designator of racy pictures in South Asian art historical discourse, was intriguing. Thirdly, while raunchy Indian miniatures from anonymous private collections occasionally surface on foreign auction sites and the social media pages of foreign museums, their physical presence in public archives and collections within the subcontinent throws up questions about the postcolonial politics of respectability governing canon-formation and exhibition in South Asian art.
Just how explicit were these pictures? What could their depictions of sexuality mean in the context of contemporary traditions? And what did they elucidate about the era they were produced in, from nightfall on the Mughal empire through the dawn and day of the Raj? To sate my curiosity, I took the four-hour train from Delhi to Rampur, where the Raza Library’s majestic Indo-Saracenic building presides over the city.
With studied professionalism, four bound albums (catalogue item numbers 29 to 32) are brought out from a locked antechamber by the senior librarians. They remark that I am one of the only people apart from the cataloguers they remember showing these albums to in almost 30 years. On the flyleaf of the very first album, number 29, is a label, almost certainly inserted much after the original works came into the collection: “Muraqqa Ragmala Fohsh Qalam: 25 wasliyan (nadir) – Ragamala Album in the Obscene [Pornographic] Style: 25 folios (rare)”. The other albums bear similar titles and contain varying numbers of paintings – albums 30 and 31 have nine folios each, while 32 has only three.
Before flipping through the contents of the albums, it’s important to know what the titular Ragamala paintings are. Among the best known visual forms to express eroticism in late mediaeval and early modern South Asia, these paintings came into prominence between the 16th and 19th centuries among the elite of Rajasthan, central India, the Deccan, the northern plains and the Pahari kingdoms. In his 1973 study Ragamala Painting based on a consultation of 4,000 specimens, art historian Klaus Ebeling defines them as “visual representations of Indian musical modes previously envisioned in divine or human form by poets and musicians. They show most frequently romantic or devotional situations in a somewhat stereotyped, aristocratic setting.” Ebeling points out that Ragamalas draw inspiration from the Bhakti renditions of the Radha-Krishna tale and the Nayikabheda typologies of the Natya Shastra, which articulate ahero and heroine figures in love. The lords and ladies who commissioned and enjoyed these miniatures were reflected in the nayak and nayika engaged in lovemaking, supposedly as a form of spiritual devotion. The erotic Ragamala tradition is also part of a moment when love poetry in a courtly idiom was flourishing in the north Indian literary landscape, following Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda – Bhanudatta’s Rasamanjari, Keshavadas’ Ratipriya and Bihari Lal Chaube’s Sat Sai were all illustrated during this time. Ebeling informs us that there were Islamic influences on Ragamala painting as well, with “the love language of the highly developed Persian idiom [added] to that of Sanskrit and Hindi”.
In the Rampur Ragamalas, conventional erotic tableaux are rendered as hardcore fantasies (with varying degrees of finesse), as the following examples prove. Album 29, from the first quarter of 19th century Kangra, is arguably the most outré. In it a woman is copulating with a he-goat rampant, her legs splayed open to receive his appendage as she embraces him. Elsewhere, there are male-female-male and female-female-male ménages à trois, and a man and a youth having sex under the shade of a tree that punningly bends to match the arch of their interlocked bodies. In album 30, from 1825 Delhi or Lucknow, a man unties the jama of a topless woman lying back with her head on the lap of an elderly woman. He holds a suggestively shaped rosewater sprinkler, signalling an intent to perfume the woman’s private parts, and indicating that he and the old woman are probably servants preparing their mistress for an assignation. The following folio features two women having sex, and though narrative integrity is not possible to establish in these albums, the viewer imagines the progression of the srngar rasa or classical erotic sentiment which infuses ragamalas.
The last two albums, both from the first half of the 1900s, comprise very few works. Number 31, from Rajasthan is a rambunctious, though not very skilful, series of three-tiered orgies involving straight, queer and bestial sex (with a dog and a camel). The catalogue entry observes that (male) participants sport “both the Rajput turban and the European military gear”, and there are also men with shaved heads and single tufts of hair. The last album, number 32, belongs to Lucknow and includes two folios with a man and woman having moonlit alfresco sex in the presence of their attendants, the river and mountains behind them. In one case, the attendant has turned her face away from the act while in another, two ladies in waiting seem to be in conversation as the act takes place.
On the face of it, the Rampur Ragamalas invite comparison to the sexological manuals or kokashastras of the era, a popular contemporary one being the Persian Lazzat Un Nissa (The Pleasure of Women), an adaptation of Koka Pandit’s 11th-century Ratirahasya. Two 19th-century copies of the Lazzat Un Nissa are held by the Raza Library. As can be expected of instructional guides, these are sterile and indifferently drawn, showing heterosexual couples mechanically demonstrating various positions against plain or simple backgrounds, and are unlikely to have influenced the artists of the Rampur muraqqas in setting the mood. Evoking an atmosphere of erotic passion was the strong suit of Ragamala painters during their heyday, but the traditional miniatures were far more restrained and subtle, metaphorising desire rather than directly portraying sexual congress. As Ebeling notes “...it seems that women were the major consumers, to judge from the ever recurring themes of love longing and love union, piety, subservience and household activities.” Clearly, the Rampur albums depart from this sublimatory aesthetic, composed instead in a significantly earthier vein.
But there are artworks apart from the Ragamalas with which we might successfully juxtapose these folios and others like them from this era. For instance, art historians have pointed out that harem scenes made in the Mughal, Awadhi and Rajasthani style hint at homoeroticism and in a few cases feature lesbian sex among the women of the zenana. At least one Mughal badshah himself had sex on the visual record: there exist two portraits which art historian Kavita Singh elucidates and interprets in her essay Congress of Kings: Notes on a Painting of Muhammad Shah ‘Rangila’ Having Sex. Singh contrasts the two paintings, one made in 1735 – during Rangila’s lifetime – and the other in 1830. She shows how the former is composed with many symbolic elements enhancing and deepening the documentary aspect of it, the sex serving as proof of the king’s physical and political vigour. Of the later, lesser work she writes, “All this painting does is tell us Shah had sex.” This disparity is not unlike that between the 19th and 20th century fohsh ragamalas’ and the older poetic ones, the true gap being one of artistic quality rather than subject matter. It reveals shifts wrought by the upheavals of these centuries, caused by the provincialisation and eventual depletion of the economic and, consequently, cultural infrastructure of the Indo-Persian court culture in which the genre of erotic miniatures flourished. It is not a matter of conflating decline and decadence, but speculating whether coarseness of aesthetic style bespeaks the lack of resources that made past excellence possible.
But even during its final gasps, there was breath left in the Mughal atelier. Arguably the last representatives of high Mughal art, Rangila’s painters influenced artists through northern and western India. Terence McInerney states in his essay Mughal Painting during the Reign of Muhammad Shah that with their “migration in the turbulent years following the emperor’s death, the Muhammad Shah style became a fertilizing seed in Bengal and Avadh”. The Lucknow miniatures in the Rampur muraqqa can be argued to show traces of this phenomenon. In her essay After the Great Mughals, the Raza Library’s cataloguer Schmitz posits that the naturalism of the Lucknow school from the late 1700s, including in Ragamalas (apparent in the fohsh folios), could well be the result of Rangila’s star painter Nidha Mal having shifted base to Avadh.
Avadh becomes a possible source of inferential information because of its proximity to Rampur. We cannot definitively say who the Rampur albums may have been commissioned or viewed by, though it is known that patrons included both Indian nawabs and European sahibs. It is also difficult to ascribe provenance to the Rampur albums or when they might have become part of the Raza Library, although the collecting practices of the neighbouring state of Avadh might furnish some clues. In her article Circuits of Exchange: Albums and the Art Market in 18th century Avadh, Natalia Di Pietrantonio, curator of South Asian Art at the Seattle Museum, gives an account of how the nawabs of Avadh “possessed muraqqas that were visual inventories of folios dispossessed from Mughal Delhi”, acquired through direct purchase from the new owners of the Mughal collection, exchanges of gifts as well as dealing in the art market via local and European art traffickers. It is probable that the nawabi toshakhana at Rampur was similarly assembled and expanded, ultimately culminating in the modern institution of the Raza Library.
In fact, Di Pietrantonio is the only scholar who seems to have commented on these risqué Rampur muraqqas. In her 2019 article Pornography and Indian miniatures: The case of Avadh, India, she cites these works in the context of Europeans collecting and commissioning Ragamala albums in the 18th century, with a focus on the explicit folios of civil servant Richard Johnson at the British Library. Discussing the ways in which the framing of visual erotica was a result of the colonial, and later nationalist, epistemes, she speculates on how these albums were made: “Either Nawab Raza Ali Khan or an anonymous librarian curated albums deemed ‘obscene’ removing any imagery that did not contain obvious sexual activity…the label of pornography served as a barrier for art historians and scholars to study these objects as part of the South Asian art canon.”
As Di Pietrantonio points out, the supposed vulgarity of these specific folios might not be the only reason for their invisibility in discourse and display within India. For all their overtures to Bhakti, Ragamala painting is based on the Indo-Persian tradition of Hindustani music and representative of a syncretic Hindu-Muslim mediaeval imaginary. The tradition as a whole – even its formally superlative examples, of which the Rampur paintings are not – cannot be absorbed into nationalist art historiography in the way, for instance, the equally graphic Khajuraho sculptures were. Referencing art historian Tapati Guha-Thakurta’s argument about the latter’s amenability to being read as Hindu religious allegory, Pietrantonio states that, on the other hand, “ragamala paintings do not present a coherent story of an erotic Hinduism that could be marshalled in the name of the Indian nation”.
Nevertheless, the Rampur paintings are being preserved and looked after under the aegis of the Indian Ministry of Culture that administers the Raza Library. I return the albums to the librarians, ready to leave Rampur by the evening train. The momentary awkwardness of the morning is forgotten. They are curious themselves to read an article about these albums which they have barely ever taken out and have no information about. And perhaps that is the point – to even acknowledge the fohsh qalam beyond its existence as catalogue entries, a secret to be buried in a government list. The Rampur muraqqas are examples of a pornographic miniature tradition and a historical visual culture and possibly the only ones which are part of a public collection within India. To that extent, they deserve not just to be registered, but to be seen.
Kamayani Sharma is an independent writer, researcher and podcaster based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow in Visual Culture Writing for 2022.