RĀGAMĀLĀ Literally meaning "a garland of melodies," Rāgamālā paintings illustrate Indian melodic forms, or rāgas and Rāginīs. Indian musicians also use this term while playing several melodies in a continuous sequence. An Indian melody, or rāga, is a composition of musical modes having a sequence or structure with a specific mood or significance. Rāgamālā paintings visualize such melodies in pictorial forms.
The source of Rāgamālā illustrations lies in the descriptions of melodies, using vivid verbal imagery, by the Indian musicologists of the late medieval period. The Sangeeta Ratnākara of Sharangadeva, an important treatise from the twelfth century a.d., for the first time mentions the presiding deity of each rāga, associating the rāgas and rāginīs with certain gods. The growing number of rāgas and their increasing variety created the need for analytical study and classification into relative groups. The earliest systematic exposition of such classification divides them into eight major "male" rāgas and three derivative "female" rāginīs, each listed in the Rāga Sāgara, written around 1440. That work also gives the iconographic description of rāgas such as Bhairava, Bhupāla, Patamañjarī, Mālava, Rāmapriyā, Gurjarī, Todī, and Madhumādhavī, in the chapter titled Rāgadhyāna Vidhānam. Treatises on musicology of this period suggest that the names of the melodies have contextual origins, and it is possible that this context is reflected in the iconography of each rāga. This context includes: the structure of the rāga, its geographical area of origin, the festivals and seasons associated with each, and the tunes used by the people of certain professions while at work or engaged in religious celebrations. For instance, Rāgini Āsavarī is connected with the music of the saperā, or people belonging to a snake-charmer community, who entice snakes with the music of their special instrument, known as bin. Rāgini ā savarī, therefore depicts a girl who, having lured snakes to her, is holding them in her hands. Rāga Vasanta, meaning the spring season, depicts the festival of colors celebrated at the advent of the spring; Rāga Megha-malhār (megha meaning "cloud") illustrates the monsoon season. Rāga Māru (maru meaning "desert") has a geographical context and is illustrated by depicting camel riders or camels. This rāga must have its origin in the desert areas of Rajasthan. Melodies also relate to the moods of heros and heroines. Rāga Bibhāsa (twilight), for instance, depicts a couple in a romantic mood, aiming an arrow at a rooster as he announces the advent of morning.
The art of miniature painting on paper was also gaining patronage during the seventeenth century, and the Rajput royal families and patrons also began commissioning secular paintings including the rāgamālā. The earliest visual depiction of melodies found to date is in a Kalpasūtra of about 1475, initially published by Sarabhai Nawab, in which the rāgas and rāginīs are shown in purely iconic form, as the forms of gods and goddesses. Rāgamālā acquired the importance of an independent theme during the Delhi Sultanate and Mughal rule, when secular themes were in demand. The earliest set of rāgamālā was painted in what is known as the Chaurapanchashika style of the Delhi Jaunpur area, in the mid-sixteenth century. It splendidly depicts the main iconographic features of each rāga, the literary description of which is inscribed on the reverse.
However, the real precursor of the Rajasthani Rāgamālā of the later period is the famous Chawand Rāgamālā painting by the artist Nisardi in Chawand (Chanda), Mewar, in 1605. Set against a red lacquer background, a dark sky, and a variety of floral decorative plants, the rāgas and rāginīs are depicted with bold draftsmanship. During the same period, the Rāgamālā theme found patronage from circles more influenced by the Mughal idiom. A Rāgamālā dated 1605, painted in the popular Mughal style, offers an interesting companion to the set Chawand Rāgamālā. The paintings have much more realistic renderings, while the iconography remains the same.
The cultural climate of the Deccan was particularly vibrant during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries under the reign of Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah II (r. 1580–1627), who was a lover of painting and a fine musician himself. A few folios from several Rāgamālā sets, painted in Bijapur and Ahmednagar styles and dating from the late sixteenth century, are dispersed in various collections.
Later treatises on Rāgamālā were written in Hindi. Many more Rāgamālā were added to the original set of thirty-six, and the artists began to take more liberties in the iconography of the Rāgamālā of the later periods. From the seventeenth century onward, Rāgamālā paintings were commonly depicted by the painters of all schools of miniature painting in India. Though generally the iconographic details are the same, the northern and the southern versions vary considerably. In the north the literary version of Rāgamālā used by the artists of the Kangra Valley or the Basohli differs from that used in Rajasthan.
A number of sets from Sirohi, Bundi, Kotah, Marwar, Kangra, and Hyderabad have come to light. Rāgamālā paintings were also painted in the women's quarters of the Havelis. It is possible that the visual form of these paintings was easily understood by many people, or they may have been created only for the enjoyment of the connoisseur.
Ebeling, Klaus. Ragamala Painting. Basil: Ravi Kumar, 1973. Sarangadev. Sangitaratnakar of Sarangadeva. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1991.
Waldschmidt, Ernst, and R. L. Waldschmidt. Miniatures of Musical Inspiration in the Collection of the Berlin Museums of Indian Art, Parts I and II. Berlin: Museums für Indische Kunst, 1975.