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Ragamala Paintings: An Expression Of Music Through Art

Ragmala paintings

Passion, Prose, Poetry And Ragamala Paintings

Art and emotion were closely linked in ancient India. Poetry and prose intertwine in storytelling, as do music and dance, and we can see this depicted in paintings, sculpture, and architecture. Ragamala paintings are one such interspersion of art and music. This style of miniature painting is an intricate symphony of music, painting, prose, and poetry.

These paintings are filled with stories, lovers, and motifs that are meant to evoke specific emotions (rasa) in the minds of those who view them. Let Rooftop guide you through a symphony of music and art while we explore the themes in Ragamala paintings.

Understanding The Ragas Through Ragamala Paintings

Ragamala Paintings
Vilaval Ragini, Rajasthan, ca. 1680 (image source:
Ragamala Paintings
Bhairava Ragini, Rajasthan, c. 1610–1620 (image source:

A raga is a composition containing a sequence of musical notes that is said to ‘colour the mind’. We can trace this back to the root of the Sanskrit word ‘raga’, which means hue, shade, or colour. A raga is a musical motif central to Indian classical music. People would associate each raga with a deity, a season, and a time of day. As time passed, the ragas became distinct entities. Poets elaborated on their nature, and the stories surrounding them became intricate and more detailed. The ragas were classified as a family—six main ragas who each had five wives (raginis), along with sons (ragaputras) and daughters (ragaputris).

Paintings began depicting the ragas in their personified forms. This started a style of miniature painting known as Ragamala, or ‘garland of ragas’. Each individual folio was called a ‘Ragchitra’. Each Ragamala was a collection of several Ragchitras, usually thirty-six or forty-two, and up to a hundred and ten in a single mala. They often contained short verses or prose, either as a description of the situation or to add to its emotional narrative.

Also read: The Origin and evolution of Miniature Paintings in India

Themes Of The Ragchitra Paintings In Detail

Ragamala Paintings
Sanveri Ragini, Himachal Pradesh, c. 1700–1710 (image source:

Ragas were no longer depicted as singular divine beings by the mid-16th century. Instead, painters began illustrating their interactions with other ragas or raginis. The subjects of the painting were people- sometimes royalty, sometimes not, who interacted with each other as a means of telling a story. Artists began filling the previously sparse backgrounds of Ragamala paintings with lush foliage, architecture, and expressive landscapes.

Artists would often write the ragas, their mood, season, and time of day in the margins of these miniature paintings. Love became the central theme of Ragamala paintings, which often depicted the union of two lovers. Each Ragamala contained a story or situation meant to evoke a set of emotions (Rasa) that were associated with the raga. Painters would carefully choose colours to convey these sentiments. The six main ragas in the Ragamala are Deepak, Bhairava, Sri, Malkauns, Megha, and Hindola, corresponding to the six seasons of monsoon, summer, autumn, early winter, winter, and spring.

Ragamala Paintings In The Rajasthani Schools Of Art

Ragamala Paintings
Panchama Ragini, Rajasthan, c. 1640 (image source:
Ragamala Paintings
Vasanta Ragini, a page from an early 17th-century Rajasthani Ragamala (image source:

Ragamala paintings originated in Rajasthan. Newer miniature paintings from other parts of the country show visual elements of the early Rajasthani Ragamala paintings. This is attributed to the fact that perhaps Rajasthani painters were travelling the country with their patrons. When faced with the task of compiling lengthier Ragamalas in the Deccan, they drew what was familiar to them and added new elements.

1. Mewar School And The Emergence Of The Ragamala Theme

Ragamala Paintings
Todi Ragini: A woman, separated from her lover. She plays music for the deer and her sakhi (image source:

One of the earliest recorded Ragamala paintings, the Chawand Ragamala was also the earliest record of the Mewar style of painting in Rajasthan. An artist named Nisardin painted it in 1605. This style shares similarities with the earlier Rajput style. It features bright and vibrant colours with a simple composition.

2. Bundi Style And Its Expressive Ragamala Paintings

Ragamala Paintings
Sri Raga, Bundi Ragamala miniature (image source:

Bundi miniatures blend the Deccan and Mughal styles seamlessly. They feature spectacular depictions of nature and elaborately detailed architecture. Notice the two-dimensional use of perspective and jewel-like depictions of nature in the above painting. The early and formative phase of Bundi miniature painting saw a rise in the emergence of Ragamala paintings.

Also read: 6 Most Popular Themes in Rajasthani Miniature Painting

The Ragamala Paintings Of Nepal

Ragamala Paintings
Hindolika Ragini (image source:
Ragamala Paintings
Patamanjari Ragini (image source:
Ragamala Paintings
Malavpanchama Raga (image source:

Paintings in Nepal were secular in nature and mostly made for religious purposes. Ragamala paintings from Nepal are rare and are distinctly Nepalese in theme and style. These Ragamala miniatures depict traditional Nepalese people and places. We see them wear local clothing, and popular motifs such as lotus petals show that the paintings were made within the region.

Ragamala In Mughal Miniature Paintings

Ragini Todi, Mughal miniature painting, c. 1750 (image source:

Wealthy patrons and courtiers typically commissioned Ragamala paintings. The Mughals popularised miniature painting in India. Containing lavish depictions of royal life, Persian art heavily influenced Mughal miniature paintings. As painting flourished under the Mughal reign, Ragamala paintings also enjoyed special status. Mughal Ragamala paintings illustrated beautiful Indian scenery and Indo-Persian architecture with the use of jewel tones and pale yet vibrant colours.

Also read: The history behind Mughal Miniature Paintings

The Deccan And Its Ragamala Paintings

Ragamala Paintings
Raga Kodaba. Ragamala paintings in Orissa used the Pattachitra style (image source:
Ragamala Paintings
Hindola Raga, Deccan style miniature (image source:

The Bhakti movement gave rise to the idea of love as longing or separation, symbolising devotion as the human soul being apart from God. It also encouraged the act of worship to be personal and emotional. This led the Deccan Ragamala miniature paintings to be more complicated in the subject matter and storylines depicted. Larger Ragamala sets with up to 86 paintings were popular in the Deccan region. We see paintings frequently centred around a ‘Virahini’, a woman who was separated from her lover and longed for him in his absence. Deccan paintings were typically less realistic in their depiction and often ventured into surrealism and fantasy.

The Ragamala theme of miniature painting spread throughout the country, from Rajasthan to the Pahari areas of North India, to the Deccan, and as far as Nepal. In the later nineteenth century, Ragamala paintings also started depicting foreshortening, or perspective recession. We attribute this to the patronage of Nawab Shuja’ ud-Daula and his son Asaf ud-Daula, rulers of the court of Oudh. They employed Europeans such as Tilly Kettle and Joha Zoffany as court artists, who transformed miniature painting by including Christian imagery through elements such as clouds and angels.

The Rediscovery Of Seasonal Themes In Ragamala Paintings

Ragamala Paintings
Ragamala Paintings

Sourindro Mohun Tagore commissioned artist Krishno Bishto Das to lithograph 42 ragas and raginis and compiled them into a complete Ragamala series. He was the one who confirmed the connection between the seven ragas and the seasons.

Post-19th-century Ragamala paintings, and miniature paintings as a whole rapidly fell into decline due to lack of patronage.

Raga, Bhava And Rasa

“Yato manaha stato bhava”.

”Where the mind is, there the feeling evolves.”

“Yato bhava stato rasa”.

”Where the feeling evolves, there the Rasa flows.”

This verse from the Natya Shastra states that the mind (Mann) must be involved in the creation of feeling, or sentiment. We observe that the essence of art is to feel, to find Rasa (aesthetic taste or beauty). The Ragamala theme of miniature painting is vibrant and overflowing with Rasa. A single Ragamala, through its multiple folios, may illustrate the feelings of joy, envy, anger, sadness, loneliness, and ecstasy. We see depictions of courtly life as well as mundane scenes from daily life. Ragamala miniature paintings illustrate gods and commoners in situations that manage to complement and heighten the musical experience.

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By Melissa D’Mello

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