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Music to My Eyes: Indian Ragamala Paintings

Today’s post comes from Andi Ramsay, class of 2018 and Art Center student docent.

Asavari Ragini, Women Charming Snakes, from a Ragamala series
Indian, Northern India, 19th century
British Colonial period
Gouache and gold on paper, ca. 1820
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Malcolm Pitt (Juliet Thompson, class of 1922); 1976.63.7

The current exhibition in the Art Center’s Focus Gallery is India in Miniature, a collection of small, opaque watercolor paintings, mostly album leaves, from India. The album leaves show a variety of subjects and are painted in different styles, but one genre of painting jumped out at me immediately: the ragamala paintings. A raga is a musical mode arranged in a specific sequence that provides a framework for a musical composition meant to evoke particular moods. There are six main ragas, each of which carries a unique theme on which variations are created by painters, musicians, and poets. A ragamala, or “garland of ragas,” is a series of paintings of all the “relatives,” or variations, of the main ragas. A ragini is one type of variation, seen as the consort or wife of the main raga which is construed as male. Most ragamalas have 36 parts, but some have as many as 110. The synesthetic aspect of ragamalas challenges viewers to imagine what the musical modes that accompany the paintings would sound like.

One painting in the exhibition that readily conjures up sound and mood even to the uninitiated is the Nat Ragini, painted ca. 1730. It places imperial imagery alongside celestial elements to set the scene of a chaotic battle. The battle includes a variety of animals on different scales, from the large elephant and horse placed at the center to the small horses and figures on either side, which create a symmetry of color and form and decorate the scene. The scene also includes Judeo-Christian imagery, showing angels above clouds, separated from the battle below, but not otherwise explicitly distinguished from corporeal beings. The lack of a concrete background to provide the viewer with context enables the viewer to conceptualize the theme of the painting and its musical connection without creating a precise temporal setting.

Nat (Sindhu) Ragini, Battle Scene, part of a Ragamala series
Indian, possibly Malwa, 18 th century
Subimperial Mughal or Maratha period
Gouache and gold on paper, ca. 1730
Gift of Ruth Lamb Atkinson, class of 1918; 1976.68.10

Two other ragamala paintings in the collection place much more emphasis on the individual figures, Asavari Ragini, Women Charming Snakes and Desakh Ragini, Female Acrobats, both painted ca. 1820. As raginis were the feminine consorts, or wives, to ragas, feminine subjects were sometimes associated with the musical themes, though not always, as we saw with the male-oriented war theme of Nat Ragini. Unlike Nat Ragini’s crowded battle scene, these two scenes each focus on just three and four women respectively, placed in similar settings; many other paintings depicting Asavari Ragini feature only the solitary of the woman charming snakes, and exclude her attendants.

Many ragas and raginis evoke a sense of the music that would have been associated with them through connection to a specific time of day or year. One raga from the collection, Sri Raga, Lord and Lady Listening to Musicians, shows a couple seated on a fashionable chair in a well-tended garden, while listening to a musical performance. Like the raginis that featured feminine subjects, this was painted in 1820. Gold is incorporated into the painting to add an ethereal shimmer to the evening scene, contrasting with the wintry mood otherwise evoked by the painting and the accompanying musical themes. The presence of gold and jewels can also be found in the accompanying inscription, which speaks of a “golden seat” and a “golden-bodied setting for a jewel.” The subject and the medium connect, enabling the viewer to have a clearer understanding of the themes being conveyed.

Sri Raga, Lord and Lady Listening to Musicians (detail), from a Ragamala series
Indian, Jaipur, 19th century
Rajput period
Gouache and gold on paper, ca. 1820
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Malcolm Pitt (Juliet Thompson, class of 1922); 1976.63.1

Other ragamala paintings focus on the peace and tranquility of early mornings. Bangali Ragini, Lady on a Terrace Holding a Trident exemplifies this. Though the setting is quite elegant, the woman shown is an ascetic, holding a bowl for offerings. Her lack of possessions draws a connection to a sense of longing that is associated with early mornings. The theme of early mornings often evokes a somber mood, connecting to the accompanying music, despite the richly pigmented gouache and gold.

Imagining the music that would accompany each raga or ragini allows the viewer to connect with the paintings on a more emotional level. The beauty of ragamala paintings exists not just in what they show, but the moods they can evoke.
To listen to a performance of Raga Sri, click here.

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