A king sitting on a woven rug surrounded by trees, the rug is on a field of yellow, the king is seated against a bolster and two birds are perched on his outstretched hand

Raja Mandhata as a musical mode, F2017.13.3

Studying Rajput Ragamala Paintings

As a graduate student in my last semester of the Art History program at George Mason University, I was one of ten students who curated an online exhibition of Indian paintings from the collections of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art. The exhibition is the result of months of collaborative work by the graduate, undergraduate, and continuing education student curators under the guidance of Dr. Robert DeCaroli, Professor and Director of the MA Program in Art History at George Mason, and Dr. Debra Diamond, Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art at the Freer and Sackler.

Students listening to a curator in front of a wall with small, matted paintings
George Mason University students viewing Ragamala paintings with curator Debra Diamond, image courtesy of Robert DeCaroli

The course began on campus with a four-week intensive study of North Indian cultural, religious, and artistic traditions to understand the context for the development of ragamala painting. Ragamala paintings were created from the mid-fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries in India to accompany classical musical modes called ragas. In fact, ragamala literally translates to “garland of ragas.” These beautifully ornamented handheld paintings were created in sets, and each painting evoked a specific mood (bhava) and emotional response (rasa), placing great importance on the viewer’s experience. These paintings were originally enjoyed in intimate settings, surrounded by food, wine, and music, within the Rajput palaces and courts of India. The online exhibition Emotion and Devotion: Ragamala Painting of India’s Princely Courts was created with this intimate viewing experience in mind.

The student curators visited the museum’s collections multiple times to view the ragamala paintings in person. We were able to study the paintings up close and meet with museum staff from various departments to learn more about the artwork, exhibition design, and digital resources at the museum. The students each selected two paintings on which to focus their research and collaborated as a group to discuss the paintings and categorize them into groups based on themes intrinsic to the ragamala tradition.

Vilaval Ragini
India, Rajasthan, Bikaner, ca. 1720
Opaque watercolor and gold on paper
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC: Purchase and partial gift from the Catherine and Ralph Benkaim Collection—funds provided by the Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, S2018.1.85.

Our viewing experience at the museum and our identification of themes determined the organization of the exhibition, and the presentation of the exhibition parallels our process of learning about ragamala painting. The exhibition begins by discussing the cultural context of the genre. From there, it moves to a deeper exploration of the central themes of emotion, love (both romantic and devotional), and the virtuosity of artists as they convey these emotions and ideas through technique and nuanced iconography.

We wanted the online exhibition to reflect our own intimate experience studying the unframed paintings in museum storage and to allow viewers to be closer to the artwork than they could be in traditional museum galleries. Emotion and Devotion encourages close-looking and provides viewers multiple ways to explore the artwork: by following the thematic narrative on the front page, or by visually exploring the paintings in the gallery view. From each of these starting points, viewers can select individual paintings, which directs them to the artwork page. This includes interpretive essays, detail views, and a high-resolution image of the painting with a deep zoom tool. These features are intended to give viewers an informed understanding of the subject matter and the mood evoked in each individual painting, as well as a better understanding of its role within the larger ragamala painting tradition.

Although this was always intended as an online exhibition, the COVID-19 pandemic made it a very timely resource for museum-lovers to explore artwork from home. This online exhibition is the first time these paintings have been publicly displayed together, and the online format gives viewers a more intimate look at the paintings than is possible in the traditional museum environment. Because of conservation concerns, works on paper are typically displayed behind glass and in low-light conditions. Although necessary for the protection and preservation of the artworks painted in opaque watercolor, viewers cannot closely observe these paintings as they were meant to been viewed in their original context.

Emotion and Devotion: Ragamala Painting of India’s Princely Courts conveys the historical context of ragamala paintings and the importance of the music that inspired them. The title refers to the importance of emotion and the practice of devotion in both the paintings’ subject matter, as well as the emotional responses evoked in the viewer. Themes of romantic love and sacred or religious love and the role of artists, artistic technique, and audiences are all explored in this online exhibit. By encouraging close-looking, the student curators hope to utilize a viewing context outside of the traditional museum environment to emphasize the importance of the original viewing practices and to share their fascination with the ragamala paintings of Rajput India.


Listen to north Indian classical ragas from past performances at the Freer and Sackler, featured in our Music podcast series:

Elizabeth Denholm

Elizabeth Denholm is a Registrar at the Delaware Art Museum. She holds an MA in Art History from George Mason University.

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