Magazine Home  |  News  |  Features  |  Reviews  |  Books  |  People  |  Horoscope  
    Ragas and Raginis
by Tessa Laird
Vasanta Ragini, Second Wife of Dipak Raga
ca. 1675-1700
Malasri Ragini, Third Wife of Bhairava Raga
Sorathi Ragini, Wife of Megha Mallar Raga
"The Three Graces," Apr. 8-Dec. 6, 1999, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, Ca. 90036.

"The Three Graces" in this exhibition of Indian miniatures are not, of course, the muses of Greek antiquity. The title refers instead to the way that music, poetry and painting came together in the Raga, a classical Indian art form of unique musical scales. The exhibition consists of 51 paintings and two sculptures from the museum's collection, and concentrates on the concept of the "Raga" as it was interpreted in classical Indian painting.

Most Westerners would envisage a Raga as something Ravi Shankar plays on the sitar, and they would be partly right. In courtly India, the period from the 16th to the 19th century, Ragas evolved into a complex, tripartite art form. While the musical Ragas themselves had ancient origins, they had been personified in poetry since the second century AD. At the time when Indian miniature painting was at its peak, these musical Ragas with poetic accompaniments came to be represented in paint.

In short, the courtly Indian artist imagined that each musical melody was a semi-divine man, and that as the music developed and changed, so too this 'man' made his passage through life. Each episode of the Raga gentleman's life, then, was exquisitely portrayed in paint, to be meditated upon both by the court and the courtly musicians. Such a conceit is delightful, but becomes giddying when one takes into account that each Raga has five wives, or "Raginis," personifications of further variations to the music, who also have their own tales illustrated in paint. And then there are the sons and daughters of Ragas and Raginis, and so on and so forth.

Each Raga is composed for specific times of day and year. To ensure that each detail has been observed correctly, musicians examine both the poetry and paintings to help them interpret the Ragas with the right moods and tones. Likewise, the painters turned to the poetry to inspire their works, in a kind of artistic symbiosis.

The unfurling of these complex tales reminds me of George Harrison wisely packing up his sitar after realizing that the more he learned, the less he knew. Added to the intricacies of the stories themselves are further variations based on geographic style, Rajput versus Mughal traits, and, of course, the shifting mores of the times.

For instance, one watercolor appears to be a straightforward representation of Krishna, who is recognizable by his blue skin and peacock-feather crown, dancing with gopis, or milkmaids. But the work is titled Vasanta Ragini, Second Wife of Dipak Raga (ca. 1675). It turns out that an anecdote from Krishna's life has been used as an allegorical illustration in the complex unfolding of the Dipak Raga. This painting characterizes Rajasthani style with its bold, poster-like use of color, especially red and yellow, and large figures that fill the frame (unlike the delicate proportions and pastel shades of the more Persian influenced Mughals). In this painting, scarlet, turquoise, lime and cobalt jostle like a Fauvist's fantasy, creating a vibration, almost a "third hue in the mind," as Matisse once quipped in reference to his own goal in juxtaposing violently clashing colors.

A folksier, earlier painting from Rajasthan, Malasri Ragini, Third Wife of Bhairava Raga (ca. 1605), represents an interior scene in a style so flat and angular that it almost seems Egyptian. A palm tree and a cartoon-cute deer romping in the foreground set the scene. The heroine, attended by maids, is playing the time-honored game of "he loves me, he loves me not" with a lotus flower. Attributed to Nisaruddin (one of the few named artists as most of these miniatures were the work of factory-style collectives), the work features figures sketched in thick red brushstrokes, in contrast to the extremely delicate black outlines of Persian-inspired paintings.

Sorathi Ragini, Wife of Megha Mallar Raga, painted in Hyderabad (ca. 1750), owes more to Mohammedan grace and less to native Indian vibrancy. The heroine is depicted alone in the wilderness with her vina, a stringed instrument that uses two gourds as resonance chambers. With an almost strident use of gold leaf (a Persian trait), the painting shows Sorathi Ragini standing among golden peacocks in a gilded sari whose flower pattern echoes the intricate field in which she stands. The lost heroine is one of the most prevalent themes in "The Three Graces," symbolizing both a yearning for earthly love and for reunification with the creator, a touching parable of "the wandering soul."

Beside Sorathi Ragini stands a tree with abruptly severed branches, as if suffering the same sense of loss as the heroine. The knots in the wood appear to be eyes -- just as the peacocks have eyes in their tails -- so the act of seeing reverberates around this tiny picture and bounces back to the viewer. The Hindu concept of darshan, to see and be seen by the deity, is expressed both allegorically in the work and ontologically in the artists' practice, which involves a sophisticated notion of self-awareness through representation. These miniatures are as much aids to spiritual awakening as they are pretty pictures. Like seeds, they belie their tiny size with the limitless potential of their contents.

TESSA LAIRD writes on art from Los Angeles.