Fig-2-close-up-Raga-Hindol Ragamala Paintings from India

Ragamala literally means a garland of musical melodies and is a serendipitous culmination of three traditional Indian art forms: music, poetry and painting. This theme received dynamic patronage and status from the royal courts of the erstwhile kingdoms in South Asia, making it most popular in the respective genres. Ragamala is the turning of musical sounds, an abstract and intangible concept, into a tactile, multi-sensory experience and elevating it to a deific experience for both a learned performer and the audience. In the first instance, the mala in the word ragamala is a symbolic garland, or confluence, of various raga or musical melodies; however, it is debatable whether the garland is shaped out of the categorised melodies, or when the three above-mentioned art forms join hands to create an extraordinary aesthetic experience. Whichever of the mentioned experiences it is, ragamala are a living tradition, constantly improvising on melodic characters, which add newer alliance-melodies to centuries old absorbent tabulation(s).

In Indian classical music over a thousand years or so, a number of classifications have developed under the mat, or system that personified musical melodies. Poets and musicologists imagined these raga (male personification of a musical mode) and ragini (female personification, or sub-mode) as parts of family members. Depending upon different systems, five or six prominent families have a raga as the head or husband, each with five or six companions or wives, known as ragini. Some of the later systems included combination melodies as ragaputra, or sons and exclusive systems incorporated daughter-in-laws and daughters.

Depending upon the poems from various traditions, each composition represents a central figure ranging from an ash-smeared bhairava, a form of Lord Shiva, to the blue complexioned Lord Krishna and differently aged laymen from various folktales, tribes, geographical locations, communities, and level of society. Post 16th century, some poets and painters of ragamala referred to riti kaavya to depict the prevalent emotion associated with melodies, where the central characters are nayak (hero), or nayika (heroine), deal with complex life situations, such as romantic: separation, melancholy, dejection, anticipated union – preparations, gratification, celebration; courtly: festivals, events, rituals, ceremonies, etc, used for inspiration. Compositions are also identifiable by code, or iconography, for example, a combination where the central character, in any of the above-mentioned situations, matches an emotional context that ranges from the season, or to the time of the day, orientation, architectural references, flora-fauna, accoutrements, fruits, drinks and other diverse elements.

As per an initial study by Klaus Ebeling on ragamala, more than 150 series and 4,000 individual paintings have been produced on the theme. Over the years, musicologists re-arranged the combinations within the families and the painters introduced nuances in indigenous or individual styles for different series. In the plethora of these paintings, the Hadoti Narayana Ragamala (or the so-called Boston Bundi Ragamala) is unique for many reasons. Painted in 1750-1775 in the royal court of Bundi, or Kota, in Rajasthan, it is most likely done in the workshop of a master-painter, who introduced a ‘title page’ and ‘daughters’ of the six main ragas. More than one artist hand is traceable in different folios, but for the sake of simplification, the term ‘artists’ will be employed hereafter to denote the workshop headed by the lead artist.

The nine folios from the Museum Rietberg, and two from a private collection in Zurich, are part of an ongoing study from this ambitious series and are part of the GBF fellowship programme. It is expected that more than 150 folios will be part of the project, of which, 63 have already been traced.

Folios from this series are widely dispersed with the largest collection (15) in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, followed by the nine in the Rietberg. Each composition has an inscription jotted at the top border in devnagari script. The main raga folios mention the name, appropriate season and time of the day. Names of the ragini, or wives, correspond to their husband’s raga. Ragaputri (daughters) and Ragaputra (sons) relate to their father’s name, which provides them with a gender and association, but do not necessarily give the status of an independent raga or a ragini. For instance, Ragaputra Gajadhar is mentioned as Megh Rag ko putra Ganjdhar dopahar ko gave (son of Raga Megh, Gajadhar, to be sung in the afternoon); and in the case of Ragaputri Mukhari it states Malkausak ki putri Mukhari Sanja vela gavaje (daughter of Raga Malkaus, Mukhari, to be sung in the evening).

A ‘correlation study’ including stylistic, formalistic and scientific analyses of the above mentioned eleven folios has now been undertaken, entailing X-Ray fluorescence (XRF), Infrared transmission (IR), Infrared reflectography, Ultraviolet imaging (UV), FTIR (Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy) and microscopic viewing. This study has revealed valuable information on the construction and building of the folios and the artists’ choice of certain unusual pigments and the chosen artistic techniques used to manifest the intended mood and context. Following are two examples, one explained with and other without the scientific analysis.

Ragini Dhanshri (fig 1, described without scientific analysis) is depicted as a dusky-complexioned woman painting a portrait of her beloved whom she is dearly missing. The gathering of dramatic thunder clouds with shaded dark rain-laden clouds hint at the oppressive atmosphere and the arrival of an untimely monsoon. The longing for the not-yet-arrived sweetheart is suffocating. The clouds rumbling echo the feeling of her lonely heart, impelling her to paint a likeliness of her beloved. A confidant helps her in this undertaking by holding a mother-of-pearl and mussel shell pigment holders while she paints. Tragically, as the portrait is nearing completion, her eyes brim over with tears before pouring off the clouds. Smearing her cheeks and chest, the tears blur her vision, preventing her from completing the portrait. These inferred overwhelming and complex emotions are dhyan, or meditative aid, for the melancholic melody with such provocative notes.

In Raga Hindol (fig 2, explained along with scientific analysis), literal meaning a swing, the artist’s vantage point for the composition appears to be in front of the red balustrade. A black patch of the sky behind the grey wall hints at the stated time of the day – the first phase before sunlight breaks. The sources of light in the composition come from the serpentine lighting flashing high up in the clouds. An oblique placement of the square turquoise tiles on the floor provides an elevation to the composition that dramatically focuses on the giant golden hindol (swing). Musical notes in this raga, called meend, have a prominent gliding movement that resembles the back and forth of the swing, substantiating its presence in the composition.

Here, the artist has depicted the preparations for a musical recital, paying special attention to set the mood and atmosphere, this can be seen by the passing thunderstorm, racing clouds, the suggestion of the cry of the egrets and the ringing of the bells that hang on the golden swing. An earthy smell mixed with the night jasmine coiled around the banana tree is also suggested to enhance the auditory and olfactory senses of the viewers. The scene shows a king and his zenana (female consorts) aroused or provoked enough by the mahaul (atmosphere) to engage in an early morning raga recital on an open terrace. The pale complexioned king, in a bright mustard costume settles on a maroon velvet cushion placed on the chowki (seat) that is attached with golden chains to the top bar of the swing. The king is supporting a rudra vina (stringed musical instrument) on his right shoulder by holding it from the dand (fingerboard). He is adjusting his body weight on the swing while holding the instrument by tightly grasping his right hand around his folded right leg, accidently crushing his flower garland and he appears to be shifting his body by pushing his left leg, leaving his khadau (wooden slippers) hanging mid-air in the opposite direction – still held between his toes.

In the gesture of extending help, one of the female consorts, standing in front of the post of the swing, moves her hand towards the king – and their fingers meet – coinciding with the flash of lightening and hinting at felt electric impulse on touching. Another consort, standing behind a post, holds a pole with her left hand, and sensing a nip in the air, extends her thicker shawl towards the king. The female in the foreground, slightly bending, is playing the tal manojia (cymbals), which are painted nearly touching each other. Of the two women standing to the right of the swing, one raises a fly-whisk towards the king and the other adjusts the loose end of her sari that has a prominent bund bandhej pattern. She appears to be holding a circular metallic disc close to her – a much-debated object that reoccurs in other paintings in the series. It is probably a portable darsan box that opens to reveal the painting of deity on one side and a mirror on the other, often used by the devotees for the first darsan (seeing the deity) of the day, or used while travelling. At the centre right of the composition there is a doorway with a rolled up blind, from where the troop probably entered the terrace.

The format and adaptations for the composition have also been closely studied. Hindol is one of the six main male music melodies and is a unique case where the chatera (artists) added the layers of correlation over a time-tested composition. The earliest rendition of a Raga Hindol in the Hadoti region comes from the Badal Mahal fresco inside the Bundi fort from the 17th century. Within a hundred years, a crucial iconographic signifier in the composition has changed, the ‘yellow’ colour of the mustard fields in the fresco is different to that used in the paper format in relation to the ruler’s complexion and clothes, without the signifier of an ‘Indian spring’.

As per workshop practice, these compositions were usually traced out of the drawings either by masters or based on their compositions. The Rietberg Raga Hindol folio appears to be traced or drawn after a mid-18th century khakha, or simple drawing (this image is part of the Dr Milo C Beach database at the Rietberg Museum, present location unknown). Artists adopted iconographic elements with slight modifications, such as: the hindol, the king holding the rudra vina, and the dense temperate cyclonic clouds causing the mawat (occasional winter rainfall). The inscription on top of the khakha mentions the name of the raga, its month, and number ‘13’, while the Rietberg folio says ‘16’, Hidol Rag Gave Maha ke mahin pahe dodhe din chadhya, all in the devnagari script, which translates as ‘16, Hindol Raga to be sung in the month of Magh (Feb-March in Gregorian calendar), first phase before the day rises’.

Infrared transmission is usually employed by the conservators to understand the underdrawings, extent of damage and retouching. The Raga Hindol IR transmission (fig 3) provides clarity on how the strips of jhaarh or munabbat work borders were pasted all around by carefully sandwiching the painted area. The terms jhaarh or munabbat refer to the bits and pieces of gold and silver leaves pasted unevenly on plain or coloured papers. IR reveals brush movements and successive layers of paint application. Multiple lines are visible, ranging from initial drawing, correction lines and final outlines in the composition, suggesting the spontaneity and build up by the artists while attempting an earlier composition. The khakha shows a semi-circular receding landscape in the middle ground, which turned into a grey wall in the Rietberg folio (fig 2). This noteworthy improvisation is clearly visible in the IR (fig 3), where the lighter toned arch of the field was initially included as a part of the composition. The adhesive traces along the top edge are also visible where an additional paper (now missing) was attached to the back that carried the missing reference verse for the composition. On the back of the painting are a smudged royal stamp in the centre and a cursory line drawing of the front composition.

The FTIR and XRF (spectroscopy) analyses of the artwork offers new insights on the availability and choice of pigments by the artists. As per the combinations detected in the applied pigments, artists preferred mixing pigments to achieve a brighter and tertiary palette. They did this by experimenting with the brightness of certain pigments and masterfully manipulated the brushwork to acquire their desired effect. The ultraviolet imaging (fig 4, UV) showed the noteworthy use of an extremely bright pigment goguli (Indian yellow) to suggest the season and the lightning effects in the composition. This colour imparts a brilliant luminescence when exposed under the UV spectrum. Goguli pigment production stopped after the 1900s, but with sketchy documentation, it remains a mysterious pigment.

The desire to capture the feel of the mustard-yellow fields of the prescribed season for the raga, the artist used this fitting, intense pigment on all the figures in varying quantities using various techniques. For instance, copious amounts of pure goguli was applied in thicker layers in the ruler’s outfit, while the XRF and FTIR detected lead white (safeda) along with goguli on his cheeks. A microscopic study suggested that thin, watery, strokes of goguli were also applied over the white countenance of the ruler. Under the UV exposure, the green sari of the consort holding a fly-whisk, as well as the green blouse of the consort holding the shawl, also showed the presence of goguli mixed with other pigments.

Once analysed the flash, the lightning can be seen to be remarkably captured in the composition by the application of thin-translucent layers of a combination green that carries some amount of goguli. This is noticeable along the patterns and boundary line of the walls in middle ground and on the wings of the flying cranes overhead.

For the distinct blues in the clouds, artists layered smalt, azurite, indigo and lead white over and into one another. The artists achieved the organic gradation and volume in the clouds by layering and mixing of the pigments into each other, while keeping in mind the varying viscosity, pigment particles, ratio of binder and drying time of different pigments. However, scientific analysis negated the presence of the expected lapis lazuli and chalk white pigments. The analysis further showed that two unexpected pigments were used in the stated period and region of the artwork: a presence of ‘smalt’ for the clouds and ‘atacamite’ for the green floor tiles and mango leaves.

The scientific analyses of these raga are helping gain better insight into known and unknown nuances of the subject, such as the musical modes, presence or absence of verses, stated or expressed emotions and, above all, the artists’ consideration of pigments, brush strokes, and hidden or apparent symbolism. Some relevant stylistic and formalistic questions can now be answered by using this approach. However, it also creates room for new queries, forcing us to see beyond and question further.


The author expresses due gratitude to Dr. Eberhard Fischer, GBF cooperative program on Indian art and artists, Museum Rietberg, SIK-ISEA (Swiss Institute for Art Research), Zürich and Vir Amar Dasmahapatra for composing the sound bites.