RAGAMALA: Painting the Melodies of Music

Malkosa Raga (Malkaus)
Opaque watercolour on paper with gold and
silver Brooklyn Museum, New York City
Raga is a musical tune of classical Indian style. Every tune has its own mood. Each raga is devised to be sung at a particular point of time in a day or night. Each tune, raga, has its assigned colour. These tunes are divided to be sung in a particular season of the year. The time of each raga is set, whether it is to be sung in the morning, evening or at night. Thus the classical music of India is a very profound subject touching many forms and fields of arts.

If we are to enjoy the combination of classical Indian music, medieval poetry, and the painting illustrating the same, we should look at the Ragamala Series of paintings. There are different styles of paintings done under different schools of paintings in India. The artists of every school of paintings have tried their hand at painting this type of artworks.

If you look at the scriptures of India and the Hindu religion, you would find a reference to music. Even the art of dancing is part of the Hindu tradition. Lord Shiva, the most ancient God of Hindu Religion, is called Nataraja: meaning the king of dancing. Samveda describes music as an instrument, like meditation and yoga, for attaining ultimate salvation.

As the centuries passed, the art of dancing and music had developed in the Indian subcontinent. These arts have now become a wide-ranged and profound subject. Indian vocal and instrumental music is based on various Ragas, collectively called Raga Mala, or Ragamala, meaning the garland of ragas.

Sarang Ragini, Ragamala ca 1605
Opaque watercolour on paper  
Chawand, Mewar, India. Nasiruddin

What is Ragamala:  Though the Ragamala is a musical composition, it has helped to create a series of paintings based on various ragas. As a distinct genre, these paintings are known as Ragamala Paintings. In this style of paintings, artists draw inspiration from various pieces of Indian classical music, such as Raga and Ragini. Their colourful way of building a rhythm within a and their endeavour to embed the feel of music in paintings would take viewers to the point where such visual artworks would appeal directly to the senses. Such artworks make an impact similar to music.

Raga Personified: In the Ragamala series of paintings, it remains a humble endeavour to explore the beauty of the ragas and how these melodious beauties are embedded in the colours of those paintings which are based on each raga. The subject of Lord Krishna and Radha, his divine love was a favourite amongst the Ragamala painters. There are six main ragas, and the artists have painted numerous frames based on these ragas. Followings are the paintings with a description of respective rags and the related artistic aspects attached to Ragamala Paintings.

The Indian vocal and instrumental music are comprised of numerous Ragas. These musical harmonies are collectively called Raga Mala or Ragamala. The accurate meaning of the word Ragamala is ’the garland of the ragas’. Though the Ragamala is a musical composition, it has been used for centuries for creating a series of paintings based on various ragas.  

Radha-Krishna, Depiction of
Bhairav Ragmala,  ca 1770
AnonymousUnknown author

These paintings based on various ragas and raginis are known as Ragamala Paintings. In the paintings which are known as Ragamala paintings, each raga is personified. 

Generally, a verse that narrates the story of a hero or heroine is selected for the painting. Then for personifying the raga, the artist took the help of colours. The colours that match the mood and the character of the raga selected to be painted. The moods of the characters painted are also joined with the mood of the raga. Even the time of the day during which the scene of the painting happened is important. The time slot is carefully selected to depict the nature and the characteristics of the raga being so personified.

Here in this painting the melodious Raga known as Bhairav is personified. The artist, while personifying and portraying a raga from the raga mala, selects a couple, the hero and heroine of the story. The couple is called Nayak (The Hero) and Nayika (The Heroin). Here in this painting personifying raga Bharav, Lord Krishna and his divine lover Radha are painted. Radha is one of the divine figures of the Hindu religion. 

Bhairava Raga, Ragamala, 
Chunar, Near Varanasi 1591
Opaque watercolour on paper

Bhairava is another name of Lord Shiva; so this raga has got the name Bhairav from Bhairav, the Shiva. Lord Shiva is also worshipped in the Hindu religion as the God of Music and dance. 

In this painting, he is holding a musical instrument and visibly singing with sitting his wife. The painting is believed to be painted by one of the pupils of the master artists known as Mir Sayyid Ali. He was a renowned painter in the court of Emperor Akbar. Painted in the year 1591, this piece of art is a watercolour and is done on paper. During Emperor Akbar’s reign, the miniature paintings of India had become rich in subjects, too. Here we can see the figures like a peacock and the trees as the representatives of nature. This was a new concept in India painting. 

Rajasthan Style Of Painting. Ragamala Paintings Are Based On Ragas, Musical Melodies Of India's Classical Music. The artists of medieval India had skilfully used musical details as their subject for paintings. Ragamala paintings are one of these attempts. Under this nomenclature, Ragmala, the medieval painters depicted the ragas (Tunes of Music) and their musical characters in their paintings. This is a unique attempt to depict the art of music in paintings.

Hindola RagaRagamala -
17th century India. Rajasthan Style
Gouache on paper.
AnonymousUnknown author

Ragmala or Ragamala plainly can be translated as a 'garland of Ragas or Musical Melodies'. There are six principal ragas present in Ragamala: Bhairava, Dipika, Sri, Malkaunsa, Megha and Hindola; these ragas, musical melodies are meant to be sung during the six seasons of the year - summer, monsoon, autumn, early winter, winter and spring.

There were different schools of paintings in northern and south Indian states in the medieval period. Starting in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there were a school of paintings like Pahari School of paintings, Rajasthan or Rajput School, Deccan School, and Mughal Ragamala. Gunakali Ragini, Ragamala, Bundi, Rajasthan, ca 1660  On the basis of their respective schools of paintings, the ragamala painters named their paintings accordingly; as Pahari Ragamala, Rajasthan or Rajput Ragamala, Deccan Ragamala, and Mughal Ragamala. [All the paintings are in Public Domain, taken from Wikimedia Commons]

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