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Ragas and Rajas: Musical Imagery of Courtly India

July 11, 2009–February 28, 2010

In India, music played a central role in the lives of rulers (rajas) and their retinues, as the visual arts reveal. Depictions of royal assemblies invariably include musicians, as do scenes of festivals and celebrations for birth or marriage. Images of battle show the drums and horns that rallied troops and announced the arrival of the raja's army. Music is also central to the worship, identities, and stories of supreme royalty—the Hindu gods. In the temple, considered the palace of the divine, worship often includes sacred songs, chants, bell-ringing, and instrumental performances. In narrative illustrations such as the delightful painting The Gods Sing and Dance for Shiva and Parvati, the entertainment of the divine court echoes that of the earthly. In addition, the deities themselves may perform, and at times their music-making is inseparable from their identities. Krishna enchants devotees with his flute, Shiva accompanies himself on his two-headed drum as he dances the cosmic cycles of creation and destruction. View more objects in the exhibition >> A number of the paintings on view come from sets called ragamalas (garlands of ragas). Made exclusively for India's royal patrons, ragamalas blend music, poetry, and painting in a unique synthesis of aesthetic experiences. Artists imagined the modes of classical Indian music (ragas) as vivid scenes from an idealized world inhabited by human and divine courtiers. Depictions of the same raga might show a ruler with his zenana (harem) favorite or Krishna with Radha, his favorite among the village women. Drawing together a diverse selection of paintings and sculptures from across the subcontinent, Ragas and Rajas: Musical Imagery of Courtly India explores the confluence of sight and sound, god and king throughout a millennium of India's artistic vision.

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Yael Rice • Assistant Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art

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