Snake Charmer and Sandalwood

She is wearing a peacock feather mini skirt and gazing passionately at a cobra. Serpents embrace her slender legs adorned with heavy anklets and stained with henna. Who is this mysterious snake charmer in the 18th century Indian miniature?

ragini

According to Indian legend, snakes are entranced so much by the perfume of sandalwood that they wrap themselves around the trees, but there is something even more powerful that can entice them–raga. Meaning “color” as well as “beauty” and “melody,” raga is a melodic mode in Indian classical music. The painting held at the Victoria & Albert Museum is called Asavari Ragini, hinting that what we are looking at is a representation of a melody.  Asavari is usually performed in the morning, and it’s classical image is a woman charming snakes out of their sandal scented groves.

The Muslim Mughal emperors were enchanted by Hindu traditions, and with the exception of Aurangzeb, whose reign ended the long period of harmonious communal relations,  they sponsored ateliers at their courts. Sanskrit epics like the Mahabharata and Ramayana were illustrated in a style that fused Persian and Indian elements, and emperors like Akbar and Jahangir personally supervised the work and rewarded talented artists. Ragamala (‘Garland of Ragas’), one of the most popular genres at the Mughal courts, depicted the spirit of each classical melody, embellishing it with poetry and paintings. V&A’s Asavari Ragini was painted at a southern Deccani court of Hyderabad. It was a chance to showcase a number of techniques, which we can observe today to our delight.

Asavari Ragini is one of my favorite themes for its blend of art, music, scent and passion. The power of aroma, it seems to say, is strong, yielding only to music. I particularly admire the title image for its seductive aura and elegant craftsmanship, but many other museum collections hold at least one Asavari Ragini that one can compare and contrast at length.

The example below, for instance, comes from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The bejeweled maiden just caught the serpents’ attention, and you can be sure that within moments they will leave their sandalwood abode.

ragini2

The painting from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston shows the snake charmer playing her melody, while the snakes and peacocks dance. The peacock is a favored mode of transportation for Saraswati, the goddess of music and learning, and their presence adds another layer of symbolism.

ragini3

In lieu of posting more images, I invite you to follow the links below, set the screen to full and enjoy all of the exuberant detail of these artworks. If you choose to wear your favorite sandalwood perfume–Diptyque Tam Dao, Serge Lutens Santal Blanc, Guerlain Samsara, Annick Goutal Sables, for example–it will only enhance the experience.

The Harvard Art Museums

The Victoria & Albert Collection

British Museum

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Victoria & Albert Collection (title image)

On a related note, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is hosting an exhibition of Indian paintings acquired by Steven M. Kossak, curator in the department of Asian Art from 1986 to 2006. The exhibit runs till December 4th, and you can see some of the artworks on the museum website. Many thanks to Lucy of Indie Perfumes for pointing it out.

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50 Comments

  • Alina: Thank you! This made my Monday morning more colourful. July 11, 2016 at 8:15am Reply

    • Victoria: Very glad to hear it! There are many details one can look at these paintings for hours. July 11, 2016 at 9:50am Reply

  • Jacob: Need to go to the V&A. I saw a great exhibition a couple of years ago that brought together paintings from different regions of India and what’s now Pakistan. July 11, 2016 at 8:36am Reply

    • Victoria: The one at the MET also promises to be good, but if you’re in the UK, British Museum and British Library have splendid collections of Indian art. July 11, 2016 at 9:51am Reply

  • Sandra: Will visit the Met soon to see the collection while wearing Samsara July 11, 2016 at 9:58am Reply

  • Lucy Raubertas: Reading this got me lost in the idea of sandalwood and the image takes me there. Of course thought of you seeing the exhibit at the Met. July 11, 2016 at 10:27am Reply

    • Victoria: I noticed that the Met didn’t have Asavari Ragini in its new exhibit, but there are other ones from the series that depict different melodies. Sometimes people say that you can’t describe perfume, because it would be like “painting music,” and I think, well, why not paint music? These old images show that one very well can. July 11, 2016 at 10:53am Reply

  • spe: Lovely post! The paintings are exquisite. However, I’m not a fan of predominant sandalwood perfumes. I have no idea why. I’ll figure out something else to wear while enjoying the art! Thank you! July 11, 2016 at 10:35am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s a heavy note, and unlike other woods (cedar, patchouli), it’s creamy and almost buttery. If you like woods, try Diptyque Tam Dao. At this point, it’s more cedar than sandalwood, but it’s still beautiful. July 11, 2016 at 10:55am Reply

      • Victoria: Or Marni for a whisper of sandalwood set under equally sheer incense and florals. July 11, 2016 at 10:55am Reply

      • Carol: Today’s Tam Dao is too sharp for me. It used to be creamier. July 11, 2016 at 11:38am Reply

        • Victoria: They reformulated it a couple of years ago, but I agree that today it’s different. July 11, 2016 at 11:57am Reply

        • MrsDalloway: Tam Dao EDP is gorgeous – much creamier and more sandalwoody than the EDT. July 11, 2016 at 4:42pm Reply

          • Victoria: Thank you for pointing out the difference between the two. I have the EDT right now, but I agree that the EDP is different enough. A good idea to compare them side by side. July 12, 2016 at 4:30am Reply

      • spe: Victoria that is exactly it! The creamy/buttery combination is suffocating to my nose and distracting to my mind. Dry fragrances are more attractive to me as they feel perky and clean. Tam Dao EDT is the sandalwood I’ll try. Thank you so much! July 11, 2016 at 5:52pm Reply

        • Victoria: Tati mentioned 10 Corso Como, which might be another good option. July 12, 2016 at 4:34am Reply

    • Karen A: Coromandel is a really elegant sandalwood – I only wish I did not have a reaction to it! July 11, 2016 at 2:27pm Reply

      • Victoria: Have I recommended Lutens’s Borneo 1834 to you already? It’s less soft than Coromandel but by the same perfumer and of a similar theme. July 11, 2016 at 3:18pm Reply

        • Karen A: It goes on my to-try list! Right now I’ve been on a vetiver kick, thanks to Limegreen’s reminder that vetiver (and citrus) fragrances work well for fragrant alternatives to bug-repellents. Just ordered Guerlain Vetiver and have been loving Sycomore in our hot, humid weather. July 13, 2016 at 7:05am Reply

          • Victoria: Sycomore has been my staple this summer, along with Atelier Cologne’s Vetiver. Instantly refreshing. July 14, 2016 at 4:20pm Reply

  • Carol: Would you recommend sampling Tom Ford Santal Blush? July 11, 2016 at 11:36am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s a very good sandalwood, but if you find Tam Dao too sharp, you might have the same issue with Santal Blush. It’s a little rough in the drydown, evoking the texture of pencil shavings. Not unpleasant, though. July 11, 2016 at 11:57am Reply

  • Transmission party: 18th century Indian miniature… You have broached an area of art I truly love. Have been to the Met in NYC several times to look at these beauties. one does need gimlet eyes to behold what they narrate – a pure dream.
    When one experiences the full scope of luxury and richness of India, one is reminded to Waldemar Januszczski’s words: “compared to the Mughals of India, the wealth of the rest of the empires seemed like small change.”
    Favorite sandalwood frag: Samsara. July 11, 2016 at 11:55am Reply

    • Transmission party: And oh, a peacock feather mini skirt- something Alexander McQueen would be proud of…. Lol July 11, 2016 at 12:02pm Reply

      • Victoria: Or Galliano in his heyday. July 11, 2016 at 12:06pm Reply

    • Victoria: Such a great quote! Proves that the most interesting art thrives in the environments where artists and thinkers are exposed to different influences, cultures and religions. Most of the Mughal emperors were also accomplished poets and artists. July 11, 2016 at 12:05pm Reply

  • Trudy: Beautiful artwork. I would like to try a sandalwood fragrance. I’ve sample sprayed Tam Dao at the Nordstrom counter as well as Santal Blush. I love Santal Blush in the beginning…I get something kind of floral, soft and creamy but changes quite a bit on me. I agree that they both go rather sharp. Can anyone recommend a “beginners” sandalwood ? Lovely post and comments. July 11, 2016 at 12:33pm Reply

    • Victoria: Dior Hypnotic Poison, Parfumerie Generale Praline de Santal, Estée Lauder Sensuous are all good introductions. The note is not dominant, but it’s noticeable in the drydown. I also mentioned Marni, and I might as well add Demeter Fragrance Library Sandalwood. Light and simple but fun. July 11, 2016 at 1:08pm Reply

    • Tati: Just to add another beginner sandalwood, I love 10 Corso Como, and my only hesitation is that it is so fleeting. July 11, 2016 at 5:40pm Reply

      • Victoria: I wonder if it’s the musk. It has lots of it. July 12, 2016 at 4:34am Reply

  • Karen A: Wonderful post. Love looking at miniatures, we are lucky here in the DC area to have the Sackler which has had some wonderful shows. Knowing more would certainly enhance viewing, any suggestions for a good, basic book(s) with info on symbolism, etc? July 11, 2016 at 2:29pm Reply

    • Victoria: The Met and the V&A have published a number of excellent books, based on their expositions and collections. Also BN Goswamy is hands down the best expert on Indian painting, and he has sensibilities of a poet when describing them. I recommend all of his works, but The Spirit of Indian Painting is a good one to start with. July 11, 2016 at 3:20pm Reply

  • Madaris: I love Tam Dao but cannot abide Hypnotic Poison so I was surprised to see it described as a beginner sandalwood. July 11, 2016 at 5:27pm Reply

    • Victoria: Of course, Hypnotic Poison has more than sandalwood, but for someone who’s still trying to appreciate this note, it’s best to try blends of sandalwood and other ingredients to get a feel for this material. Then they can move on to more powerful and straightforward sandalwoods. July 12, 2016 at 4:32am Reply

  • claire: My husband and I love Indian Miniatures (ragas, and other classical Indian music). I can’t wait to pursue the links!

    I love sandalwood and I keep thinking I should try Samsara, but I think I need to find a vintage version in order to get that creamy sandalwood experience. I remember purchasing pure sandalwood oil many, many years ago and I loved it, but modern versions seem drier and harsher, not creamy and subtle (almost a skin scent). Does that make sense? And are there any sandalwood perfumes that seem more like that? July 11, 2016 at 7:19pm Reply

    • Victoria: You’re right, and it makes perfect sense. Today most sandalwood in perfumes is either Australian or synthetic. The former is sharper, raspier, less milky and rosy. The latter can be creamy, but they’re also on the sharp side, and since they’re so powerful, they outlast nearly everything else in the formula, save for musks. Beautiful materials, but if you’re sensitive to them, they can seem overly dominant, even if they’re used in moderation. July 12, 2016 at 4:36am Reply

  • Aurora: I didn’t know about the tradition you described, thank you so much for sharing. These paintings are ravishing, I wonder if they are miniatures or bigger. I especially like the way the trees are painted with individual leaves which give a highly stylized effect. The sandalwood tree seems to be very important in Indian traditions. July 12, 2016 at 5:48am Reply

    • Victoria: They are typically the size of a book page, or larger, depending on how they were used. Which makes the skill of the artist rendering all of the details even more impressive.

      Sandalwood, by the way, makes a great natural potpourri, since the wood is highly fragrant and retains its scent for years. But getting natural wood can be hard, so I just use a bar of Indian sandalwood soap. I get it for a couple of euros at an Indian store. July 12, 2016 at 6:34am Reply

  • Liliane: Misschien op u toekomstige trip naar parfumcamp in Frankrijk eens vragen of ze please please terug de oudere betere producten terug kunnen invoeren.
    Vermits er toch ook vraag naar is… July 12, 2016 at 6:54am Reply

    • Victoria: (A small request–can you please write in English, since most people reading this blog don’t speak Dutch? Myself included.) July 14, 2016 at 4:21pm Reply

  • OnWingsofSaffron: In the early 1970’s in Sri Lanka, my parents bought a small sandalwood box, say 15×30 cm, with elephants and lotus flowers carved onto it, and in which one could store the odd trinkets. To this day it stands on a cupboard at my mother’s house. and miraculously to this day, the moment you open this sandelwood box you are still flooded by a milky, sweet scent, comforting like a chai tea and at the same time very luxurious. July 13, 2016 at 9:45am Reply

    • Victoria: This is such a great story! Sandalwood retains its scent for such a long time.

      Are there any sandalwood perfumes you like? July 14, 2016 at 4:23pm Reply

      • OnWingsofSaffron: Would Arpège pass as a sandalwood perfume? I really love that—the vintage stuff. July 14, 2016 at 5:04pm Reply

        • Victoria: Yes! It has a gorgeous sandalwood note as part of its drydown. July 14, 2016 at 5:22pm Reply

  • Liliane: Allright. I will do my best. My computer was in translate script,.
    My excuse too everybody here. It was my idea of you will ask the parfumcourt in France for please please the old better stuff to bring back on the markt.
    That we can enjoy the marvelous parfums scents.
    We all love that so much! , July 15, 2016 at 3:42am Reply

  • SHMW: Are vetiver and citrus perfumes really good bug repellants? That would be brilliant as I both get bitten and react badly to bites. I did not think I could love Sycomore any more that I already do but there you go!
    I also agree about how perfect it seems in warm (well English-warm) weather and I think damp warm English air really makes it bloom… July 21, 2016 at 12:08pm Reply

    • Victoria: I don’t really know, but I’ve noticed that I’m bitten less if I wear lavender colognes. In India vetiver is used for screens, but I haven’t noticed if they repel bugs (usually, I’m bitten so much that if I’m in the area with lots of mosquitoes I use a DEET based spray). July 21, 2016 at 12:12pm Reply

  • SHMW: Some of this stylised artwork also reminds me of medieval margin art, especially the more whimsical stuff. They had a thing about portraying say hares riding foxes whilst out hawking, or perhaps fighting snails (as opposed to dragons?). They are very appealing. A lot of good ones have been posted on pinterest. July 21, 2016 at 1:03pm Reply

    • Victoria: I love the medieval book illuminations for the very detail and whimsy you mentioned. July 22, 2016 at 10:34am Reply

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