The Tribune - Spectrum


, April 28, 2002
'Art and Soul

Rama’s journey in San Diego
B.N. Goswamy

Rama leaves Lanka in the Pushpaka Vimana, folio from the Ramayana, Binney collection
Rama leaves Lanka in the Pushpaka Vimana, folio from the Ramayana, Binney collection

SOME three weeks back, I found myself in the midst of a select group of men and women who had come to see, and hear, about the Ramayana. If I were in India, this would have been the most common of occurrences, but I was in San Diego, California, and these men and women were no devotees, not even Indians. The location was the neat little gallery that has been set up in the Museum of Art there for showing Indian paintings from the great collection that it has. And these American men and women were there because they were drawn to Indian art — if not initially to all its subtleties, at least to the intense human interest it possesses — and wished not only to see distinguished works of art, but also to take in, as it were, one of the greatest stories that has ever been told.

The installation — referred to in the museum generally as a 'rotation', for, given the space available, the treasures of the museum can be shown only by turns — was the work of Caron Smith, senior curator of Asian art at the museum, and she had gone about putting it up with her usual flair and sensitivity. There are many, many paintings on the Ramayana theme in the collection of the museum, an embarrassment of riches; but, in her judgement, the great human interest in the story of Rama was the key to the selection that had to be made. A narrative had to be built with the help of the paintings, and so it was. The works were drawn from various schools and periods — Mughal, Rajasthani, Pahari, Central Indian, among others — but the intent always was to pick and present each of the leading episodes in the great tale. ‘Royal sons’ was the section that we here would see as the Bala Kanda of the Ramayana; 'Wanderers in the forest' tracked the time that Rama, Sita and Lakshman spent in exile; 'The search for Sita' is how the Kishkindha and the Lanka sections were titled; and, finally, aspects of Rama as 'Ruler of a just kingdom'.

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It was all clearly laid out, accessible; and with the help of the information panels that occupied prominent spaces on the gallery walls, the viewer could slowly wend his way through the story, and some wonderful, vibrant works. He or she could understand why Vishnu would descend to the earth in a human incarnation: it was for "infusing the earthly cycle of deeds and consequences with tenderness and virtue"; how Rama "faced challenges that reveal the depths of love, integrity, and human imperfection"; why he is held up "as a culture hero, a model son, brother, husband, and leader". The great tale was there for everyone to see and follow, and it was all done with subtlety and feeling.

I was very interested in seeing how the group of men and women to whom I referred above would react to a story that was completely alien to them, and came from a distant culture. Also, in what they made of the paintings that were small in size compared to what they were used to seeing, appeared generally flat with no interest in depth or perspective, and had a pictorial logic that they were unfamiliar with.

I spoke to them for a brief while, adding my own perspectives on the Rama story to the installation, and said a few words about the place that Rama, and the Ramayana, occupied in our daily lives. But very quickly I passed on to the paintings, and drew attention to some things in them that might have escaped their notice if they were seeing them on their own. But what came as a surprise, and a delight, was the manner in which they cued themselves in, and began to draw excitement, both narrative and visual, from the works on view. The great 'Pushpaka Vimana' picture from Mandi - 'the aerial chariot as big as a city'— seemed to interest them as much as an early Gujarati leaf in which so many of the episodes from Rama's life had been compacted into a small, horizontally-oriented space; one could see them take in Ravana's dreaded army of horned demons with as much avidity as the gentle landscape against which Bharata pleads with his brother to return to Ayodhya. Quite naturally, there were impediments in understanding some of the things in the paintings, and there were questions. But it was plain that the story and the paintings spoke to them in a certain manner. And made a difference.

There are things here that one needs to ponder over. The point in what I am saying is not that here were white men interested in brown men's distant tales, but that making art accessible, to communicate the feeling that resides in them, is of the essence. But do we do it at our own end, in India? Or at least do enough of it? I wonder.


Hanumana forever

At the very head of the Ramayana installation at San Diego was a painting from Kalighat, showing Hanumana kneeling, with his chest torn open to reveal the images of Rama and Sita that are in that great devotee's heart forever. For a moment I wondered how this late work that is not in the classical mould of the other paintings — Kalighat, after all, was ‘bazaar' or folkish painting, one might say, and somewhat coarse in execution — was faring in the show. I even discussed it with Caron for a while. But there was no need for her to answer the question. One could see that nearly every visitor who entered the gallery was instantly drawn to that bold image, and viewed it with a curious mixture of delight and affection. The great devotee, one knows, is spoken of as a dirghajivi — eternal, leading a life that knows no bounds of time — in our tradition; but that he traversed spaces and cultures in this manner, I did not know.


This feature was published on April 21, 2002