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detail from Akhairaj with Courtiers and Musicians in a Garden


North Indian Classical Music: Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, mohan vina; Subhen Chatterjee, tabla

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Music features prominently in Indian art, ranging from religious iconography and depictions of court life to scenes of romantic love and visual representations of musical moods.

Several Hindu deities are closely associated with music. The god Shiva is revered as the essence of sound and the deity who brought music to the world. A South Indian bronze sculpture from the tenth century depicts the god Shiva with his left leg raised in a dance posture. In his upper left hand, Shiva holds a damaru (waisted drum) on which he beats the world into existence.  In another bronze from the tenth century, Shiva is depicted with his two front hands poised to hold a (now missing) vina, a stringed instrument still played today.

The vina almost always appears in the hands of the deity Saraswati, symbolizing her role as the goddess of art and knowledge. Saraswati is depicted to the right of her husband Vishnu in a twelfth-century stone sculpture from the Bengal region and in a thirteenth-century bronze sculpture from Orissa.

Depictions of music in Indian art are by no means restricted to religious contexts. Paintings from north Indian courts produced between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries often depict musical entertainments. A painting made for the Mughal court depicts female musicians serenading princesses in the zenana (women’s section) of a palace. A painting for a Hindu nobleman from the kingdom of Marwar (in northwest India) depicts a musical entertainment, which also takes place in an outdoor setting; the musicians probably are serenading the nobleman with Maand music, a form of semi-classical music from the Marwar region that was patronized by the nobility.

Some of the most fascinating musical images are the Ragamala paintings intended to represent the moods of the musical modes after which they are named. In Indian classical music, each melodic mode, or raga (with its associated scale, motifs, emphasized notes, and other qualities), is designed to evoke a specific mood, or rasa. Each raga is also meant to be heard at a particular time of the day or season of the year. Ragamala paintings depict these musical modes—both male ragas and female raginis—and have been called “visual music.” The galleries’ collections include examples from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries. Most do not depict musical instruments, although some do.  Kedar Ragini evokes a mood of shanta or quiet and calm and is meant to be performed at night in the winter; it is represented by an ascetic playing the vina. The seated musician of Shri Raga plays a romantic composition on the vina (accompanied by a musican with hand cymbals) for the enthroned king. (To see more Ragamala images, search Collections Online using the term “raga.”)

As our Collections Online section continues to grow, use search terms such as vina, raga, Shiva, and Saraswati to find additional objects related to music.

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