In this single folio (Fig. 1), a woman is engaged in prayer. She sits on a pink cloth, her head in profile, with her body turned three-quarters to the viewer. Her right hand is covered by a golden textile, under which she counts beads on a rosary in meditation. She has garlanded the linga, or symbol of the Hindu god Shiva, and its three stripes of orange are mirrored on her forehead. Small lamps burn, a bell is poised to ring, a small vessel holds water or milk. All call the god to attention by smell, sight, touch, and sound. The setting is calm; she is on a terrace in the dark blue of early morning, the shrine is nearly her own size, with a white bulbous dome haloed by a green flowering tree that is rooted in a garden outside the low wall, the woman’s bejeweled head almost a flower among them.
It is not known by whom this painting was made, but it was likely produced in Jaipur in the late eighteenth century.1 It is possible that it was intended as one of a set of musical modes, called a ragamala, that pictorialize music in paint and evoke its associated mood or rasa, time of day and season.2 Its iconography conforms to one mode, ragini bhairavi, where a woman, or perhaps Shiva’s wife Parvati, performs prayer or puja to Shiva in the form of a linga just before dawn.3 It is also possible, however that she was produced as a single folio.4 In this period, the popularity of certain iconographies such as the woman at prayer set them loose from classificatory sets to become independent pages for purchase, particularly when the subject matter overlapped with other popular themes, such as the portrait of a beauty.5 The figure’s sheer upper garment that just reveals the form of her breasts further eroticizes the image.6
Sometime after this painting was made, an East India Company official named Edward Moor purchased it while in the western Deccan engaged in the Anglo-Maratha alliances against Tipu Sultan of Mysore. Moor most likely acquired the image through agents such as Indian “correspondents” or British “travelling friends.”7 It is one of over six hundred paintings and sculptures in Moor’s collection, now at the British Museum. The collection focuses attention on the subjects of deities, mythology, and devotion. In 1810, Moor published the painting in the form of an outline engraving, as Plate 22 of 105, in his Hindu Pantheon (Fig. 2). In this book Moor “endeavor[ed] to explain” Indian “Mythology” through ethnography, contemporary scholarship, and, uniquely, the “utility of pictures and visible objects.”8
For Moor, this “delicately executed” painting of “a pious female” represents her desire for “the blessing of fruitfulness,” a child, which relates to many of the potential meanings outlined above. However, besides its beauty and emotional resonance, it also offered him an opportunity to describe the “implements” such as the “five lighted lamps (pancharty)” used in the ceremony, taught to him by a Brahmin and noted by him in the red border.9 Thus, the painting becomes a diagram of worship as well as an aesthetic, poetic, and erotic object. It fits in closely with images used to aid Moor’s, and his wide audience’s, “comprehension of certain terms and illusions”10 related to Hindu devotion. Such images facilitated the intertwined enlightenment and colonial desire of East India Company officials to document and understand the world, particularly those people they wished to rule.11