Evolution of Ragamala Paintings-Ragas visualized through a painter's eye

  • Know what are Ragamala Paintings, what type of Raga does a painting represent, Iconographic journey of Ragamala, what are the painting styles of Ragamala?

Music and painting have been the mediums of worship and pleasure since the ancient times, since both spring out from the deepest corners of the heart and soul. Visualizing music has been attempted by both Indian and western scholars, poets, painters and architects. While Matanga (ancient musicologist) in his treatise Brihaddeshi Matang depicted Raga, the Indian melodic modes with Meditative Poetry Ragadhyānas, the western scholar Gowth connected architecture with music saying "Architecture is but frozen music”.


Over the centuries, 'Ragamala' paintings evolved as a distinct style of Indian miniature paintings which depicted, Indian music and poetry with imagery, in an attempt to capture the essence and the form of the raga in its visual form which still continues to captivate it's onlookers.


'Raga' connotes to a melodic mode that can colour the mind with the mood or feelings of delight. The series of miniature paintings which are iconographic representations of a set of ragas were thus called the 'Ragamala' meaning the 'Garland of Raga'. 


These paintings represent specific moods of Love, Devotion, Passion, Happiness and celebration of life, as its prominent themes, particularly depicting the ragas of the Hindustani (north Indian) classical music style.


Tracing back the iconographic journey of Ragamala, we find that it began with the 'Ragadhyana' created by Matang in Brihaddeshi (classical Sanskrit texts on Indian Classical music attributed to Matang Muni 6th-8th century) wherein the term “Dhyana” is derived from dhyai i.e. to meditate upon, imagine or call to the mind. Thus, Ragadhyanas were short poetic verses or songs in Sanskrit which were designed for the contemplation of the gods and Goddesses who were associated to a particular Raga. The texts of these verses were sacred and described the features and attributes of a particular deity.


After Brihaddeshi we find them in the 13th century treatise Sangita Ratnakar by Sharandev which again connects each raga to a deity. The pictorial descriptions of melodic modes were first found in Saṅgitopaniṣat-saroddhara by Sudhakalasa (1324). We also find the paintings in the Kalpasutra manuscript (1475) from the Jayasiṃhasurji collection of Indore, illustrating particular ragas, which correspond to the dhyanas of the Saṅgitopaniṣat-saroddhara. This was the earliest known series of raga mala paintings which included 42 paintings describing 'Ragas' according to the gender terminology as per the ancient raga/bhaṣa characterisations. Thus, a detailed study of the dhyana texts provides a substantial understanding of the history of the Ragamala tradition.


The initial Ragamala paintings primarily depicted the six principal ragas namely Bhairav, Deepak, Sri, Malkauns, Megh, and Hindol, each one of which was designated a particular season and a time of the day from dawn, dusk, night as per the ancient time theory. Thus, Raga Bhairav was sung in summer, Deepak in monsoon, Sri in autumn, Malkauns in early winter, Megha in winter, and Hindola in spring. 


We often find the Raga, its mood and season written as poetry on the margins of the Ragamala paintings. Raga 'Bhairava' was depicted as 'Lord Shiva' sitting on the Nandi as his Vaahana (vehicle), Raga 'Megha' was pictured as 'Lord Vishnu' adorning a flower garland, with a peacock at his feet, Raga Sri is depicted as Devi.


Since ancient times, an analogy is given of a family of Ragas where 'Ragas' are paired with female musical melodies called Raginis to give birth to children. Each Raga would have 6 'wives', (Ragini's), along with numerous 'sons' (Ragaputra) and 'daughters' (Ragaputri) and even  'daughters-in-laws'( Ragaputra vadhu).The idea is to understand the Raga creation in Indian classical music, which happens by changing permutations of the musical tunes/ modes to create new Ragas. While, those matching the musical tunes were considered to be in the same family.

Depiction of Raga Bhairava (associated with Shivji).

Raga Bhairav which is an early morning melody associated with Lord Shiva. It symbolises a purifying experience, while in some paintings he is shown as Shiva with a divine feminine applying sandalwood onto his body. In others he is depicted as kala bhairava who has white complexion, has one head and eight hands. He dones an antelope skin, rides a bull and adorns a serpent, trident and a human skull. There have been many styles of miniature paintings in which we find the depiction of Raga bhairava in the Bikaner, Mughal and Hyderabad styles.

Raga Shree.

Ragamala Shree is an evening melody which evokes a mood of happiness, relaxation and sometimes even nostalgia. The raga is also associated with autumn and the harvest season. The Ragamala shree depicts an evening concert while Sage Narada and Tumburu (grandson of Brahma) play music to entertain the king.

Dhanashri Ragini

This painting represents the melancholy the very mood of the raga Dhanashri, an evening melody which highlights the pain of a nayika who misses her beloved and paints his picture.


In 1591 Keshava Dasa, in his treatise on love Rasikapriya, through his poems depicted the eternal love of Radha and Sri Krishna. The poems were later illustrated into Ragamala paintings showing different stages of their courtship ranging from romantic moments to mutual disagreements, and eventual reconciliations between the lovers, creating a story through the series.


During the 11-17th centuries the visual depiction of the 'Ragas' along with their 'Deities' came in vogue representing the Ragamala paintings. Thus, dating from around the year 1475 to the end of the 19th century, the Ragamala painting tradition refers to some 3000 miniature paintings created in many different styles and schools.

Ragamala depicting seasons.

Over the centuries, Ragamala paintings received Royal Patronage by various Kingdoms which reached its peak by the 16-17th centuries. The style of miniature painting started spreading across the Mughal Empire as painters accompanied their patrons to various postings. The form eventually evolved into many distinct styles of paintings viz. Mughal Ragamala, Deccan Ragamala, Nepalese and Pahari Ragamala, Rajasthan or Rajput Ragamala all representing an aesthetic amalgamation of Music, Art, and Poetry.


Looking at the evolution of themes we find that by the middle of the 16th century, the narrative of the Ragamalas completely changed (perhaps due to Muslim rule) from the depiction of divine icons to a more mundane human life, as scenes from daily life became more popular. The artist's focus became the mundane human life portraying expressions of love or longing for one's love or deity, amid exotic landscapes and architectural surroundings.


The unifying subject of Ragamala paintings became love, which evoked a range of specific emotions (Rasa) corresponding to a Raga. Each painting personified a Raga with a distinct colour and a mood, wherein a verse described a story of the union and passions of the lovers (Sambhog Sringar Bhav between the Nayaka and Nayika (hero and heroine as the male and female protagonist of the story) which explored both the musicality (Raga) and analogous imagery.


A bit about each style of Ragamalas.

Rajasthani Miniature Ragamala 

Vasanta Ragini.

The Rajasthani style included a depiction of Radha and Krishna, the divine lovers beautifully portraying their mystic love. These paintings have highly exaggerated features with large almond-shaped eyes, long necks, and fingers.


Mughal Ragamala 

Malavi Ragini

The Ragamala paintings created during the era of Mughal king Akbar and Jahangir were characterised with visual simplicity, illustrating the refined culture of the Rajput and Mughal courts, and scenes from society during the power change.


Looking at the colour combinations in the paintings we see pale yellow backgrounds, pale blue skies, dark green trees and cypresses with pale green and yellow leaves, and slate grey rivers, which gave a sense of serenity to the landscapes. The houses are shown in white with pink pillars, red doors, and pale green rooftops. The costumes coats, skirts, and blouses were painted in red, orange, mauve, and yellow worn by men and women with complexions depicted with pink or mauve. Women wore transparent white or silver sarees with exquisite jewellery, studded necklaces, gold rings, anklets, bangles, waistbands, while men wear fine coats and jammas.


Ragamala paintings that survived the ravage of time are only 36-42 in number which we are still preserved in museums. Some of the prominent Ragamalas Paintings which are still well preserved include Ragas: Malhar, Megha, Sri, Deepak, Asavari, Pancham, Maligora, Dhanashri, Varari, Gunkali, Nata, Bhairavi, Bhivasa, Hindol, Devkali, Kanhara, Malkauns, Bilawal, Bairon, Shyam Gujari, and Vasanta.


The intricate pieces of exquisite melodic paintings were created as loose-leaf folios stored in a portfolio. They were either circulated within the inner court circles of the Royals who commissioned them or were exchanged and viewed as pleasurable past times by their Queens in the Zenana Khana and the courtiers, and their guests who were admirers of painting, poetry, and music. We also find some Ragamalas painted as murals in the private quarters of the palaces.


Deccan Ragamala

Megha Ragini. This depicts a maiden awaiting her lover in the rainy season.  

In the Deccan, the themes of the Ragamala became more complex covering a spectrum from real to surreal. Here the heroine was a Virhani (a forlorn nayika) in a state of longing and loss, separated from her soulmate. The theme resonated well with the Bhakti Movement prevalent then, wherein 'love in separation' was used as an allegory of 'Separation of the soul from God'. 


In the early 19th century Awadh, under the patronage of Nawab Shuja’ ud-Daula and his son Asaf ud-Daula , Ragamala miniature paintings developed a distinct style. The then court painters of Awadh Johan Zoffany and Tilly Kettle who were from Europe, introduced the Judeo-Christian imagery like the Angels above the clouds and likes to this distinctly Indian miniature painting, post which the form saw a gradual decline, with a decline in the royal patronage.

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Also read

1. Rajasthan school of Miniature Paintings are a class apart

2. Bundi Fort Paintings Album

3. Mewar Paintings – a Chronicle of their time

4. Bundela Style Paintings Orchha album

5. About Kangra miniature paintings

6. What is a RAGA

The purpose of sharing this article is to document and share information. We are grateful to those who created these paintings.  

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