An ongoing workshop organised by Lalit Kala Akademi has traditional and contemporary artists giving a new take on the traditional ragamala paintings

Parikshit Sharma is engrossed in the creation of a painting on Ragini Devgandhari. He borrows the pictorial representation from a writer Kshem Karan, who describes the Ragini as a dark complexioned woman and then borrows a different element from the description of another ragini (which is ‘worshipping shiva-linga with an oil lamp’). Seated next to him on the floor is Balwinder Kangri, another Pahari artist, who is rendering Ragini Triveni, in Kangra miniature tradition. In the Ragamala tradition with six male ragas, around 36 raginis (each raga has five or six wives), and 48 sons, Ragini Triveni, has never been painted, Balwinder informs us.

But he has taken the novel initiative. “In my work, Triveni has been portrayed as three nayikas or heroines of shringara (love), bhakti (devotion) and karuna (compassion). I had taken the script of the raga from the musician who had come to perform during the inauguration of the programme. I have taken the symbols from the description of the raga they gave me, so it’s all very symbolic,” says Balwinder.

Parikshit, Balwinder and many more such artists at the ongoing Ragamala workshop in Lalit Kala Akademi (LKA) are pushing the frontiers to evolve a new idiom — a contemporary take on the traditional Ragamala painting, which is a poetic and visual depiction of Indian ragas. Ragas are treated as a family with ragas, their wives raginis and their sons raga putras. On the occasion of its 59 Foundation Day, LKA, the National Academy of Indian Art in association with Dhrupad Kendra of Ustad Alauddin Khan Akademi, Bhopal, has organised a week long celebration ‘Ragas on Canvas’ which includes exhibitions, concerts and workshops on ragas in painting.

On the one hand Balwinder innovates with content but on the other, he sticks to the traditional execution. “I was doing oils before 2008 but when I realised that the miniature tradition is slowly vanishing, I took to it because I just want to follow the traditional style,” says the artist, whose eight works also hang in the large collection of paintings which cover the galleries at LKA.

“This bifurcation of painting, music and literature is a very western idea which doesn’t exist in our culture because all three are inter-related and Ragamala is a fine example of that. In this workshop we have invited both traditional and contemporary artists with the objective of fostering an exchange and also creating awareness about the miniature tradition,” says Gayatri Tandon, Programme Officer, LKA. Just like the spread in the galleries, which have traditional Ragamala paintings along with very contemporary interpretations of the concept by Om Prakash Sharma, Prafulla Dahanukar, Satyabhama Majhi, Nikhil Bansal, Ritu Gupta and Jayshree Patankar, the workshop has artists exploring the idea on another level.

Artist Babita Biswas, who is known for her rendition of Geeta Govinda in Warli Folk Art, is interpreting Raga Vasant in Warli on a big canvas. “Warli is monochromatic so you can’t depict the emotions, which is why I have introduced colour to Warli. The whole atmosphere will evoke the feeling of romance as Vasant is about romance. There will be two raginis as well portrayed gathering flowers and stringing a garland. The workshop will help raising awareness about the traditional art form which right now fetches very little price in the domestic market which is why most of my work sells abroad,” explains Babita.

In the same hall, Rajasthani miniature artist Vijay Verma is busy with his work on Ragini Kakubh. Being executed in a traditional Boondi style, he depicts a woman, mesmerised and playing with birds in a garden. “Long slender fingers and round faces are the speciality of Boondi tradition and their colour scheme as well,” says Vijay, who is using, in accordance with the tradition, colours made of stones like neela for blue, pevdi for yellow, sohapankhi for green, khadiya for white. “These are very expensive stones and each painting takes about 10-15 days to finish but people don’t understand it and consider even Rs.15,000 a high price. The demand for such work has really come down and such platforms give us some recognition and encouragement to the tradition, it so much needs,” feels Vijay, who is experimenting with the size of the work.

In the same group are Rajesh Kumar Kumawat and Bhawar Lal Kumawat, miniature art practitioners for decades. While Rajesh is experimenting with colour scheme in his rendition of Megh Malhar in Boondi tradition, Bhawar Lal says the way he has applied colour to his Raga Kedar Kadambari is different. “The final painting will appear slightly different from how it is traditionally done. We have all been told to experiment and make some changes on our own so we are doing it,” says Bhawar Lal Kumawat.

(The workshop and the exhibition ‘Ragas on canvas’ is on at Lalit Kala Akademi, Mandi House, till August 9 and August 11, respectively)