The Girl Unknown: understanding social attributes through visual study of the symbolism in a Maratha painting from 19th century Pune, India

  • Sanjeevani Ayachit


It is a generally accepted view today that men and women are equals having equal rights. This was not an acceptable view a few centuries ago. Men were the bread earners and women were responsible for home and child care. As in other parts of the world of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, women of the western Indian state of Maharashtra were subjected to severe scrutiny and discipline where their behavior was concerned. A patriarchal society controlled several aspects of their lives including their marriageable age, their daily conduct, their clothing, even their sexuality. These rules were designed to restrict both their indoor as well as outdoor activities.  In essence, all classes of women including women of regal and elite families were constrained to home and hearth. In that period of time, members of the elite class often commissioned portraits of the male members of their families. Paintings of female members of such families are rare. Among the artefacts in the collection of the Peshwe Museum in Pune, India, a painting of an unidentified young girl is displayed. With a wide-ranging background of the societal and traditional norms of the eighteenth and nineteenth century Maharashtra, the present study aims to examine this portrait through the lenses of household norms, social customs and pecuniary background of the female subject. A combination of semiotics, visual rhetoric and interpretative qualitative analysis of the observations is used as the methodology for carrying out visual analysis of the image.