Colour Meets Sound

World of Ragamala paintings at Salar Jung Museum (1600-1899)

Lahula Ragaputra, Son of Dipak Raga, Folio from a Ragamala (Garland of Melodies) (circa 1685-1690) by UnknownLos Angeles County Museum of Art

What is a Raga?

A 'raga' has been defined as "a permutation and combination of notes or frequencies illustrated by melodic movements which are capable of producing a pleasant sensation, mood or an emotion in the mind of the listener". There are six main 'ragas' and each 'raga' has five 'raginis' or wives and 8 'ragaputras' or sons. The 6 main ragas are Bhairava, Dipaka, Sri, Malkaunsa, Megha and Hindola. During the 14th century, musical literature included a description of the ragas in short Sanskrit verses called 'dhyana' (meditation). This highlighted the characteristics of the raga giving them a personality. This led to the 'raga-ragini' system and saw the growth and profusion of Ragamala painting on various media. The Ragamala paintings show the raga as a human, divine or semi divine being. The themes cover the 'rasas' (essence) 'shringara' and 'bhakti' among others, with the 'raga' or 'ragini' name inscribed along with the 'dhyana' or the verse. This art form is a thus a depiction of music in art, a symphony which creates a different experience for the viewer gazing upon it, especially if he knows about the musical modes. 

Sorathi Ragini, Wife of Megha Mallar Raga, Folio from a Ragamala (Garland of Melodies) (circa 1750) by UnknownLos Angeles County Museum of Art

Ragamala painting is called a ragachitra in Indian vernacular. Medieval miniatures combined colour and music to produce paintings and most school of miniature paintings have produced ragachitra; Mughal, Malwa, Datia, Bundi, Kotah, Mewar, Bikaner, Kangra, Basholi, Kullu, Chamba, Bilaspur, Jammu and the Deccan.

Miniature painting which started in India around the 7th century, evolved from wall spaces to a smaller canvas like the palm-leaf, cloth, bark, parchment and paper.

Shri Raga, Folio from a Ragamala (Garland of Melodies) (circa 1850-1900) by UnknownLos Angeles County Museum of Art

Indian music is based on ragas or modes of music. Raga is the basis of Indian tunes and melodies. The root word is ranja meaning dyed in colour. Sage Bharata opines that music should be performed so as to colour the hearts of all beings. The dyeing of sound with the colours of music is ragchitra.

Each raga has its own intonation, hours and perspective. Ragamala paintings connect with the viewer through colour, the raga which is otherwise conveyed only though sound or vocals. The paintings have been made using colours to depict moods, emotions, and symbols to depict 'ragas' and raginis.

Lalit Ragaputra (1700/1799)Salar Jung Museum

A Garland of Ragas 

The well loved and celebrated genre of Indian miniature painting has given the world of art many stories and themes which include 'Krishna-leela', 'Nayikabheda', depiction of royal lifestyles, palace scenes, episodes from the Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, 'Barahmasa' relating to seasons, flora and fauna. What about Ragamala? Ragamala Paintings are a unique category within miniature paintings. Ragamala paintings form series of illustrative paintings based on the 'garland of ragas' or Ragamala, depicting various Indian musical modes, the 'ragas'. Music has been part of the Indian ethos since yore. Drumbeats, cymbals, the sound of 'shehnai' and conch blowing have been part of ceremonies. 

Ragaputra Velavala of Bhairava (circa 1710) by UnknownArt Gallery of New South Wales

The Natyashastra of Bharata from the 2nd century is an early treatise on fine arts and describes Indian musical theory, which also covers dance and drama.

Hindola Raga, Folio from a Ragamala (Garland of Melodies) (circa 1700 or earlier) by UnknownLos Angeles County Museum of Art

The Ragamala paintings are an amazing symphony of art and classical music, which flourished during 16th to 18th centuries and continued till the 19th century.

With the introduction of paper, royals and noblemen, both Hindu and Muslim commissioned miniature painting including the unique Ragamalas.

Megha Malhar Ragini (1700/1799)Salar Jung Museum

Magic of the monsoon

The painting depicts Ragini Megha Malhar (main Raga Megha). It is a monsoon raga and can supposedly bring rain when sung correctly.

The musical melody portrays the joyful feeling of onset of rain. The composition shows a dancing Lord Krishna.

Two gopis or cowherd girls on either side, one of each side with a musical instrument. Flower creeper in gold color and green around, arched panel on top.

Vasanta Ragini (1700/1799)Salar Jung Museum

Colours of Spring

Vasanta Ragini (main Raga Hindola) is a melody relating to the season of spring, In fact the Vasantotsav or spring festival is one where Lord Krishna is worshiped as Kamadeva, the God of Love. A season marked by blooming trees, birds choosing their mates, it is a time for love, frolic, music and romance.

The season has Vasant-panchami when Goddess Saraswati is worshipped and the colourful Holi celebrations. Frequently, this ragini is depicted as Krishna and gopis as playing Holi with each other.

The composition from Datia school, 18th century, shows a group of gopis or cowherd girls playing Holi with Krishna on the left and a group of cowherds on the right.

Two gopis pour coloured water on Krishna's head from a pitcher and a bottle in the foreground, another gopi drawing coloured water in a pichkari (syringe) from a pitcher.

The cowherd on the right has a musical percussion instrument in hand. The scene is one of frolic and celebration.

Lord Krishna Playing Holi with Radha (19th century)Salar Jung Museum

Colourful Sentiments 

 Ragamala paintings depict all sentiments or 'bhavas'.  The colours used in the images are used to create the ambience of the melody conveyed through the 'raga'. The 'raga' represents emotions and express sentiments or 'bhavas' as mentioned; the 'ragaputras' emerged from different emotional situations. The various ragas stand for the language of the soul, the anguish of deep sorrow, joyousness, the tumult of passion, the thrill of expectation under the throes of love longing, the pangs of separation and the joys of union.

This Ragamala miniature painting depicts Vasanta Ragini, Lord Krishna and Radha standing in the centre, seven gopis or cowherd girls in front of them, one with a mridang and the other holding a flower pot, six gopis standing behind with a bowl full of colour.

Gulal or colour is being sprinkled and is seen on the ground too.

The border of the painting is with gold and dark blue with an inscription at the top. This painting is from the 19th century, Rajput school.

Lord Krishna Playing Holi (19th Century)Salar Jung Museum

Vasanta Ragini (main Raga Hindola) – is a melody relating to the season of spring.

The composition from the Deccan school shows a group of gopis or cowherd girls playing Holi with Krishna. All the gopis or cowherd girls are holding pichkaris or syringes and one is filling her pichkari.

Radha and Krishna are in the middle and Radha is sprinkling coloured powder, gulal at Krishna.

Kamodini Ragini (1700/1799)Salar Jung Museum

Separation and solitude

Kamodini Ragini (main Raga Dipak) is a princess who is in waiting for her lover to return. This painting is from Amber-Jaipur, 18th century.

The lady depicted holds two garlands in her hand, maybe of champaka flowers, tree, a flowing stream, some houses and six palm trees against the blue background which are part of the composition.

She has made the garlands for her lover.

Kakubha Ragini (1800/1899)Salar Jung Museum

In a forest with peacocks

Kakubha (main Raga Megha) relates to beauty and splendour. In this composition from the Deccan school, 19th century, the heroine is lonesome and has been deserted by her lover.

She is wandering in a natural landscape, nearby a forest and is connecting with peacocks and hoping for her lover to meet her. She is wearing jewellery with mahavar on her hands and feet. Kakubha ragini is usually depicted like this.

Lalit Ragaputra (1700/1799)Salar Jung Museum

Apologetic king

Ragaputra Lalit (main Raga Bhairava) depicts an amiable and clever man, maybe a king who wants to be forgiven for his dalliance with another woman and has come back to his queen.

In this composition from Jodhpur school, 18th century, she is shown seated on a cot, a lady attendant touching her feet on his behalf while the king speaks flattering and apologetic words.

Malasri Ragini (1600/1699)Salar Jung Museum

Sweetness of anticipation

Malasri ragini (main Raga Megha) depiction from Malwa, 17th century shows a lady holding a full blown lotus and is plucking at its petals. She is waiting for her lover. Her maid or confidante (sakhi) is sitting behind her.

Light flowing clouds and birds are in the sky in the background. The scene depicts anticipation and the sweetness of fragrance and happy memories tinged with distress at the absence of one’s beloved.

Todi Ragini (1700/1799)Salar Jung Museum

Anguish of separation

Todi Ragini (main Raga Dipak) depicted by a lady in anguish who is separated from her lover.

This composition from Mughal school, mid-18th century, shows her of a striking complexion, wearing pearl strings and earrings, armlet and a cuff on her hands, transparent veil, choli or blouse with a patterned long skirt or ghagra with mahavar on her feet, resting on a tree trunk putting her right hand on a branch and turned towards right, looking at an antelope.

On the other side is a fawn coloured deer. Usually Todi ragini is shown with a musical instrument and she connects with the animals with her music.

Cypress and flowering trees and cloudy sky form the backdrop. Flower plants and grassy land are in the foreground.

Credits: Story

Text and Curation : Soma Ghosh

Photography : M. Krishnamurthy and Bahadur Ali

Research Assistance : Dinesh Singh and E. Rajesh

Special Thanks to Dr.A. Nagender Reddy, Director, Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad, India.


Gangoly, O. C|Ragas & Raginis: A Pictorial & Iconographic Study Of Indian Musical Modes based on original sources, 1935.
Nigam, M.L, ed| Salar Jung Museum Silver Jubilee Celebrations, Salar Jung Museum, 1976.
Amrita Kumar, ed.| Ragamala painting, 1994.
Daljeet, Dr. and Jain, P.C|Indian Miniature painting, 2006.
Daljeet, Dr.|Ragachitra: Deccani Ragamala painting, 2014.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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