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Celebrating the Mewar Ramayana

Life&More November 9, 2016
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Rajkumari Sharma Tankha

Do you enjoy the Hindu epic Ramayana every time you read it, like I do? What if I told you that you can also see it? Really, the pictorial Ramayana is as interesting, if not more, than the textual one. Don’t believe me? Then, head to the Bikaner House, on Pandara Road in New Delhi and see for yourself. Publishers Roli Books have put up an exhibition of over 60 images of Mewar Ramayana at the Bikaner House. But hurry fast, the show is on only till this Sunday i.e. Nov 13 from 11am to 7pm.

The book originally has over 400 paintings that were created between 1649-52 by Muslim painter Sahib Din, the head of studios that Maharaja Jagat Singh once had. In fact, for a very long time this Ramayana was called The Jagat Singh Mewar Ramayana as Maharaja Jagat Singh of Mewar was the patron ruler who had commissioned it.

History tells us that Mewar was the centre of Hindu culture in the 15th and 16th century. It stood tall against Akbar’s invasions even as Vijaynagar, one of the big kingdoms of that time, fell apart. Rajputs rajas left their capitals but continued fighting from their secret abodes in the hills. Meanwhile, Akbar’s army undertook massive destruction in the cities; it also burned the library located in the Chittor fort with which went into flames thousands of priceless manuscripts, including Hindu epics, kept there.

Later, Maharaja Jagat Singh decided to set up the library again and he commissioned a number of artists to work on the epics of Hinduism. Sahib Din, the great painter that he was, was entrusted to do the Ramayana. And he sure did an excellent job!

To me this is the most beautiful re-telling of Ramayana. The pictures Sahib Din made bring to life the events that occurred eons ago. Each of his paintings is loud, colourful and full of life, and engages the viewer for a long, long time. I just couldn’t take my eyes off these. The fine detailing that he shows in each of these works is simply awe-inspiring.

Each chapters has several images, and each image consists of various episodes/stories which very neatly, intricately and beautifully describes the related stories. Each image is accompanied by a small description of it, written in black and white text, by the exhibitors Roli Books.

I will summarise a few for you here:

A panel of four in one image shows King Dasharath conducting the Ashwamedha Yagna, a horse sacrifice, or the Putrakameshti Yagna for the birth of a son, told in an easy to understand sequence in the Bala Kanda.

The image that depicts the time when Ram receives the news of the death of his father has been broken down into smaller scenes, viz Ram’s fainting upon receiving the news, the mourning, the prayers, with a great sequential clarity.

Similarly, the detailing of group leaders and their troops in the image depicting the battle between Ram and Ravana is breathtaking. Small scenes have been added on the sidelines to stress upon a certain emotion, or just to humanise the characters of monkeys and bears who took part in the battle.

If you are careful enough, you will also notice the growing of Ram and Lakshman’s beards they are wandering through the monkey kingdom of Sugreeva in the Kishkinda Kanda looking for Sita.

The episode showing the how Kumbhakarana was woken up from his sleep is another that evinces great interest. The painting shows Kumbhkarana in deep sleep, and everyone around him trying to wake him up. The beguls are being sounded, there is an army of lilliputs on elephants and a braying donkey; some have climbed on top of Kumbhakarna and are beating him with their weapons to wake him up. And along with this are huge piles of food and large pots of liquor for him to consume after he wakes up.

The exhibition is also accompanied by the book titled Ramayana, published by Roli Books, that narrates the story through a larger collection of images from the Mewar Ramayana. The text in this volume is based on Valmik’s Ramacharitmanas, as retold by author Sumedha V. Ojha. If you want, you can buy this book; its on sale here. Also on sale are Ramayana coasters, diary and tray.The book has an Introduction by J.P. Losty, former Curator-in-charge of the British Library, London. If you are lucky enough you may even get to meet both Ojha and Losty, I wasn’t lucky enough though.

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