Description & Technical information

A charming rendition of Bhairavi Ragini, depicting a maiden kneeling before a simply decorated lingam shrine resting on a marble platform dedicated to the god Shiva, also known as Bhairava, in a terrace during the early hours of the morning with her attendants. The painting is set within stunning gold arabesque margins and border. According to some, Bhairavi is a manifestation of Parvati, the wife of the god Shiva. The raag Bhairava and Bhairavi ragini are traditionally performed in the morning and can be associated with certain devotional songs. The music from this raag is considered peaceful, soulful and devotional. All these themes are reflected in the imagery in this painting, as discussed below. Extraordinary attention to detail has been lavished on the trees in the background and the flower beds in the foreground. 

The maiden is adorned with pearl, gold and gemstone jewels across her bare chest, wrists and head, and is wrapped in a simple yellow sari with a red and gold chevron border. The jewellery indicates her high status along with hermultiple female companions. Her hands are seen folded in prayer to the black marble ­lingam set in a white marble yoni. In front of her lie a bowl of flowers, a bottle, a saucer and an incense burner, all accoutrements of ritual worship. Bhairavi’s handmaidens are well dressed and can be seen holding sweet offerings for the icon, and a haar or maala of white flowers; they are clearly dressed differently from Bhairavi. Her clothes symbolise both her piety and the fact that she is the main subject in this painting, separating her from the handmaidens. As a manifestation of Parvati, she is serene, beautiful and distinct from them, and it is only she who is depicted having a clear relationship to and interaction with the lingam. The painting clearly captures the devotion, the tranquillity of the early hours of the morning on the candlelit terrace and a world just waking up, a morning yet undisturbed.  “It blurs the boundaries between romance—as experienced by the ideal lovers Shiva and Parvati—and piety toward the divine.”[i]

A painting by Fateh Chand c. 1735 in the Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum in Jaipur has an almost identical composition (see Randhawa and Galbraith 1968, p.10). 
The figures in the present painting bear similarities to those in the ragamala painting in the Victoria and Albert Museum (IS.42-1996), signed by Fateh Chand. This painting and the ragamala illustration in the Victoria & Albert Museum have identical gold arabesque margins. Bhairavi ragini paintings in varying styles and degrees of quality can be found in addition to the Victoria and Albert Museum, in the British Museum (1920,0917,0.12.29; 1973,0917,0.3), the Metropolitan Museum (58.1.1), the Harvard Art Museum (1972.358) and the Yale University Art Museum (1939.546), to name but a few.

On the reverse of the painting is a Persian quatrain in nastaliq set in a gold background with floral decorative work and within blue and orange margins with floral scrollwork in gold.

The Persian quatrain reads:
ای نسخه نامه الهی که تویی
وی آینه جمال شاهی که تویی
بیرون ز تو نیست هر چه در عالم هست
در خود بطلب هر آنچه خواهی که تویی

‘O you who are the transcription of God's scripture
And the mirror of his majestic beauty,
Whatever exists in the world is not outside of you.
Seek in yourself anything you want, for you are that.’

(Translation by Reza Saberi, A Thousand Years of Persian Rubáiyát: An Anthology of Quatrains from the Tenth to the Twentieth Century along with the Original Persian, Ibex Publishers, Bethesda, 2000, p. 214).

The quatrain is attributed variously to Majd al-Din Baghdadi (d. 1211) (see ibid. and Jamal Khalil Shirvani, Nuzhat al-majalis, ed. M.A. Riyahi, Maharat Publishers, Tehran, 1375/1996, no. 1, p. 141) and Jalal al-Din Rumi (Jalal al-Din Rumi, Kulliyat-i Shams ya Divan-i kabir, ed. Badi’ al-Zaman Foruzanfar, vol. 8, 4th edition, Amir Kabir,Tehran, 1378/2000, no. 1921, p. 323). 

Below the quatrain, a signature:

ذره بی مقدار نور الله

‘The worthless speck, Nurullah’

Ghulam Muhammad Dihlawi Haft-Qalami reports in his biography of Indian calligraphers, Tadhkira-yi Khushnawisan, that Hafiz Nurullah was a calligrapher unmatched in the style developed by ‘Abd al-Rashid Daylami. The author in fact met him in the calligrapher’s house in Lucknow during the reign of Nawab Asaf ud-Dawla (1775-1797) and was deeply impressed by his humility and the purity of his character as well as by his calligraphic mastery. Nurullah showed him a copy of the Haftband of Mulla Hasan Kashi that he was copying from the hand of ‘Abd al-Rashid for Asaf ud-Dawla. About it, Ghulam Muhammad reports:

“What should I say? He had wrought in it such calligraphic magic – it was a garden and a springtime, the sight of which the viewer could never be sated of.’


Stock no.: A5497

Date:  circa 1760-70
Period:  18th century
Origin:  Provincial Mughal, possibly Awadh, India
Medium: Gouache heightened with gold on paper
Dimensions: 18.4 x 12.7 cm (7¹/₄ x 5 inches)
Provenance: From the collection of Betsy Salinger

Categories: Paintings, Drawings & Prints