Ragamala – Poetry, Painting and Music

Contemporary rendering of ragamala paintings along with the traditional versions in Mughal and Rajput style.


In music literature from the 14th century onwards, ragas and raginis are frequently desribed in a short Sanskrit verse where they are personified as a particular deity or as a hero and heroine in various traditional love scenes. Later these raga ragini images were portrayed in a series of paintings known as ragamalas. As H.J.Stoke puts it – “Poetry, painting and music were thus brought into a new relationship”.
Source: The Raga Guide: Survey of 74 Hindustani Ragas Box set


Ragamalas were not made to hang on a wall; they are tactile objects for private consumption. Each set of thirty or forty loose pages were sometimes bound or left as a set and stored on a shelf. At special events they would have been passed round fellow connoisseurs after shared food and music.
Source: What is Ragamala? By LIZZIE WATSON


These ragamalas were also painted as murals in the private quarters of palaces, though few of these have survived.
Source: The metropolitan museum of art.


What does Huckleberry Finn have in common with Mṛcchakaṭikam?

utsav still

Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn begins with an explanatory preface –

In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods South-Western dialect; the ordinary “Pike-County” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last…
I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.

With it’s earthy vernacular it was a book that served as a Declaration of Independence from the genteel English novel tradition [1].

Most classical literature of India was composed in Sanskrit, a language that was tied down by rules of grammar. However, drama is one genre which adopted a multilingual composition using both Sanskrit and the many Prākṛits – the languages of the people. The surveys by K.R. Chandra and T.N.Dave show that

50% of the text of Sanskrit dramas appears in different Prākṛits. The Mṛcchakaṭikam has the maximum number of Prākṛits, about 15, spoken by about 32 characters.

The theory of drama as laid down in the Nāṭyaśāstra prescribes the use of Sanskrit by characters belonging to noble class and educated persons. Different Prākṛits are assigned to different characters. For instance, queens, harlots, heroines and their friends speak Śaurasenī, the servants in the harem, eunuchs, chamberlains etc. speak Māgadhī, Vidūṣaka, the buffoon or jester speaks Prācyā or Avantī, while Ardhamāgadhī is assigned to merchants etc [2].

Viradhagupta, a secret agent to Minister Rakshasa in the play Mudrarakshasa, speaks prakrit in public, but switches to sanskrit when speaking to himself or in private conversation with the Minister. We will learn more about the adventures of Viradhagupta in The case book of Royal Agent Veeru.

Women, even of the noble class, speak Śaurasenī (the predecessor of Hindi), such as the character of Draupadi in the Mahabharata based play Venisamhara.

A notable exception is the courtesan Vasantasena in Mṛcchakaṭikam (portrayed by Rekha in the movie adaptation Utsav) who speaks impeccable Sanskrit. When speaking to Maitreya, a poor Brahmin friend of Charudutt, as if intentionally she demonstrates her command of the language against the much less refined Sanskrit of Maitreya, who does not approve of her relationship with Charudutt.

The use of vernacular in Sanskrit drama may or may not have been an accurate reflection of social reality, but it was certainly a literary device very effectively used by the playwrights.

1. Teaching Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Shelley Fisher Fishkin
2. Language of Sanskrit Drama – Saroja Bhate
3. Two plays of ancient India: The little clay cart, The minister’s seal – J. A. B. van Buitenen (1968).