Find Zinat Mahal, the last Dowager Empress of Mughal India

I didn’t think I would see him. During her colonial internment, Zinat Mahal, the last Dowager Empress of Mughal India, posed for the camera in 1872. The only photograph of Zinat Mahal widely known today is her individual portrait from that shoot. However, she specifically decided to pose with Emily Wheeler, a British memsahib who helped her manage her custody. The Empress rarely consenting to be photographed, a double portrait would be significant. But if such a photograph existed, it had long been lost. The archive catalogs no longer mentioned its existence.

Therefore, I was amazed to find the double portrait in The connoisseur, a magazine for art collectors. The photograph was printed and distributed nearly a century ago, in a 1929 issue. Scale to be seen in the palm of the hand, the portrait shows Zinat Mahal and Emily Wheeler seated next to one another. other. They act like any well-to-do couple engaged in the awkward ritual of studio photography.

Images of internment can be consent sites compromised in a number of ways. The mug shot, for example, formalizes a visual mode of constraint at the start of the prison experience. In the case of the Empress, the intersections of religion, class, and race merged into the laws of the veil. The veil influenced whether and how the faces and characters were revealed on camera and what happened to the plaques and engravings, write Deepali Dewan and Deborah Hutton in their book on Raja Deen Dayal. At the same time, the veiled woman was also an orientalist figure on which ideas of constraint, tradition and sexuality were projected. Consent is a gnarly construct when it comes to the internment of a dispossessed Muslim royal.

Scattered archive sources, custody reports with letters of origin, note that Zinat Mahal has long refused to be photographed. Her internment manager, James Talboys Wheeler (Emily Wheeler’s husband), reported in March 1871 that she refused to be photographed when family members gave sittings. But then she changed her mind and negotiated cryptic terms for her consent.

Zinat Mahal claimed she would only appear in front of the camera if Emily Wheeler joined her in the portrait, according to a letter on file at the British Library in London. “For a long time the old lady refused to sit down and only consented if my mother sat with her,” Wheeler’s son recalled in a January 1921 letter. difficulties in persuading the ex-queen to pose for her portrait, and that she only consented on condition that Mrs. Wheeler was seated with her, ”repeats F. Gordon Roe, according to the accounts of the family in The connoisseur story.

Without trying to guess its motive, what is clear is that Zinat Mahal conditioned his photographic consent to a style of portrait of a couple. The couple form established a relationship, forever binding her and the unknown memsahib. As intensely banal as the double portrait is, it emerges from a queer creative connection with the camera.

The difference between the individual portrait and the group portrait often has racial implications. Reading passport photos, particularly photos of the Chinese head tax in Canada, Lily Cho suggests that the orderly “emotional neutrality” in ID photos illustrates not only what an ideal citizen “should look like, but also what it should look like ”. The distrust of the state animates the neutral face of the diaspora. And, in the context of the US prison system, Nicole Fleetwood explores the resistance of black prisoners to solitary confinement as one of the “survival practices.” Among these scenarios, Zinat Mahal’s refusal of the individual portrait is a refusal of the solitary and suspicious forms of the portrait.

In the individual portrait, she adopts the same partial cross-legged pose and wears the same quiet attire as the double portrait, implying the continuity of a sitting. The folds indicate a makeshift backdrop. Alexander R. McMahon, an army officer, painted the two portraits in the Wheelers’ lounge in British Burma (now Myanmar).

Alexander R. McMahon, “Zinat Mahal”, Rangoon, (1872) (4.1 x 2.7 inches) (Image via Charles Theophilus Metcalfe: Two indigenous accounts of the Delhi mutiny, published in Westminster by A. Constable 1898)

Conquering Delhi and its rebellion in 1857, the British government secretly deported the Empress and her family to Myanmar. They were held there indefinitely and would almost die in misery, asking again and again to return home. In fact, ordinary Muslim civilians, who were expelled from Delhi as a punishment for the 1857 rebellion, will not receive a return permit for several years. Such colonial suppressions foreshadow future threats to revoke Indian citizenship from Muslims, such as those issued by the current regime.

The colonial government imposed anonymity on the deported royal family, calling them “prisoners of the state of Delhi”. This was done to prevent another anti-colonial uprising from reestablishing their sovereign lineage. Despite the rule of anonymity, the photographic interest in celebrities (stimulated by the expansion of small portrait technology after the 1850s) partly explains the desire to photograph Zinat Mahal, if only to be seen. by high-ranking colonizers.

The August 1872 custody report mentions McMahon’s photo shoot with Zinat Mahal. But it excludes any allusion to a consent clause, to a double portrait or to the presence of the memsahib. The exclusion confirms the nonconformity of the condition. Wheeler’s son assumes that the individual portrait was cropped from another group portrait. Zinat Mahal may not have known that she was being taken away individually or that so many people would see her in a form that she refused.

As I say in my article “Protest Without End”, the double portrait portrays nonconformism when the revolution has failed. It makes visible a form of political satisfaction, that which arises in the absence of political success. Recent research on feminist, queer and anti-racist methods treats colonial archives as an area of ​​dissenting possibility. Leela Gandhi, Saidiya Hartman and Ariella Azoulay focus on ethics in archival research. Zahid Chaudhary is interested in the way in which meaning is created between the body and the world; Tina Campt listens to the sound of the images; and Gayatri Gopinath cares about and the instability of vision. This set of methods in the human sciences has renewed interest in the effects, limits and escapes of subjugation.

The embodiment of photographic consent in the double portrait is not an antidote to the dispossession of Zinat Mahal. But it is a subtle and precious alteration of the extreme colonial power relations between those behind and in front of the camera.

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About Andrew Estofan

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