When I was very young, I once looked up to my father during a Fourth of July fireworks show and demanded to know more about the exploding stars in the sky. What were they? Years later, when I first encountered Court Ladies Playing with Fireworks in the collections of Freer|Sackler, I was again curious about fireworks and set out to learn more about their history in South Asia.
Fireworks had been introduced in Delhi several hundred years before this painting was created. One of the earliest recorded uses of pyrotechnics in South Asia was during the fourteenth century. By the mid-fifteenth century, fireworks were regularly displayed during festive occasions, from weddings to royal parties. There were even Indian medieval manuals containing special firework recipes, which called for fascinating ingredients like iron powder, pastes made from different kinds of foods, and cow urine. Today, the subcontinent’s love of fireworks can be seen in the colorful celebrations of Hindu holidays such as Diwali.
In this painting, women from the imperial Mughal court seem to have stolen away from a party and gathered under the night sky in order to have a bit of their own fun. I love how the artist depicted them in delicately embroidered outfits that match the golden starbursts showering from the lit end of their friend’s sparkler. The nursemaid—the woman on the right wrapped in a white shawl—holds in her outstretched hand a small, velvety apricot, while a rambunctious youngster reaches for his snack. Meanwhile, the sparkler’s flames softly light the women’s faces and the foliage behind them.
Happy Fourth of July, Washington, DC! Here’s hoping your celebrations are as graceful and elegant as the one painted here.