The god of many faces
A rare exhibition brings out the different representations of Rama in art, writes
Jai Shri Ram,” mutter two men as they walk into the Rama-Abhirama exhibition at the National Museum in Delhi. The reflexive piety reminds me of the stories I’ve read of how people left coins in front of Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings of gods and goddesses when they were first allowed to see them in Baroda (now Vadodara). Here too, the entire exhibition occupies a grey area somewhere between the religious and the artistic, as it explores how Rama has been portrayed through Indian history through the lens of the navarasas — the nine emotions that Bharata Muni described in his treatise, Natya Sastra, written somewhere between 200 BC and 200 CE.
The exhibition breaks The Ramayana into its seven kandas (episodes) and places the nine emotions— love, laughter, compassion, anger, courage, terror, disgust, surprise and peace — into different kandas. It also looks at The Ramayana and its representation in folk and vernacular traditions across the Indian subcontinent as a living, unbroken tradition since the 4th century.
The National Museum has dipped into the reserve collections of its seven departments — Jewellery and Numismatics, Decorative Arts, Arms and Armour, Archaeology, Painting, Manuscript and Anthropology— to put together 97 never-before-seen artefacts. These include a stone carving of Rama, Lakshmana and Sita from the 5th century; miniature paintings from the 16th to the 20th centuries; bronze and terracotta sculptures; wood carvings, Patachitras; an embroidered temple hanging that tells the story of the SundaraKanda (the fifth book of The Ramayana); cloth with Rama’s name and a gold coin minted with his image; weapons and amulets with Hanuman’s image on them; masks, leather puppets and clothes used in dance performances across Odisha, West Bengal, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.
“We deliberately chose pieces that have never been shown so that people are aware of the richness of the collection. But also, in no exhibition on TheRamayana has the beauty of Rama been discussed,” says Anamika Pathak, curator of the exhibition. “We also wanted to look at how the navarasas affect the artist’s mood and performance and how he inducts it into his art.”
Examining the aesthetic treatment of the maryada purush is a new approach. The idea was to show the differing visual interpretations of Rama. Thus, in the BalKanda, there is a Kerala carving where Rama and Lakshmana are sitting in Dasaratha’s lap — an unusual portrayal of the father and sons. Then the bronzes from South India evoke a different emotion in each image. There is a shant (peaceful) Rama, a Kodanth Rama (the warrior standing with his bow), even an ascetic Rama.
Pathak explains that the attempt is not to look at the art through the lens of schools, historicity or historical periods, but it’s difficult to ignore the plethora of never-beforeseen miniature paintings that date to the 16th to 20th century Pahari, Rajput and Deccan schools, including at least two works by Manaku – the Guler master artist. In at least the first three kandas, the same topics painted in different centuries and in different schools are placed next to each other so that the difference in styles is visible. Similarly, the fineness of the textiles and armour visible in the 5th century stone carving is delightful, more than making up for the mutilation of the figures.
There is also an attempt to show the way in which The Ramayana has been performed through theatre and dance across India since the 12th century, although the earliest mention goes back to the 4th century. From the Ram Lila of North India, Yakshagana performances of Mysuru, the Chao mask dance and the Jatra performances of Odisha and West Bengal, respectively, to shadow puppet theatre like Tholu Bommalata from Andhra Pradesh and Togalu Gombeyaata from Karnataka, the tradition of performing The Ramayana is prevalent across India.