What is Ragamala?

Bhairava Raga, Pahari, Nurpur, c.1690, gouache on paper, 21 x 20.8cm

Lizzie Watson, exhibition curator at Dulwich Picture Gallery, traces the origins of this genre of Indian miniature painting back to its roots in ancient Indian music

For 400 years it was one of the most prolific genres of Indian miniature painting, yet the term ‘ragamala’ remains elusive, frequently mistaken for the name of an artist or school of painting. So what is ragamala?

At first glance, as you move from picture to picture, stories reveal themselves but seemingly with no correlation:  Shiva, a crowned and bearded deity, holds a scull cap and rides a bull; a female stands in beautiful green pasture surrounded by peacocks; a royal figure listens to a musician playing an Indian string instrument alongside a curious dragon. Yet, they all stem from a shared root: the sacred essence of ancient Indian music.

Ragamala paintings are pages from a garland (mala) of visual melodies (ragas). Each page visualises a particular mode (five or more musical tones), and is frequently accompanied by a brief inscription or poem that suggests the time of day, season and even mood of the raga.

The transformation of expression from music, through poetry to painting was a gradual one, most likely stimulated by the invention of paper. Medieval musicians would associate each raga or mode with a deity and name it, perhaps as a means of memorising a melody. Intrigued poets of the late medieval period then personified these ragas and elaborated their tales in vivid verbal imagery. These stories along with other influential musical texts provided the poetic source for ragamala painting.

Vinod Ragaputra of Hindola Raga, Northern Deccan, c.1630-50, gouache on paper, 33.2 x 27 cm

A Painted Melody

Ragamalas were not made to hang on a wall; they are tactile objects for private consumption. Each set of thirty or forty loose pages were sometimes bound or left as a set and stored on a shelf. At special events they would have been passed round fellow connoisseurs after shared food and music. Luckily for us, the gentle life of a ragamala has allowed their exquisite colouring to be preserved. The natural pigments, made from minerals, insects and flowers, still appear to glow.

Patrons, Painters and Scribes

While the available evidence suggests that ragamala painting flourished from the second half of the 15th century and dwindled in the late 19th century, with the decline of aristocratic patronage, the patrons, painters and scribes of many ragas remain unknown. Indeed, when we first looked at the superb Claudio Moscatelli Collection we new very little about each of the 24 paintings. Only after excited discussions between three experts in the field, Anna Dallapiccola, Robert Skelton and Catherine Glynn, who seemingly carried a library of knowledge on the subject, could we begin to identify them.

It was by analysing inscriptions and identifying regional imagery, that names, dates and even schools of painting could be attributed. And so, for the first time, the collection can now be shown in its entirety, with each painting anchored in place and time, across the Indian subcontinent: from the plains of Rajasthan, to the Pahari region in the foothills of the Himalayas, up to the mountains of Nepal and down to the Deccan.

Shankara Ragaputra of Megha Raga, Sub-imperial Mughal, c.1610-20, gouache on paper, 22 x 29.7cm

The Claudio Moscatelli Collection

Italian-born Claudio Moscatelli ‘discovered’ Indian miniature painting at the Victoria and Albert Museum shortly after relocating to this country. Thinking back to this first encounter, he says: ‘I was finding my Italian roots again in a certain similarity between Sienese primitive painting and some Indian miniatures – the strange perspectives, the colourful buildings, the use of figures to tell different stories – and the two dimensional modelling.’ He was clearly overwhelmed by his discovery. Shortly after, Claudio travelled to India and his attention was quickly drawn to ragamala painting. What fascinated him most was its core theme: the relationship between the lover and beloved, a metaphor between human and Divine.

Kamala Ragaputra of Dipak Raga, Pahari, Chamba, c1690-1700, gouache on paper, 21.5 x 15.4cm

The Deccan at Dulwich

There is one particular ragamala set that stands out when we look at the paintings in the context of Dulwich Picture Gallery’s Old Master collection. Five 18th century pages from the southern Deccan region each depict a lonely heroine in a particular state of love, against a backdrop of linear perspective.

In these pages, the traditional Hindu and Muslim belief that love in separation serves as an allegory of the human soul divided from God, is set within a landscape of the later Mughal period (16th – 19th centuries). This ‘modern’ style of composition was developed for the Nawabs (rulers) of Awadh, who employed a number of cultivated Europeans, including painters such as Johan Zoffany, Ozias Humphrey and our very own Tilly Kettle (Gallery Room 3), who may have been in the Deccan at the time these were painted.

This show is the first in the UK to be dedicated to the Indian miniature painting genre of Ragamala.

They are exquisite paintings – one can only wonder how long each took to paint with just a brush of three squirrel hairs – and it is high time they were seen alongside their European contemporaries.

Come and see for yourself! Ragamala Paintings from India: Poetry, Passion, Song opens from 25 January 2012.

BOOK your tickets online

Sponsored by Friends of Dulwich Picture Gallery, with special thanks to the Luigi and Laura Dallapiccola Foundation. This exhibition has been organised by Dulwich Picture Gallery in collaboration with Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, with generous support from Claudio Moscatelli, Anna Dallapiccola, Robert Skelton and Catherine Glynn.

Related events:
Ragamala Paintings from India: A Symposium on Saturday 14 April, a lively debate to mark the opening of the exhibition, Ragamala Paintings from India: Poetry, Passion, Song. Tickets: £30, £25 Friends, £20 Students – Includes a visit to the exhibition and the permanent collection, morning coffee and a light lunch.

This article was reproduced from the Spring 2012 issue of In View, magazine of the Friends of Dulwich Picture Gallery. Click here if you are interested in joining the Friends and would like to receive the magazine three times a year.

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