Drawing together a diverse range of paintings and sculptures from across the subcontinent, Ragas and Rajas: Musical Imagery of Courtly India explores the confluence of sight and sound, king and god throughout a millennium of artistic vision in India. The exhibition will be on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
through November 18.
As the visual arts of India reveal, music played a central role in the lives of rajas (rulers) and their retinues. Depictions of royal assemblies invariably include musicians, as do scenes of festivals and celebrations for birth or marriage. Drums and horns rallied troops and announced the arrival of the rajas army, as shown in paintings from across the region. Music was (and is still today) central to the worship, identities, and stories of supreme royaltythe Hindu gods. In the idyllic miniature painting The Gods Sing and Dance for Shiva and Parvati (1780-1790), the entertainment of the divine court echoes that of the earthly. For some deities, music-making is inseparable from their identities: Krishna enchants devotees with his flute; Shiva plays his two-headed drum as he dances the cosmic cycles of creation and destruction.
The human and the divine really overlap in the visual arts of India, said exhibition organizer Yael Rice, Assistant Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art. For both rajas and gods, musical performance is portrayed as a source not only of pleasure, but also of earthly and heavenly power.
Artists also imagined the modes of classical Indian music (ragas) as vivid scenes from an idealized world inhabited by human and divine courtiers. These images were paired with poetry and organized into sets called ragamalas (garlands of ragas). Made exclusively for Indias royal patrons, ragamalas blend music, poetry, and painting in a unique synthesis of aesthetic experiences.