Art and music, in harmony

Ragas and Rajas’ at the Art Museum

3 minute read
'A Woman Worshipping Brahma' (c. 1650): More enjoyable with music.
'A Woman Worshipping Brahma' (c. 1650): More enjoyable with music.
Life and art should be inseparable, the philosopher John Dewey believed. If we in the 21st Century wonder how to get more art (and music) into our lives, we need look no farther than the Art Museum, where "Ragas and Rajas: Musical Imagery of Courtly India" portrays a culture that practiced Dewey's ideas long before he was born.

The Art Museum's exhibition combines the visual delight of paintings of an imaginative bygone world populated by deities, rajas, wives, village women, lovers, musicians, warriors, and dancers with musical ragas. The ragas— musical "patterns" that associate with particular emotions, hours of a day, seasons, celebrations, happenings, and Hindu gods— are played in the exhibition room while the viewer looks and listens. The experience is an incomparable pleasure.

Music played an integral role in the lives of India's rajas, who ruled the country for centuries. It was played at festivals, to announce the arrival of armies, at births and marriages and during worship. It was believed that when a deity played music, the deity was the music. Talk about art and life being one!

Capturing moods

Indian poets and painters alike have sought to evoke the moods of ragas in both verse and image (much as say, Wassily Kandinsky in our own culture sought to paint the emotions he felt when listening to certain music). Paintings, poetry and ragas called ragamalas—i.e., "garlands of ragas"— would be compiled in a set form for royal patrons. These were immensely popular among the courtly class in 17th- to 19th-Century India. Standard ragas could be depicted using a relatively codified set of images, but with variations rendered by various artists in various workshops for various patrons.

The paintings on exhibition are jewel-like, which is characteristic of Indian courtly painting. The colors are vibrant, intense and opaque, handling space as arrangements of flat geometric planes.

These images are meticulously painted, with an exquisite richness of flora and fauna and a vibrancy of colors in clothing and bodies (one of the gods is blue!), all tightly held within delicate lines. Their subject matter range from women performing religious rituals to couples seated together in the morning or by candlelight.

Women at prayer

The music when I attended was performed by the Darbani Ensemble, with Allyn Miner (a senior lecturer in South Asian Studies at Penn) on sitar, Sameer Chattergee on tabla, Ramesh Misra on sanrangi, and Steve Gorn on bansuri.

The particular raga that was playing during my visit was associated with a painting of women offering prayers in the Temple of Shiva. The music specifically relates to the activities of women in the early mornings of autumn, evoking feelings of serenity and devotion.

I found the music aided my enjoyment of the detail of the visual images. This is no surprise: It's precisely what the marriage of the aural and the visual in Indian art is intended to do.♦

To read a response, click here.

What, When, Where

"Ragas and Rajas: Musical Imagery of Courtly India." Through February 28, 2010 at Philadelphia Museum of Art, Benj. Franklin Parkway at 26th St. (215) 763-8100 or

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