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Ragamala Paintings from India - Dulwich Picture Gallery

  • Do you want to see some exquisite paintings with extraordinary and imaginative colours? Then this is the exhibition you should go to.


    I remember a gallerist saying to me, “How can you be imaginative with colour,” well this is the answer. It’s especially interesting to see these consistently imaginative Indian miniature paintings in the the Dulwich picture gallery, as you can see them in the context of the colours used consistently in Western Art.


    It kept striking me throughout the show that Western paintings, say Poussin for example who is well represented at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, seem to constantly use orange and green and yellow against more earthy colours - while the Indian paintings were consistently inventive.


    Take Bhairavi Ragini of Bhairava Raga, (Hyderabad, c1760) where there are lovely greys and whites with subtle red-pinks and yellows. It reminds me of paintings in the National Gallery, or here in Dulwich Picture Gallery, but I can't help feeling the colours in this Indian miniature are actually better and more subtle and more imaginative - especially when you look at the radical use of white and dark muddy greys in the background.


    Bhairavi Ragini of Bhairava Raga, Hyderabad, c1760, gouache on paper, 30.7 x 19.9 cm, Private collection


    All the miniature paintings in the show are essentially based on music - at their root is the sacred essence of the Raga, five or more musical notes upon which a melody is played. While some of them are trying to sum up melodies some seem more set on depicting daily life. Having tried in my own Distortion Form paintings to capture the sound of the band The Jesus and Mary Chain I was really intrigued to see how these paintings would try to achieve a similar effect.


    I thought the first painting in the show, Vangala Ragini of Bhairava Raga did the possibly the best out of all of them at hitting the musical communication. The image of the man just about to start singing at dawn and the strong red behind him that reminded me of Picasso's often bold use of colour seemed to really kick start my imagination into a place where the colours were creating some delicate morning melody, sung by the man intermingled with birds calling - and it all seemed to work in some minimal but deep and fulfilling spiritual fashion.


    Vangala Ragini of Bhairava Raga Rajasthan, Marwar Jodhpur

    and Jacqueline with Flowers, Picasso, 1954

    In fact many of the paintings reminded me of other works, such as Gauda Ragaputra of Shri Raga, Sub-imperial Mughal, c1610-20, where the way the trees form a pattern on the strong orange background reminded me of Matisse's Harmony in Red where he similarly creates a winding pattern against a flat background, this time in red.



    Gauda Ragaputra of Shri Raga, Sub-imperial Mughal, c1610-20, gouache on paper, 20.9 x 26.6 cm, Private collection, and Harmony in Red, Matisse, 1908.

    Also Deshavaradi Ragini of Bhairava Raga, Rajashan, Bundi, c1680, reminded me of Stuart Davis, with an almost jazzy use of red, yellow and blue.





    Deshavaradi Ragini of Bhairava Raga, Rajashan, Bundi, c1680, gouache on paper, 25.4 x 20 cm, Private collection and Stuart Davis


    There aren’t a huge amount of paintings in this show but they are pretty much all superb, and yes, they are small, in general about 20cm x 20cm, Dulwich Picture Gallery has kindly given you magnifying glasses which you can borrow which mean when you’re looking at a picture like Gauri Ragini of Shri Raga, Rajasthan, Bikaner, c1680-90, gouache on paper, 27.6 x 20 cm, you can see tiny, tiny goats nibbling leaves off trees in the painting’s background, all painted perfectly.

    Gauri Ragini of Shri Raga, Rajasthan, Bikaner, c1680-90, gouache on paper, 27.6 x 20 cm, Private collection - yes there really are tiny goats in there eating leaves!


    These paintings may be tiny - but the have a huge impact and are simple and elegant with a huge emotive power.


    by Robert Dunt, Practisiing Artist and Founder & CEO

    The exhibition, Ragamala Paintings from India: Poetry, Passion, Song runs until 27 May 2012.


    Dulwich Picture Gallery - Permanent Collection and Exhibition Opening hours: Tue-Fri 10am–5pm; weekends Bank Holiday Mondays 11am–5pm. Closed Mondays except Bank Holidays. Gallery and Exhibition £9; Seniors £8; Conc. £5. Gallery only: £5, £4 Concessions. Free entry for children and Friends of Dulwich Picture Gallery.