Rasa: Music in Indian Painting

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    Chetan Das (active mid-18th century). 'Bhairava Raga,' India (Amer, Rajasthan), dated 1746. Watercolor on paper Gift of the Christensen Fund, 2001. (10718.1)

August 01, 2013 - October 20, 2013
Honolulu Museum of Art

Exhibition Overview

Among the gems in the Honolulu Museum of Art's collection of South Asian art is a near-complete group of ragamala paintings from the Rajput state of Amer (modern Rajasthan in northwest India). Typically made in sets of 36, ragamala paintings often were dispersed over time, and it is rare to find a set preserved intact. Rajput paintings traditionally were made by anonymous court artists, and it is even more unusual that the paintings are signed by a certain Chetan Das, and dated to 1746.

The term ragamala means "garland of ragas," referring to the most fundamental mode of Indian classical music. Raga differ from contemporaneous music in Europe in that they are not fixed compositions, but rather are based on improvisation. While each raga has a set of prescribed notes, raga are far more than mere scales. Rather, they are intended to inspire particular emotional responses, or rasa (literally "flavor"), in keeping with the original meaning of raga, "to color," and by association to evoke passion.

The majority of ragamala paintings were produced in the courts of Hindu rulers, or maharaja, in northern India (particularly centered around modern Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh), representing a culture commonly known as Rajput (literally "son of a raja"). Many Rajput royal families traced their ancestry to the heroes of ancient Hindu epics, and even to Hindu deities themselves. Since raga were associated with different Hindu deities, and ragamala paintings at once combined the finest traditions of classical religion, music and art, they were an ideal subject for Rajput rulers, who went to considerable pains to present themselves as the inheritors and the embodiments of these traditions.

Ragamala paintings were an unparalleled synthesis of music, literature and the visual arts in pre-modern times, and they represent one of India's most distinctive, indeed unique, contributions to world culture.