Ragini's symbolism

Ragini's symbolism, a crossroad of Mandala and expressionism ???


Having said that ...

I am writing as the husband of the artist with no formal education in art history but with an early contact with photography. I am taking pictures for 35 years and I am a good reader of historical analysis as well as epistemological research. I tend to see the art phenomenon not only in the artifact but in the relation it establishes between the artist and the rest of the world. My observations drift endlessly between the painting, the painter, the watcher, the art buyer, the art critics and the world depicted in the painting. It does not produce nor a final assessment nor a definite methodology. I must accept that the artists defy the categories available to the lay man and produce a world of their own were the rules and the language have to be rediscovered. The mystery is that the universe is intelligible said Albert Einstein. Art remains a miracle both because of its intelligibility and its mystery.

A map for Ragini's art work

Trying to act as the curator of the entire work of such a prolific artist as Ragini is an exhausting task. She started early (around the age 6) and never stopped. She moved a lot around the world and produced innumerable prints, acrylic and oil paintings. She does not like to work on her archives, she does not have a gallery manager to help and I am also quite often absent from home. So the review is meant to be partial and incomplete but no one can embrace the real whole thing.

After 11 years of marriage and nearly two years of patient build up of her web site, I start to distinguish three strongly articulated themes in her work : the affirmation of feminity, the hopes and celebration of freedom and the power struggle.

One can already guess that these three themes have the potential to overlap, merge, blend, fusion but that it is exactly what Ragini is interested by. Fixed and rigid categories are her worst enemies. Her language is always fluctuating with nearly as many ruptures than continuity. Nevertheless a motivation circle could be drawn as follows :

A Mandala semantic

Sanskrit MANDALA ("circle"), in Hindu and Buddhist Tantrism, a symbolic diagram used in the performance of sacred rites and as an instrument of meditation. The mandala is basically a representation of the universe, a consecrated area that serves as a receptacle for the Gods and as a collection point of universal forces. Man (the microcosm), by mentally "entering" the mandala and "proceeding" toward its centre, is by analogy guided through the cosmic processes of disintegration and reintegration.

In China, Japan, Tibet and Nepal mandalas are basically of two types, representing different aspects of the universe: the garbha-dhatu (Sanskrit: "womb world"; Japanese: taizo-kai), in which the movement is from the one to the many; and the vajra-dhatu (Sanskrit: "diamond [or thunderbolt] world"; Japanese kongo-kai), from the many into one. Mandalas may be painted on paper or cloth, drawn on a carefully prepared ground with white and coloured threads or with rice powders (as for Buddhist Tantric ceremonies of initiation), fashioned in bronze, or built in stone, as at Borobudur, in central Java. There the circumambulation of the stupa (a commemorative monument) is tantamount to the ritual approach to the centre.

The mandala of a Tibetan tanka (cloth scroll painting) characteristically consists of an outer enclosure around one or more concentric circles, which in turn surround a square transversed by lines from the centre to the four corners. In the centre and the middle of each triangle are five circles containing symbols or images of divinities, most commonly the five "self-born" buddhas. Of the borders surrounding the mandala, the first is a ring of fire, which both bars entry to the uninitiated and symbolizes the burning of ignorance; next comes a girdle of diamonds, which stands for illumination; then a circle of eight graveyards, symbolizing the eight aspects of individuating cognition; next a girdle of lotus leaves, signifying spiritual rebirth; and, finally, at the centre, the mandala itself, where the images are set.

Similar ritual drawings have been found in cultures other than Hindu and Buddhist--for example, in the sand paintings of the North American Indians. The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung published studies of mandala-like drawings executed by his patients. In his view, the spontaneous production of a mandala is a step in the individuation process--a central concept in Jung's psychological theory--and represents an attempt by the conscious self to integrate hitherto unconscious material. (Adapted from Britannica Encyclopedia)

Although Ragini's intentions are not to produce new mandala, she clearly intends to produce a similar impact : de-codification, meditation, slow discovery of hidden meanings and spiritual relation .

 Click here to see some traditional Mandala


The theme is close to an obsession in Ragini's work. At a very young age, she was revolted against the preference given to the sons in the Hindu culture in which she has grown. Her father was very progressive and intended to educate his daughters as much as his sons but the rest of the family was less supportive and many conflicts erupted especially when the allocation of financial resources were involved.

Ragini is extremely concerned by the traditional prejudice faced by women in her culture of origin and more generally in Asia. It is no surprise to see her participating to seminar about violence against women and about girl trafficking. She has illustrated one pioneer book about Nepalese women. Some of her exhibitions titles express plainly her concerns : "Women, a commitment", "Goddesses and Women, Mythology and Reality", "Sensitive Women". These clear and bold affirmations of feminity as a positive and combative value have gone through a long maturation phase that we are going to illustrate.

The hesitant feminity

Some of Ragini's early works (1979 and later) place female attributes in a atmosphere dominated by fear, concupiscence and potential violence. Some others propose abstracted female silhouettes in search of a stable position. A landmark in this period is a print entitle "Incomplete Self" depicting female bodies without head and  female heads without body. The reconciliation of sensuality, economical independence and existential questioning was a hard task during that period. The female model which emerges is hesitant at least defeated at worst.

 click here to see the pictures illustrating the hesitant feminity.

The ordinary girl child

The girl child has, in Nepal, little chance to enjoy the "green paradise of childhood". For many families, the new born girl is often considered the wrong baby. Her mother is likely to be blamed for this, in complete ignorance of the rules of genetic and in the poorer families she may suffer such neglect that the sex ratio of the low income population is markedly skewed toward the men. But if she survive infancy, she will quickly learn that life is earned through hard work. First helping her mother in the daily chore, paying respect, attention and devotion to the male members of the family, taken out of school at a much earlier age than the boys, she may end up as a servant for the richer families or married early or in the worst case sold to the flesh trade. That does not happen to every single girl child but there is a fatalistic acceptation of that injustice which is revolting for a western sensitivity and which is loudly challenge in international forum. Ragini did not face the worse scenario for the girl child development. Her father was very supportive but the social environment was repressive at best, aggressive at worst. In her work, Ragini has a mild and balanced vision of the girl child which does not look happy but does not face the extreme violence of rape, abusive workload and total submission to male authority. Ragini brings the girl child mainly on oil paintings with an exuberance of warm colors suggesting vitality and joy but this is contrasted by the sad attitudes and eyes searching for an escape. Some paintings nonetheless leave an impression of hope despite some caution.

click here to see the pictures illustrating the ordinary girl child

The flamboyant Kumari

 The first series of Kumaris (during the 80's) painted by Ragini have air of simplicity, charm and peace which is going to evolve as we are going to see later. The little girl revered as a Goddess is beautiful, flamboyant, environed by gold and bright red colors. Some sad note appear here and there with the presence of a dead bird, symbol of the stolen childhood faced by the Kumaris.

click here to see the pictures illustrating the flamboyant Kumari

The woman in love

The soul mate searching was quite apparent in paintings like The first women and the first man (1988) or You in a dream (1986). Ragini married quite late by Nepali standard. After that (1991), she gives time to the eternal theme of love between man and women. She paints passion, embrace, dance, kissing very frequently between 1991 and 1995. The birth of her daughter, Shivata, seems to have shifted her focus. The new responsibility of  Motherhood connects her with a very embracing vision of the feminity where she finds the inspiration to question and review the stereotypes carried by her culture. But Love was not lost and it comes very brightly in a print series entitled the Shadows of Love  printed during 2001.

click here to see the woman in love pictures

Reconsidering the Kumari's existence

The Story of a Little Girl painted during 1999 and 2001 proposes a vision of the Living Goddess very different than the one painted during the 80's. The devotion is absent, the stolen childhood is central and takes many shapes. The lock, the restricted fly of the bird, the sad visage create contrasts and question the pride which is suggested by other element in the composition. A interesting element is the head of the girl supporting the Kalasa, the vase containing the primeval water carried by Brahma, the Creator. On that painting, the girl head supports also the Lotus (Padma) which in Hinduism represents Mani, the Earth.

The story of a little girl - a tribute to the Kumari

Challenging the female stereotypes, visiting the archetypes

If the previous themes described above had a distinct analogy with the Expressionism movement (reality,emotion,inner feeling), the present one has much more to do with the Surrealism (metaphysic, dreams, structuring a new language). The scenes have a clear primitive outlook with crude, simplified and disproportionate forms. This suggest an earlier time when the Chaos was still shaped by the Gods or a pre conscientious mind driven by the unshaped impulses. As so often in the analysis of Ragini's work, one interpretation line does not embrace the multiple layers of suggestions brought to the observer. In two major series : "Sensitive Women", "Goddesses and Women, Myth and Reality" and in some outstanding paintings prepared for the Ragini Odyssey 2001, she confronts herself with the Hindus' symbolism. From this point, the multitude of echoes and suggestions become infinite. The Hinduism refers to at least 4000 years of religious practices and mystical productions. K.M Sen wrote that "Hinduism is more like a tree that has grown gradually than like a building that has been erected by some great architect at some definite point of time." and J.B. Nicholls an other scholar of Hinduism " The genius of Hinduism is its capacity to assimilate the religious beliefs and practices of all who come under its influence". The meanings which can be inferred from Ragini's paintings are very much linked to the knowledge and feelings of the Hindus cults. She does not hesitate to borrow to the Buddhism and Tantrism too. Although, her art does not at all fall into any of the religious art traditions, the symbols cannot be named and described without a religious reference. But there are some clues for those who are not initiated. The female principles are very revered in the Hindus and Buddhist pantheon, the real women are exploited, abused, traded. This antagonism is a very fertile source of inspiration for Ragini. She brings into her composition very easily recognized symbols of female deities like the lute of Saraswati, the Lion of Durga, the Elephant of Indrani, the goose of Brahmani, the Tortoise of Lakshmi (or Vishnu avatar Kurman) , the Peacock of Kaumari and confronts these divine attributes with very earthly women ones : pregnancy, menstruation.... A recurrent part of these composition is made of some male anthropomorphic character with erected penis which stand both as symbols of creative vitality and arrogant male pride. The snakes (Naga) are often present as a reminiscence of early fertility rites and a reference to Shiva or Vishnu . The lotus flower (Padma) is ubiquitous with several meanings. In the  Hindu pantheon it represents the Earth which grew from Vishnu's navel. It also stands for water and for creation. In Buddhist tradition lotus has manifold symbolic meanings : it symbolizes self-creation, the purity of the spirit rising from the misery of the material existence, it also represents the Female Principle and the female sex organ. A lotus pedestal is indicative of divinity. It would be futile to search in Ragini's work a perfectly coherent symbolic language respecting the traditions. These symbols are called in as into a magic ritual to participate to an epic battle for the reemergence of a revitalized Female principle. The battle is central, the traditional symbols are a background. Most of these works exacerbate the impression of chaos and turmoil. A cave like atmosphere is very often present as an attempt to bring the debate back to the origin of time from where some dysfunctional distribution of roles stems but an other recurrent symbol, the Key and the Lock, suggest that Liberation is available for these who may open their heart and mind to self-fulfillment.

The understanding of this theme could be (????) facilitated by reading some introduction / background texts :

Art and Religion in Nepal

The Fall From Grace For Living Goddesses

The pictures related to the Goddesses and Women are available on the following links

Goddesses and Women - general

Lakshmi - Saraswati

Shiva - Vishnu


Sensitive women


To place that concept as a main chapter is quite a challenge. Hope is never totally absent from even the darkest of Ragini's compositions. Hope is intrinsically linked to art and womanhood. Love is hope, child is hope, a struggle is hope .....Nevertheless, I like to present some of Ragini's work under the theme of hope because their focus is concentrated on building a different future like the "Berlin Wall 1989" thematic. Or in the "Hope" and "A face work", one feels the search for a escape from darkness. I also like to see hope in the large print series dedicated to "A sun never dies, Buddha lights and Truth shines" which take example on Buddha's surviving message to stimulate our reflection and commitment toward peace and tolerance. In this series, Hope is about the human capacity to preserve and transmit wisdom.

Hope theme pictures


Ragini has been very early in contact with the harshness of politics. During the time of the single-party system (Panchayat) in Nepal (until 1990) dissident democrats were taking shelter amongst the Nepalese living in India. Her family has been very close to BP Koirala, one of the most respected figure in Nepalese politics and founder of the Nepali Congress party. BP. Koirala was a chief guest to some of the earliest exhibition of Ragini.

She nevertheless remained distant from the political activism, her artistic sensitivity was too independent for party discipline and facing large meeting was too stressful for the young and humble woman. But she observed carefully and reflected these observation in her paintings. She focused on the psychology of the political actors rather than on the political agenda of the respective parties. She paints a world of primitive confrontations for what seems sometime a childish envy for winning the game at any cost. She brings to the spectator some nearly caricatured characters seeking desperately social attention. Ambition is often seen destructive and morbid.

A very frequent reference is made to Ravana, the multi-headed demon king of the Ramayana, who had captured Sita, the wife of Rama. He is a symbol of greed, concupiscence and treachery which Ragini perceives as very pervasive in the present politics. The chair as a symbol of post holding is an other very recursive symbol. Monkeys or rats playing with the human world symbolize the chaotic actions taken on the name of development and ending in widely spread distributions of bribes.

Power struggle gallery

Read here an excellent review about Ragini's political stand


There are still thematics which are not included in this review like the "windows" series and many works which are too particular to be classified.

There is the new "A sun never dies, Buddha lights and Thruth shines" which deserves a lot of comments and analysis as it covers some dramatic events which have shape the life and mind of so many people like the 11th of September terrorist attack in the US, the 1st of June royal massacre and the long lasting Maoist insurgency in Nepal. The pictures are in the following link : "A sun never dies"

There is still a chance that I will continue the effort to cover exhaustively Ragini's artistic production but......my availability is not certain.

Albert Grela
8th August 2002



Guesthouse Gallery Studio Symbolism A sun never dies Ragini's Press File Time series