What is Ragamala?
By Lizzie Watson
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.
A leaf with two Ragamala illustrations: MALAR RAGINI AND GUJARI RAGINI, India, Deccan, Hyderabad, circa 1760
Gouache heightened with gold on paper, a double-sided leaf, each page with text above the miniature in red and black nast’aliq script on cream paper, red borders, recto numbered in lower border in Persian '207'
recto painting: 25 by 17.5cm.
verso painting: 25 by 17.8cm.
leaf: 36.3 by 26cm.