Begum Samru

Begum Samru (1753-1836)
Signed by Khairullah
Delhi, 1810-20

Opaque pigments with gold on paper
Image: 22.7 x 14 cm
Folio: 27.5 x 19 cm

Inscription: (front) Amal-e-Khairullah

The story of Begum Samru is one of the most intriguing of the later Mughal period. As a woman of extraordinary beauty and intelligence, she rose from humble beginnings in her youth to commanding one of the most successful and sought after private armies in India.

Farzana was born in 1851 to a nobleman of Arabian descent. After the death of her father, her family fell on hard times and she was forced to work as a nautch girl. While performing for the king of Bharatpur, she caught the eye of the European soldier of fortune Walter Reinhardt Sombre. Sombre, who commanded a mercenary army made up of both Europeans and natives, earned a large piece of land in the Doab region where he made the town of Sardhana his capital. Since the marriage was childless, and Sambre’s son from his previous marriage was still a minor, his estate was left to Farzana upon his death in 1778. Three years later, Begum Samru (from Sombre), would convert to Catholicism and be baptized under the name Joanna, after Joan of Arc.

Around this time she began to lead her late husband’s army into battle. She is said to have been a brilliant military commander, so good that the people of the Deccan believed her to be a witch who could destroy her enemies by throwing her veil at them.

Her actions helped quell the advances of the Sikhs in 1783 and it is said that she once saved Shah Alam’s life on the battlefield. She was rewarded with various titles and Shah Alam’s son, Akbar II, gifted her the land on Chandni Chowk where she would build Bhagirath palace.

In 1793, Begum married a French commander by the name of Le Vaisseau, who was under her employ. The marriage proved unpopular with the Begums troops because Le Vaisseau, who had a privileged upbringing, was considered by them to be arrogant. Begum chose to leave her life as the head of a mercenary army to live a more peaceful existence with her new husband. The two decided that they would secretly escape to the French settlement of Chandernagore. Since the escape would be risky, they decided to make a suicide pact. The two did not make it far before they were tracked down by the Begum’s troops. In the ensuing chaos, the Begum thought that Le Vaisseau had been shot so she stabbed herself in the chest. Le Vaisseau, who had been riding ahead rode back to check on the Begum when he saw her, unconscious and covered in blood. He immediately shot himself in the head.

Begum’s wounded body would be returned to Sardhana where she was restrained in the sun for a week. In an unusual twist of events, George Thomas, who was a former suitor to the Begum and also the person that tipped off the Begums troops, came to her rescue, quilling the rebellion at Sardhana and restoring the Begum to power. The Begum did not fight again after she accepted the protection of the British government in 1808. She instead devoted her life to charitable and religious pursuits, building the large Basilica of Our Lady of Graces in Sardhana, which still stands today.

Our portrait is signed by the artist Khairullah who was the head of the imperial atelier under Shah Alam II and the early part of Akbar II’s reign. Later in his career, he would also accept commissions from Daulat Rao Sindhia (cat. 30).

Given the Begums age in our portrait, it is quite plausible that it was produced for Akbar II while Khairullah was still the head of the royal atelier. Khairullah was the most talented portraitist of his time. In comparing him with his contemporary, Ghulam Murtaza Khan, Linda Leach commented, “Khairullah was the better artist with a more delicate as well as more inventive touch” (Leach, 1995, Mughal and Other Indian Paintings from the Chester Beatty Library, V. II, pp. 784 and 810). Further examples of Khairullah’s work can be found in the Museum of Islamic Art Doha, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, San Diego Museum of Art, V&A, and British Museum.