Posted by: gaurikaushik | November 4, 2021

Victorian Gender Politics in Indian Portraiture

The way women and men were posed in portraiture during the Victorian Era was informed by the gender politics of the time. The poses of the subjects of Victorian portrait photography are discussed in Audrey Linkman’s “The Victorians: Photographic Portraits,” where she states that poses were “intended to assist in the idealization of the sitter.” These “idealizations” were informed by the Victorian gender roles the subjects were expected to fulfill. Because of the influence of the British Raj in India, these overtly gendered displays can also be seen in Indian portraiture throughout the 19th century.

Picture from “The Victorians: Photographic Portraits” by Audrey Linkman

Linkman goes on to say that “the pose of a lady should not have that boldness of action which you would give a man, but be modest and retiring, the arms describing gentle curves, and the feet never apart.” As demonstrated through this passage and in the picture below, women were often pictured looking off to the side with folded hands in a non-threatening, demure manner, in accordance with their role in Victorian society. These postures emphasized their portrayal as the submissive members of society they were expected to be.

Picture from “The Victorians: Photographic Portraits” by Audrey Linkman

On the other hand, Victorian men were given more freedom, with a wider range of poses and props which Linkman says allowed them to “assert their […] dominance and authority.” In the example above, the subject has his feet set wide apart and his elbow resting on the table next to him. The amount of space he takes up, with the stance of his feet and his elbow draped possessively over the table next to him, emphasizes his place in a society where men held power and authority.

During the period of British colonialism, portraiture became a way for the British Raj to subtly enforce their rule and ideals on Indians. Regional Indian royalty would be photographed in Westernized clothing, with backgrounds and props that reflected the British Empire. Similarly, although some cultural gender roles were established in India, Indian portraiture in this time period also reflected the same gender politics that were at play in Victorian England. The posing of Indian men and women, usually royalty, was overtly gendered.

The portrait above is a painted photograph of a Princess of Rajkot by an unidentified artist in the early 1900s. In a side by side comparison with the English woman portrayed above, one can immediately see similarities in the posture. Although the Princess’ arms are spread, with one holding a basket of flowers and one resting on the bench for support, she is still looking off to the side in a demure, non-threatening manner. The positioning of her arms do allow her to take up a little more space than the folded arms of the English woman pictured above, but compared to the men her legs and posture are still narrow and meek.

The picture above is a portrait photograph of the then-Maharaja of Indore, Shivaji Rao Holkar, taken by Bourne and Shepherd (one of the oldest established photographic businesses in the world) in the late 19th century. The Maharaja is posed in a manner that is very similar to the English man above. His legs are in the same wide stance, allowing him to assert his dominance. His left arm rests on his thigh in the same reassured manner. His gaze is direct enough to show his power (although not direct enough to be seen as threatening towards the British). While his left hand does not rest on a table, he does hold a sword with it. The sword not only serves as a prop to show his power, but it also stands in stark contrast with the flower basket that the Princess of Rajkot is pictured with. These props overtly display the gender roles that the Princess and Maharaja are expected to play, as the sword brings about imagery of war, dominance, conquest, and power, while the flower basket is harmless, pretty, and decorative.

Indian portraits such as these show the influence of the British Raj on the gender politics of portraiture in India, specifically when it came to posing. This can especially be seen when the portraits are put in direct contrast with English ones. By portraying Indian royals in poses that reflected Victorian British beliefs and therefore suggesting that the royals themselves had welcomed these beliefs, the British were able to use these pictures encourage Indians to accept British rule and the ideologies of the British Empire.


  1. Hi Gauri,

    I really enjoyed reading this post and the parallels you drawn between Victorian portraiture and Indian portraiture. The similarities are striking. I was wondering if there were any changes that took place in gendered portraiture in India over the next few decades? I know that the artist Amrita Sher-Gil from the early 1900s painted portraits of women, including herself, that challenged these very notions of modesty. Portraits of her are known for challenging the patriarchal system and governance of gaze. I am wondering if she would any tie in with this history of portraiture?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: