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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Kelly

Ragamala yogini

Detail from a leaf in the ‘Impey Ragamala,’ produced in Bengal, India ca. 1760-73, currently in the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, formerly in the possession of Sir Elijah Impey (1732-1809), first chief justice of the British regime in Kolkata. (The CBL has not made it available online: my hurried photograph from Yoga: The Art of Transformation, Smithsonian Institution 2013, p 221 is slightly distorted.)

The woman at the centre of this dynamically serene painting sits on a sage’s tigerskin with her legs in gomukhāsana. Under her right arm is a yoga-daṇḍa (a short crutch to help the body stay upright for meditational or ascetic practice) and in her hand is a japa-mālā (literally a mutter-garland: a rosary for counting breaths or mantra recitations).

The woman however looks not inward but directly forward at the old man playing the vinā for her. In the background another woman (or is it the same woman in a different aspect?) sits in a doorway, also holding a japamālā, but lost in some transport or reverie, her gaze slanting upwards. A pert dog mirrors the tigerskin and listens to the music as well. The courtyard where this concert for one (or for two or three) is taking place appears to be an elegant domestic setting rather than an ashram. 

The scene is not a snapshot of social reality. Instead the woman and the painting as a whole represent a rāga or musical mode. As well as being recipes for musical improvisation rāgas are associated with seasons, times of day, moods and to some degree stories (this one is associated with erotic longing and the distress of absence). From the 16th century on rāgas were represented in paintings like this one, which played a role almost like album covers for LPs. Lines of verse that accompany the rāga and explain its emotional tone might also be written on the front or back of the paintings.

Rāgas were organised into figurative families (subcollections out of the vast pool of all those available) of six husbands as the base rāgas (standing for the six seasons of the Indian year) each with five wives (rāginīs = female rāga) and their sons and daughters (rāga-putras and rāga-putrīs), forming sets of 84 or 86. In this case it is ‘the rāginī Saindhavi, wife of Bhairon’—this is a painting of a personification in a cataloguing system, one that also puts on display the non-musical elements that belong to the mode.

Rāga-mālā, raga garland, refers both to these family sets of rāgas and to the collections of paintings like this one that were kept as loose-leaf folios of 20 or 30 rāga images. These would be brought out to enjoy at occasions of multi-sensory connoisseurship. Like album covers they spent most of their time away—which is why they are relatively well-preserved.

But why yoga? Yogic practitioners and their tools of trade appear in these paintings with great regularity. (The yoga-paṭṭa, the original yoga belt, is another item in the set.) This is odd in a way: what does yoga have to do with heartache and sensuality?

Molly Emma Aitken has an essay on Rāgamālā in Yoga: The Art of Transformation, pp. 214-222, where this painting occurs as Catalogue 18h. Aitken suggests yogins are present to make a claim about the transcendental, non-worldly call of rāgamusic. On the other hand wrestlers and acrobats are also very common...

Rāga—colour, emotion, musical mode—is the same word that lies inside vairāgyam, which is a repudiation of it—discolouring, disengagement—the word of the week from two weeks ago. Vairāgyam of course points to the strangeness of yoga and rāga coming together. (Rāga has a relative in the ancient Greek words regma: dyed cloth, and rēgeus: dyer.) 

It was Klaus Ebeling who launched the modern study of this art form in the 1970s: a collection of some 4000 of his photographs are available online from Cornell University. Another rāgamālā painting of a yogin listening to music lies inside this week’s Card: it can be viewed on its page at the New York Metropolitan Museum by clicking its thumbnail on the Card.


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