India, Madhya Pradesh, Malwa, ca. 1600
Opaque watercolor on paper
Courtesy the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1937.36
This young woman is shown desperately and achingly missing her lover; the mood demonstrated by the gesture of her arms circled around her head indicates impatience and longing. The gesture emphasizes her beauty by creating a halo around her face. A woman traditionally wore eight ornaments while waiting for her husband or lover and the woman here is no exception.
Typically, when a woman is preparing to meet her husband after a separation, she would adorn herself with at least eight ornaments. This heroine has eight bracelets, one on each major joint of her arms and legs.
Her eyes are wide open and downcast as if giving a forlorn sigh. The heat of her passion is so high that she is fanned by her confidante who tries to offer her some relief. The futility of this act is suggested by the confidante’s position outside of the room and in fact, outside of the building. This makes the reduction of the heroine’s fiery passion very unlikely
This piece, Gujari Ragini, and the Malasri Ragini are part of a set, or ragamala, acquired more than a century ago by the art historian Ananda Coomaraswamy. The set is called the “Boston Ragamala.” At some point, the painting was identified as Gujari Ragini. Gujari Raginis however, normally show a woman with a musical instrument. The imagery in this painting is more typical of Desavarati Ragini. However, divergent regional variations of ragas are not unusual. The Desavarati theme is visually indicated by a woman arching her back while raising her arms over her head. One scholar, Molly Emma Aitkens, described this posture as characterizing an “aesthetic icon of the perfectly beautiful woman.” Desavarati Ragini evokes feelings of separation, yet how could she, a beautiful woman, be so alone?
This iconic pose was intended to transmit a feeling of a self-confident but frustrated beauty complimented by a hint of vulnerability. Her eyes are wide open, oval shaped windows into her emotion. The circled arms are halo-like, drawing attention to both her beauty and her restlessness.
In the Malwa region of India, the palaces were often built with marble, which is visually similar to the white material of the palace occupied by the Ragini. The palace is in a walled garden but dark skies over the wall indicate nighttime. A wide band of white clouds at the top of the painting with curly clouds indicates the monsoon season. Since the cloud band is wide and the trees are already very green, one might assume that the monsoon season is well underway, and the young lady knows her lover is late or may not even be coming. This feeling is amplified by the presence of the confidante outside of the palace showing a greater impossibility for cooling the lady’s ardor. Significantly, the heroine was fully ornamented as if waiting for her beloved.