Ancient Indian art fills WCMA with delicate emotion

The 16 paintings featured in WCMA’s ‘Ragamala’ exhibit tap into daily court life in India in the 15th to 19th centuries. Photo courtesy of WCMA
The 16 paintings featured in WCMA’s ‘Ragamala’ exhibit tap into daily court life in India in the 15th to 19th centuries. Photo courtesy of WCMA

Musical Garlands: Ragamala inhabits Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) with an unassuming yet awe-inspiring soulfulness. Transporting viewers to the world of 15th to 19th century India, the exhibit fills two intimate rooms with the tradition of “Ragamala.” According to the wall text, “Ragamala represents a dynamic intermingling of music, poetry and painting in India.” The Sanskrit derivation of the word literally means “garland of ragas,” ragas being improvised narrative musical compositions. Artists took these musical compositions and transformed them into small series of paintings (usually six). WCMA is displaying 16 of these paintings, imbuing the lower gallery with delicate emotion.

The show was orchestrated by Elizabeth E. Gallerani, curator of Mellon academic programs. Describing the history of her occupation with Ragamala, Gallerani said, “This is a show I’ve been working on since about spring 2008. The substitute for Chair and Professor of Music Anthony Sheppard’s class on the music of Asia asked for some Ragamala paintings. I had never heard of them before but it turned into a kind of summer research program for me. Just a part of a more general quest to help make WCMA a hub for teaching and learning.” She continued to say that, for her, the exhibition “is this really rich intermingling of music, poetry and painting going back centuries.” Indeed, upon entering the first room of the exhibition, the viewer is captured by a video of sitar master Ravi Shankar giving a live performance in London. The video provides a seamless transition into the art-viewing, immersing the viewer at once in the sensory mood of the exhibit. Immediately next to it and on the wall opposite are the featured artworks. The works, of minuscule dimensions, depict specific narrative action in rich, jewel-like hues embossed with decadent metallic accents. Above them are written relevant Sanskrit poetic inscriptions, fostering the union of arts that is so integral to this exhibition. Above the first work, “Behag Ragini,” are the words “At ease and in silence, her body twisted like the creeper, arms up-stretched and rolling eyes such shall be Desa-Varari, the fair one.” Moving through the interconnected works and poetry, Shankar’s music continues to fill the exhibit, providing a suitably melodious and moving soundtrack to the viewing experience. In fact, Nancy Gwozdz, who works for Security and Visitors Services at WCMA, commented that “If I were to use one word to describe this exhibition it would be ‘moving.’ It is a beautiful show.”

The second room affects a kind of crescendo in the viewing experience. The room is octagonally shaped with three free-standing panels in the center, forming a maze-like and serene, if not temple-like, effect. The situational harmony of the room is accented by the set-up of the exhibition, as designed by Hideyo Okamura, manager of exhibition design and planning. The works are backed by rectangular backgrounds of solid primary colors, serving to group related works together. As Gallerani said, “Especially for audiences who haven’t seen any Indian art, let alone the specific genre of Ragamala, the rectangles make it easier to navigate. There are four sub-groups and the color delineates them.” The most striking of these sub-groups sits against the back wall and is backed by an unapologetically bright yellow, complementing the similar palette of the paintings. The three works are dated to around 1750-75 in the Deccan, a region in central India. The middle painting connects to the song Hindol Raga playing in the background. Hindol translates as “swing,” an appropriate indicator of the softly undulating melody wafting through the room. Portraying scenes of court life at the time – a wedding, prayer, rest – these works are typical of the content of Ragamala. The trio is a perfect embodiment of the union of poetry, music and art that is Ragamala. Gallerani comments that “The personifications within Raga music were so enticing to poets and the paintings act as a physical bridge between the two arts. Two in the exhibit actually have poetry written on them.”

The exhibition is indeed a mesmerizing embrace of the arts and of an ancient culture. Delicate yet powerful, I highly recommend that you view it prior to its closure on Jan. 4.