Vedic Art: Indian Miniature Painting, Part 9

By editor - 10.1 2017

Lord Krishna Enthroned and Adored 
Bhairavi Raga Deccan / Rajasthan, c. 1650

A serial presentation of India's artistic legacy in paintings, sculpture and temple architecture.


The presiding deities of each Raga were first enumerated in the 12th Century Sanskrit text, Sangeeta Ratnakara. Beginning in the 14th Century short Sanskrit verses were associated with each Raga, and were later written onto manuscript illustrations. In 1570 A.D., a priest from Rewa in Central India composed the Sanskrit text, Kshemakarna, a poetic piece describing six principal Ragas: Bhairava, Malakoshika, Hindola, Dipaka, Shri, and Megha.

Ragamala illustrations became population in the 16th Century, and many examples are found from that time up to the 19th Century, by which time the images were proliferate, and artists no longer produced them. Many of the extant works of Ragamala are either from the Deccan or Rajput schools, and a lesser number from other northern and central Indian regions.

Ragamala paintings were typically produced in collections, mounted in albums in large sets. The Ragas themselves are organized into family systems, grouped by the emotional and structural content of the musical pieces. The accompanying illustrations represent the personification of the Ragas, i.e., the male Raga with five Raginis (wives) formaing a Ragamala, or 'garland of melodies'.

Prince Visits an Ascetic – Kedara Ragini 
Deccan, c. 1780

Deccan School Ragamalas

The Deccani School of Miniatures, including Ragamala illustrations span the 16th to 19th Centuries. Some of the more prominent regional painting centers were in Bijapur, Ahmadnagar, Golkonda and Hyderabad, the four states that formed the Deccan region.

Beginning with the 16th Century Deccan Ragamala illustrations, all bear a distinct Islamic footprint, whether Persian, Mughal, Iranian or Turkish. As described by the National Museum in Delhi, "This Deccani art had three distinguishable phases. The early phase evolved at the Adil Shahi court of Bijapur in the beginning of the 16th century. In 1489-90, an Iranian immigrant, Yusuf Adil Shah, a soldier rising to the height of a Shah, founded at Bijapur the Adil Shahi rule. On his invitation several Irani, Persian and Turkish painters, calligraphers and scholars came to his court. Adept in Islamic art style, these immigrating artists rendered paintings on pure Islamic themes and in a pure Islamic idiom. It was Indian art only to the extent that it was rendered on Indian soil. The art of these Islamic painters was confined to text illumination.

A number of the descendants of Yusuf Adil Shah had a great fascination for art and patronised artists. Today, except for a few illuminated copies of the Holy Quran or its Surahs and those of the legends like Anwar-i-Suheli and Yusuf-Zulekha of the period of Quli Qutab Shah, none of the works rendered under them is now available. In these early works the art of painting had a role confining to text illumination and decoration. Blue, red and pink, the chosen colours of Deccan used in strong tones, define this phase. Designing patterns have a geometric thrust and tend to be highly symmetrical. In their style and artistic merit these works mark a departure from the prior mural tradition of the Deccan and have an identity distinct from miniatures of other regions including Mughal India.

Later generations of Muslim rulers of Deccani states, Bijapur, Golkonda, Ahmadnagar and subsequently Hyderabad, had their roots in Indian soil with little of Iran, Persia or Turkey in them. Rulers like Chand Bibi turned to be highly patriotic and some of them inclined even to Indian mysticism. Besides, the artists they had were mostly local or the local descendants of earlier immigrants. Thus, the Islamic idiom was yet the same but the earlier extraneous elements had been largely replaced by the indigenous."

Malkos Ragamala 
Hyderabad, Deccan, 18th c.


Because of the inherent Vedic spirit of the Ragas, the Deccani Ragamala paintings fortunately carry more Indian, and less Islamic style. Later, after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707, many of the Mughal artists who were no longer getting support from the diminished court migrated to Hyderabad, and began painting images the local Indian populated found more favourable, including Vaisnava images. But even these bear an unmistakable Mughal style.

"Tall, fair complexioned and emotionally charged males and sensuous looking females populate the human world of Deccani art. They are endowed with lovely faces, large wide open eyes, bold features, broad foreheads, high necks, triangularly slanting waists and neatly carved figures, each one characterised by excitement, vigour, moods, sentiments and dramatic intensity infused into its being. Elegantly coloured costumes usually consisting of beautifully embroidered white muslin coats and a few fine pieces of jewellery adorn them. The harmoniously manipulated colours in a Deccani miniature not only reveal various forms but also various moods.

Geometry plays a significant role in the symmetrical arrangement of various parts in a Deccani miniature. Human figures, architectural structures, trees, shrubs, flowers, leaves, bolsters, cushions, folds of garments and even different body parts of a figure have a measured placing creating an unnoticed but accurate symmetrical balance. The building structures are usually tall and neatly drawn. These miniatures are endowed with perspectives of depth and distance and have hence a multi-dimensional effect, obviously the elements of Persian and European renaissance. This magnifies the small canvas of a Deccani miniature to look larger than its actual size and illuminates landscape and background which otherwise consist of typical local hills and fruit laden mango and palmyra trees with squirrels and parrots on them."



Sources: Excerpted and paraphrased from: 
National Museum. New Delhi 
Smithsonian Freer Sackler Gallery 
The British Museum