The Translation of Indian Classical Music into Painting

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Man painting at easel

Early live painting based on a performance by Pt. Muzumdar

Shirish Kathale, Artist, Musician and Professor •

A video of Kathale’s live-painting work is available here.

The concept of translating Indian classical music into painting has been in my mind for many years. I have been practicing, too, by listening to music while painting during my leisure time. My process of painting with music has given me excellent results.
When I started painting with live music, that turned out to be more exciting. It was definitely different than what I used to do. During my first experience of live painting I played it safe because I feared being criticized. So my first live painting was a sky-scape, and the second was a tree – which, though colorful, was still a commonly-expressed visual. I was not very satisfied with what I was doing.

During my third experience, the flow between multiple imaginations and the transformation that was happening through me resulted in abstract visuals on the canvas. It was greatly appreciated by everyone in the auditorium, including the renowned musicians.


Eleven watercolor paintings in an array

Live paintings done at Swarzankar


Then, during my first experience at a music festival in Pune, there were many constraints that emerged. When I painted a Jugalbandi – a traditional duet for two solo musicians ­– I heard the Upadhye brothers play the duet on two violins. It raised many thoughts in my mind about how to go about creating a painting. The beginning of the raga scale itself held the obvious answer to my question. The introductory group of notes triggered my intuitions and generated the color palette that I needed to execute the translation of Indian classical music into painting; the translation of audio into visuals.


Three men standing at a large easel

Live painting based on a Jugalbandi duet, with Tejas and Rajas Upadhye


I always enjoyed this raga, “Jog,” in all its shades and in many beautiful renditions by different musicians. In the raga, there is spirituality, longing, detachment and blissfulness, which started coming into my mind through a color palette triggered by my feelings. My hands moved almost naturally towards oranges, browns and yellows, and I started playing with combinations of gray and blue against the clean, soft white canvas.

In fact, it brought my body-mind and soul together, which translated into my first painting based on “Jog,” a collaboration with my violin guru and his brother. I am really thankful to Pt. Atulkumar Upadhyeji for giving me the opportunity to do this kind of experiment in public.


White-haired man at easel

Painting the “Jog” raga


I want to thank my violin guru, Mr. Tejaskumar Upadhye, who introduced me to his father in order that I might paint live at his concert.

Then the famous flute sisters Shuchismita and Debpriya, Pt. Hariprasadji Chaurasia’s disciples, played the same raga, “Jog.” This time, the raga felt even closer because it was evolving out of a bamboo flute, which had been an integral part of my life and continues to be today. The same process happened, but this time all the sharp strokes had disappeared, and smoothness and hollow depth were generated, which translated onto my canvas as a similar color composition that was still visually different.


Five men and two women presenting their paintings

Live painting of the “Jog” raga, with Haripriya and Debpriya


In all these performances, there was a common palette, but the compositional elements were different and the treatments given to them were also specialized.

The sharpness of bowed instruments, the roundness of reed instruments, the ultimate versatility of human vocal chords and the sense of sheer ease with which everything was played were emphasized in the paintings. It simply happened through that trance-like state of mind that I went through while translating music into painting.

From that day onwards everything that I did was an extempore trance-formation of abstract audio into abstract visuals I was just instrumental in the process most of the time. I was not too worried about the timing; because of my understanding of tabla and flute, I was able to use my brushes and other tools to adapt the tempo and types of pieces – or “laykari” – in perfect sync, and it was consistently evident to the audiences and viewers around me.

There are some nuances in music – beautiful pauses or breathing spaces, for example – that are noticed by many people, including me, but are beyond explanation. These nuances are responsible for the creation of an interesting and unique experience. Those spaces in the musical compositions become part of the visuals; bits of white canvas that are purposely left blank! This enhances the beauty of each particular visual composition. It provides a necessary break, like a moment of relaxation for the viewer’s eyes. But if you look carefully, the blank canvas is never left blank without care; there is a style that is adopted when doing so, such that the emphatic visual works and helps the artist express his or her intensity in any context. In simpler words, there are so many similar elements at work in both the audio and visual expressions that performing and translating them in real time makes it easier to bring out the mood and zest of the raga.

But one has to be sensitive towards both music and painting. How is it possible to translate if you do not know the basic grammatical rules and the genre? Once you know these things, however, it is child’s play to express, as you listen, what is being received by the heart, the soul and, in the end, the mind.

A few centuries back there existed a theory of the analogy between the forms of music and painting. It was also said that paintings were not possible if they were not analogous to something else. But today, that is not said anymore. Communication has crossed the limits of forms and formlessness.

In that theory, there was also a relationship established between the primary colors –red, yellow and blue – and the notes Sa, Ga and Ma (C, E and F in western notation) and it was called Shadj Madhyam Bhava. Another person, Mr. Basu, replaced Ma (F) with Pa (G), creating Shadj Pancham Bhava (C, E and G in western notation). Played together, these three notes together create a major chord.

You will realize that I have not followed any of the rules and regulations mentioned above. I follow my own intuitions and feelings to bring out the moods of the ragas. I often try to sync my brush or tools to the accompanying rhythm as I apply colors. It happens so fast that I do not get time to think and plan; I am simply carried away by the spontaneous overflow of the musicians’ performances and the palettes triggered by their improvisations.