Ramayana in local miniature retellings — good vs evil epic alive in colours of heritage

India-Art/Tradition/Culture

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By Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi

The legend of King Rama of Ayodhya in present day Uttar Pradesh and his battle against Ravana, the mythical demon-king of Lanka (Sri Lanka), an emerald isle in the southern tip of the country, has been one of the most popular muse of traditional Indian painters since 4-5th century BCE, when the epic was believed to have been conceived by the seer-poet Valmiki – as a fable of good versus evil. It was meant to preach the importance of goodness and governance in the early princely societies.

The text in Sanskrit that comprises nearly 24,000 shlokas (verse-couplets) divided into seven cantos with hundreds of revisions and interpretations has been documented in pictorial anthologies and standalone paintings by indigenous miniaturists in their ethnic traditions — transposing the events from the texts into local visual cultures. The Ramayana is interpreted differently by schools of miniaturists – who trace their aesthetic roots to the distinctive mythical-cultural lores, societies, geographical and anthropological contexts that have shaped their lifestyles and sensitivities.

A visual narrative, “Ram-Katha” at the National Museum in New Delhi portrays of the epic in colourful miniature traditions spanning 300 years between 15th to 18th century. The 101 original paintings – heritage art from the archives of the museum — are testimony to ancient India’s obsession with the legend and how it opened the creative canvases of the artists’ imagination to paint the events from the epic in vernacular idioms which were larger than life – and aesthetically stylized to perpetuate the aura of the scared that grew around the legend.

The protagonist of the epic, Lord Rama is deified as one of the incarnations of Vishnu— the divine keeper of living things in the Hindu pantheon and is worshipped as a god across India. The festival of lights – Diwali, the most glittering spiritual event on the Indian festival roster – is dedicated to Rama, who was said to have returned home to Ayodhya on Diwali after 14 years in exile in the forest – and after having defeated Ravana, who had abducted his queen Sita.

Legend says Rama, the king of Ayodhya, was exiled by his father Dasharath after the old king (Dashrath) was forced to concede to one of his wife’s whim to install her son to the throne instead of the rightful succession of Rama, the eldest, to his father’s kingship in a palace conspiracy. Dasaratha had four wives. The old king exiled Rama to the forest for 14 years. Rama was accompanied by wife Sita and brother Laxman to forests across India – where he fulfilled his karmic destiny by vanquishing the king of Lanka, Ravana, who abducted Sita to his island kingdom. The epic describes Ravana, a Brahman (erudite) king with magical powers and 10 heads as the evil personified while Rama is the symbol of goodness.

However, a version of the several retellings of the epic, Uttarakand Ramayana – carries the tale beyond Rama’s victory. The pregnant Sita is abandoned in the forests by Rama on suspicion that she was not chaste. She gives birth to twins, Luv and Kush. The queen eventually disappears into the earth – unable to live with the humiliation. She buries herself.

The epic renders itself to the visual genre because of the numerous events with which it builds the narrative – like an army of apes who helped Rama rescue his wife from Ravana in Lanka, the life of the exiled trio — king Rama, wife Sita and brother  Lakshmana— in the forsest, their encounters with mythical characters, magical beings from nature and the sages who retreated in the forests and the royal life at Ayodhya and Lanka.

The events in Rama’s life are portrayed in a variety of miniature traditions like the Pahadi styles of Basholi, Kangra, Guler, Chamba and Nurpur paintings – each standing out in its typical stylistic embellishments, use of colours and fantasy elements. The ornate hill miniatures that make liberal use of the hilly landscape as the background and the dense forest as the locale are almost European Renaissance-like in their use of iconic imagery. The undulating hills and the trees with each leaf painted in delicate relief and contoured shapes capture the dense landscape of the lower Himalayas (mountains). The figures are fluid, beautiful, tall and fluid – drawing from the hill tribes who inhabit the outer Himalayas.

History cites that several miniature painters from across central India, Delhi and Agra fled to the hills in the undivided Punjab region of India during the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s reign – who had put curbs on painting. The tradition flourished under patronage of the local kings, whose influence brought about a transformation in the thematic content of the miniature— from documentations of Mughal courts to Hindu mythological essays in colours.

In contrast, the miniature traditions of desert state of Rajasthan in north-western India – represented by the princely Rajput royal genres from Jaipur, Jodhpur, Bundi, Mewar, Kota, Bikaner, Deogarh and Kishangarh are shining examples of commissioned court art. The paintings are ornamental — decked in resplendence brought on by the extensive use of gold pigments, floral iconography, elaborate attires, delicate figurative expositions and expressive body language of the characters that are rich, colourful and neon. Rama is shown as a king with flowing robes and a golden crown in the forest. Sita, Laxman and apes are honoured with miniature golden crowns as well in some of the art works.

The colours – though more than 300 years old- are as fresh as they were when extracted from natural substances. The central Indian miniatures – inspired by the court and temple art of Madhya Pradesh and the Islamic fiefs from Malwa, Orchha, Datia, Raghogarh, Bundelkhand and the Deccani from Bijapur are inspired by the Persian miniatures. They tell the epic in mosaic panels on paper like the Mughal miniature printings – almost like animated art in serials. But the iconography is subdued and refined unlike the Rajasthan miniatures. The Deccani tradition, however, digresses from the Islamic sobriety to paint in royal gold-tinted colours and floral baroque.

The commonly illustrated episode is the wedding of Rama to Sita — each in different styles typical of the region to which genre of the miniature tradition belongs.  The folio of Shangri in Himachal Pradesh shows a humble Rama and a blushing Sita circumbulating the ritual fire under a simple marquee – mandapa – like a couple in a village. The folio from Kangra in contrast puts the couple in a royal palace setting — depicting the royal wedding procession instead of the wedding rites. Miniature painting in Kangra flourished under the patronage o Raja Sansar Chand.

The two Bundeli folios from Bundelkhand region offer colourful insights into the Bundeli traditional weddings. In one of the paintings, Rama and Sita are seated on a throne to exchange garlands – a common Indian wedding rite across several provinces. In another, the royal groom arrives at father-in-law king Janaka’s palace for the “kunwara-kaleva”- a rite in which the bride’s women friends honour the groom.

Another episode interpreted frequently by miniature painters is Rama’s “experiences” in the forest.

The history of miniature painting has its genesis in author and sage Vatsyayan’s “six limbs of Indian painting” that he elaborated on in 3rd century AD. The six principles exhorts “Rupabheda- knowledge of appearances, Pramanam —correct perception, Bhava- feelings, Lavanya Yojanam —grace and Sadrisyam – resemblance and Vamikabhanga – use of brush and colours”.

The tradition – in small frames and dense compositions — evolved around the 10th century AD in Rajasthan and the adjoining areas as manuscript illustrations. They were painted manually in hand written books of the Jain and Vaishnav sects.

The showcase will travel to Brussels Oct 5 from New Delhi.

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