Nymph Limbs and Human Skins
By Shini Wang
Based on “An illustration to a Ragamala series” by Shankara Ragaputra of Megha Raga
Imagine that Nārada visits the realm of modern India after a history’s worth of art and texts packed with light-skinned kings, poets, and deities; after fair-skinned colonialist rulers have monopolized the image of success, wealth, education, and beauty. It’s not just deities now, but Bollywood stars. Nārada watches the television commercials jabbering on about how doing laser treatment, chemical peeling, and skin-bleaching is the quickest way to dress the part of success. I have a feeling Nārada is getting quite sick of the warped tune that’s been playing on and on for two centuries.
O.C. Gangoly, a scholar of Indian music and art, tells the tale of Nārada, a mythic interpreter of Indian music, when explaining the raga. After many practices of raga melodies, Nārada was taken to the celestial realm to face the result of his clumsy performances: the mangled, broken limbs of the poor nymphs. Ragas are melodies whose aural forms are analogous to the bodies of Hindu deities and nymphs. A raga played incorrectly physically hurts the connected deities. These melodies convey a specific mood and are recorded in a ragamala,—this literally translates into “garland of moods”. The ragamala is a collection of paintings that depict the raga melodies along with music score.
Ragamalas are examples of how spiritual and traditional art represents and perpetuates beliefs and biases within a society and culture. In ragamalas, rarely is any skin tone other than light skin illustrated on deities and characters from folk tales. In art, the nature in which the human body is represented can be overwhelming. Nevertheless, far from static, every culture’s standard of beauty oscillates differently as hierarchies form, crumble, and reconstruct.
Recounting the history of India, the powerful deities of Hinduism were said to have been revealed to the prophets of the nomadic, light-skinned Aryan tribe which spread into India upon where dark-skinned indigenous people inhabited. However, the elevation of light skin and the degradation of dark skin came later. In Hindu ancient texts, Krishna is a dark-skinned hero whose name literally translates from Sanskrit into “black” (Mishra). Not only were there instances of dark-skinned heroes, but also dark-skinned poets and intellectuals. After outside influences such as the Mughal, Portuguese, and British occupied and ruled over India, these representations of dark skin faded into history, while fair skin triumphed.
Moving forward from colonialism, art has a role in leading change. Indian raga illustrations may have a legacy of colorism, but the act of creating art is indiscriminate. Artists, writers, and creators today can generate a new culture of expressing love and care for our own bodies for others to live in.
Not only in Indian culture but throughout all religions and cultures, the body acts as a dominating motif and symbol for spirituality. The body has been a central theme from the very beginning of Christianity when Adam and Eve realize their nudity after being banished from the Garden of Eden. Even today, this scripture maintains a standard of modesty in how Christians dress. In Daoism, inner deities, spirits, and elements of nature dwell in the liver, lungs, kidneys, spleen, and heart. This encourages a holistic view of the body among Daoists. In Sikhism, the hair remains uncut as a sacred sign of devotion for God’s natural creations. These practices are not only spread through text and speech but through representation which creates a more subliminal effect on the perceptions and treatment of our own bodies. A painting from the Shankara Ragaputra book is a good example of this.
To elaborate on the mood element of the raga, the mood always has incredible exactitude—for example, the feeling of the last bloom before Winter. The raga illustration which influences our makeup look depicts Hindu deities that are as vividly and colorfully adorned as the splendor of nature around them. The flat image of fruitful trees, drifting birds, baroque flowers, and regal deities praying together radiates within the warm yellow background, uniting everything in communion. The beauty of the painting is that it expresses how nature is sacred. From this spiritual connection with nature comes inexplicable joy. However, the painting excludes a lot of its believers. With exception to Vishnu, every deity exhibits light skin.
The socially constructed concept of race so strongly present in religion preserves racial hierarchy and discrimination among its believers. I believe art should be a statement of truth and a total reflection of nature. When art misrepresents or excludes identity, it is not only violent to the nymphs that reside in ragas, but people residing in the real world. I am definitely not advocating for the destruction of traditional art, but believe that we can recognize the biases within art thus letting ourselves evolve. Freeing oneself from centuries of conditioning is no clear-cut task, but we have the opportunity of seeking truth and being active forces of change.