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A woman flying a kite

September 8th, 2010

A few weeks ago, the city of Toronto chose to ban competitive kite-flying at a city park. South Asian in origin, the aim of the game is to cut the string of your opponent’s kite so that it flies away into the ether. The strings are coated in glass, making the debris rather dangerous. Kite fighting is already banned in Lahore, Pakistan.  In honour of that decision, I present the appropriate painting from the upcoming Maharaja exhibition, A woman flying a kite.

Unknown, A woman flying a kite, 1700-1800

Unknown, A woman flying a kite, 1700-1800, opaque watercolour on paper, 573 x 421 mm, © V&A Images / Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Now this miniature painting (opaque watercolour on paper) is far from being a danger to the public. It is from the 18th century and is from the kingdom of either Bikaner or Jodhpur (in present-day Rajasthan, India).  This style is known as a nazar painting, meaning it was a present to the maharaja on a special occasion. Rosemary Crill, a senior curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, writes in the Maharaja catalogue that many nazars were like this – “depicting a woman alone pursuing some activity, which in the romantic poetry of the time had symbolic connotations of yearning for an absent lover.”  The Hindu god Krishna was also the subject of many nazars.

Key to the look of a nazar painting, which is usually the size of a postcard, is the background. According to art historian Naval Krishna, they are set against a plain landscape, and just like A woman flying a kite, they have “tufts of grasses at the bottom, while a curtain-like band of clouds hangs against a plain gray or blue sky.”

Naval Krishna has a neat description of how these particular paintings would be presented to the Maharaja:

When the artist’s turn was announced, he would present his painting on top of a neatly folded, plain or embellished hand- kerchief-sized cloth carried on his right palm. With a ceremonial bow he would offer his work to the Maharaja, on whose right stood the chief minister and court scribe. The Maharaja would lift the painting from the artist’s palm and, in a gesture of appreciation, would offer the artist a token payment.

What I find particularly enchanting about this painting is the subject’s stylized face. While reading up on this style of painting, I learned that the women depicted often looked similarly depending on the kingdom where the painting was made. Each kingdom had their own concept of  the ‘ideal woman’.

But what intrigued me more was recent research by Molly Emma Aitken which shows the queens of these courts also as patrons and collectors of paintings.  It turns out that the ladies were not the silent by-standers we often assume them to be.

** You can access the actual articles by Naval Krishna and Molly Emma Aitken if you have a Toronto Public Library Card and use their online research database.

Piali Roy is a Toronto freelance writer with a long-held interest in South Asian culture and history. You can contact her at

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