The art of making love through music and canvas. Hidden in the back of the Sir Michael Ondaatje Gallery at the Royal Ontario Museum is Ragamala: Garland of Melodies, an exhibit on South Asian miniature paintings from the 16th to 19th centuries. This modest collection of paintings and musical instruments describes the unique phenomenon of illustrating love and the musical compositions of a raga.   

The Raga is a centuries-old musical composition based on structure and improvisations that evoke certain emotions, most often of love – romance, longing, celebration, separation. The Rajamala paintings translate these emotional compositions into detailed artistic renditions of song.

The original audience for these paintings tended to be female, and you can see how they are central to these works. For instance Lalita Ragini (left) is described as a devotional, morning raga. While this could be interpreted in many different ways, this painter chooses to depict a hesitant lover looking back towards his beloved against a burning orange sunrise. The painting speaks to deeper messages in the raga itself – the pain of separation and the hope of reunion.




The Madhumadhvi Ragini (far left) depicts a woman running for cover during a storm. Under a sky emblazoned with curvy lightening, the fury of the moment is tempered by the delicate portrayal of three peacocks seated in a nearby tree, one of which is lovingly caressed by the woman’s hand. These are sublime contrasts – the wavy lightening and the angular building, nature’s fury through the clouds and nature’s beauty through the flowers. Likewise the legendary fire-starting Dipaka Raga (near right) appears to depict a simple scene.  But a closer look at the intently focused eye contact between the two lovers, the swooning gaze of the attendant and the approaching storm clouds beneath a crescent moon speak to different levels of flames and desire.

Much like the nature of a Raga, because these paintings don’t desire to be note-perfect, they speak to historical musical traditions and creating a personal connection with the viewer. These artists have moved beyond the structure and form of the ragas themselves and are searching for something deeper: a way of embodying the emotion behind the music.

Described as a “confluence of music, poetry and painting” this exhibit is a must-see for lovers of Indian art and a chance to discover an art of love and romance that is hundreds of years old.

Ragamala: Garland of Music runs until November 28 at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.