After the 2018 exhibition, “Seeing the Divine: Pahari Painting of North India”, that examined the ways in which Pahari artists depicted Hindu gods, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is hosting “Sita and Rama: The Ramayana in Indian Painting,” featuring 30 works — produced for the Rajput and Pahari courts of north India between the 17th and 19th centuries — that narrate episodes from the epic. Kurt Behrendt, associate curator in the department of Asian art at the museum, talks about curating the two-part show that ends in August 2020. Excerpts:
How was the exhibition conceived?
Organising a show that highlights key moments with outstanding artworks is appealing to someone familiar with the epic, as the paintings are full of subtle narrative details. These paintings are also accessible for someone less familiar with the Ramayana, as these artists focused on emotionally dramatic moments to present the larger story. They also give visual form to this text’s philosophical dimension in ways that are compelling.
The Ramayana consists of 24,000 verses. How did you select the episodes?
Paintings and textiles relating to the Ramayana of the highest artistic calibre were initially selected. What I find remarkable is that these works are so effective in telling the unfolding narrative. I do believe that the artists working in the 17th to the early 19th centuries had a very different understanding of the Ramayana from what we do today. The choice of certain moments and the omission of others is quite telling.
The show will be held in two parts?
Given the light sensitivity of the paintings and textiles after six months, the show will be rotated. While the two rotations have different paintings and textiles, it is remarkable that a similar set of narrative moments appear in both. Examples include the search for Sita, the death of the monkey king Vali and Indrajit’s battle with Rama and Lakshmana.
When, and from where, were the paintings on display acquired?
Exactly 100 years ago, four great works by the 18th century artist Manaku, showing the Siege of Lanka, was acquired by the Met through the scholar Ananda Coomaraswamy. In 2016, the museum received paintings from the Kronos Collections (including miniatures from the royal courts of Rajasthan and the Punjab hills), some of which are prominently featured in this exhibition.
The works span several centuries — from ‘The Shangri Ramayana’ series dating from 1690 to 1710 to the 19th century masterpiece Rama, Sita and Lakshmana Start their Life Within the Forest. What was it like putting together diverse works from various periods?
I try to draw attention to the differences and similarities between the early and late traditions. The stylistic and compositional diversity speaks to this rich tradition and the visual vocabulary for showing this great epic. The early works not only included Pahari paintings from the manuscript of the Shangri branch of the Kullu royal family, but also paintings from the plains of India, from the courts of Mewar, Bikaner and Malwa as well as several paintings done in the Mughal workshops. These early works stand in contrast to a group of the late 18th century paintings from the Pahari court of Kangra.
Do you see increasing global interest in the works of the above category?
Everyone finds the arts of ancient India fascinating. The key to presenting an exhibition about artistic traditions of the Hindu, Jain and Buddhist to the global audience successfully is to make it accessible to everyone while featuring artworks of great quality.
Top Picks From The Exhibition
The Combat of Rama and Ravana
Late 18th century; painted and mordant-dyed cotton
Produced on the Coromandel Coast of south-east India, this long Kalamkari textile painting has Rama striding forward to confront the retreating Ravana during the battle. Surrounding these two is Rama’s army battling Ravana’s demon followers. Behrendt notes that given its scale, the textile was likely displayed during festivals.
Rama, Sita and Lakshmana Begin their Life in the Forest
Punjab Hills, kingdom of Kangra, 1800-1810; opaque watercolour, gold and silver on paper
Part of the Steven Kossak collection gifted to the museum, the Pahari painting has Rama, Sita and Lakshmana in the Dandaka Forest, with Rama reclining on Sita’s lap, and his brother Lakshmana looking for a thorn in his foot. They are dressed in garments made of leaves. In the foreground is the monkey god Hanuman, drinking water from a stream.
Hanuman in His Tantric Five-Headed Pancha Mukha Form
Rajasthan or Gujarat, late 19th century; ink and opaque watercolour on paper
Painted in vivid colours, the Tantric representation has Hanuman striding forward, with weapons in his hands, including the gada (mace). He also carries the mountain to pluck sanjeevani booti (medicinal herbs) to revive Lakshmana, who had been injured during the battle. Surrounding Hanuman’s crown are five animal heads — of a goose, snake, mule, lion and horse.
Rumal with Scenes from the Ramayana
Punjab Hills, kingdom of Chamba,
18th century; cotton with silk, tinsel, and metal embroidery
Behrendt notes how rumals (embroidered cloth) were made as coverings for wedding gifts and devotional offerings to the gods. In this rumal, we see episodes from the epic, from the time when Rama, Sita and Lakshmana leave Ayodhya for the 14-year-long exile into the forest. Rama is seen hunting for the golden deer, as Ravana abducts Sita, who stepped out from the line Lakshmana had drawn to protect her. The following scenes depict the long battle between Ravana and Rama, ending withRama, Sita and Lakshmana returning victorious to Ayodhya.
Rama Visits Sita and Tells Her of His Banishment to the Forest
Punjab Hills, kingdom of Jammu , 1690–1710; opaque watercolour, gold, and silver on paper
This is one of the illustrated folios from the Shangri Ramayana series — believed to belong until 1960 to Raja Raghbir Singh of the Kullu royal family — that comprised around 270 folios. It has Rama trying to convince Sita not to accompany him during the exile. Behrendt notes, “It bears the hallmarks of the Shangri master’s early work, such as a distinct colour palette, areas of graphic patterning, and an abstract style emphasising the juxtaposition of interior and exterior spaces.”