India in Miniature: Paintings from the Loeb

Selected from Matthew Vassar’s founding gifts and later alumnae donations, this exhibition presents a microcosm of miniature painting from India. Miniatures, produced as individual folios or bound together in albums, are small-scale opaque watercolors often embellished with gold or paired with calligraphy. Among Vassar’s collection are popular compositions in a rich spectrum of colors, patterns, and types. 

Between the late sixteenth and late nineteenth centuries, the period during which this art form flourished, a panoply of imperial, regional, and colonial states rose and fell across North India. In this dynamic context, artists and connoisseurs moved from court to court. Their production and exchange of images made a vast array of artistic, literary, religious, and political references legible across time and space. Invigorated and inspired by these contacts, local idioms flourished. 

Dutch botanicals, Sino-Persian clouds, Indian war elephants, Judeo-Christian angels, Rajput princes, European linear perspective, Central Asian mounted archers, British colonials, and Hindu yogis mingle in these scenes. Some of Vassar’s paintings come from imperial centers like Delhi, Agra, or Lahore; most originated in the semi-independent kingdoms of the Punjab hills, Malwa plateau, or Rajasthan. Amidst this considerable diversity, all celebrate the wonders of creation and immanence of the divine; the virtues of self-control; and the joys of connoisseurship and courtly life. 

Beyond the finished picture, this exhibition also includes a template, unfinished works, and a page of exploratory sketches that reveal the working methods of artists creating the miniatures. Stock scenes met popular demand for established iconography and ideally proportioned figures. Paintings of gods and kings were more than mere illustrations: correctly depicted, they were powerful talismans. Ragamala paintings, too, used standardized iconography to help viewers physically experience the essential moods of the musical modes they evoked. Talented artists nevertheless found plenty of scope to innovate, packing their paintings with unexpected allusions and layered meanings that challenged and delighted connoisseurs.  

Organized by the Loeb with Julie E. Hughes, Assistant Professor of History. Thanks to Marika Sardar; Divya Cherian; Hamid Reza Ghelichkhani; Lars Odland '17; and Irfan Badruddin '20. This exhibition was held in the Focus Gallery in spring 2017.

Ragas & Ragamalas

A raga is a musical mode distinguished by which notes are included and which avoided, and by how musicians move up and down the scale. Each has its appropriate hour, season, or occasion. Paraphrasing Brhaddesi (the circa fifth- to seventh-century Sanskrit musical treatise attributed to Matanga), sound and setting combine to “color the hearts” of connoisseurs with the essential mood of a raga. According to the expanded classification system developed in the sixteenth century by Mesakarna, a Hindu priest from Rewa, there are six “parent” ragas and their relations, or subordinate modes named for family members. These include not only the five “wives” (raginis), but also eight “sons”(ragaputras). 

A ragamala (garland of ragas) painting is a visual representation of a musical mode using standardized iconography. These subjects found great popularity in fine art. Painters restricted their subjects to six ragas, with five raginis apiece. While musical modes predate their visual depiction by at least a millennium, all known paintings of ragamala series, including Vassar’s, date to the sixteenth century or later.

Above: Video of Nikhil Banerjee playing one of the ragas personified in the 'ragamala' series of paintings below titled "Sri Raga, Lord and Lady Listening to Musicians, from a Ragamala series", ca. 1820 (top row, second from left).

Preparatory Materials from Vassar College Libraries, Special Collections

A majority of the below sketches were gifted by Ruth Lamb Atkinson to the Vassar College Libraries, Special Collections.