The Ramayana, one of the world’s most enduring stories, is considered to be fundamental to the art and culture of India and Southeast Asia and is still regularly performed in dance, drama and shadow-puppet theatres around the world. For the first time over 120 paintings from the British Library’s lavishly illustrated 17th-century manuscripts of the story from the volumes of The Mewar Ramayana, commissioned by Rana Jagat Singh of Mewar (1628-1652) will go on public display in its forthcoming summer exhibition, which opens in May and continues until 14 September.
The Ramayana – An Indian Epic
The Ramayana is a tale of devotion, separation and reunion – a story that expresses the eternal battle between good and evil, ranging from short stories to epics. Combining elements of religion, romance, myth, magic, war, adventure and fantasy, its cast is huge and includes gods, goddesses, semi-diving humans and powerful demons.
The story’s main theme is the heroic deeds of Rama, Prince of Ayodhya, who wins the hand of Sita, Princess of Mithila, but is exiled to the forest for 14 years through the plotting of his evil stepmother. In the forest, Sita is carried off by the demon Ravana, demon king of Lanka, and Rama gathers an army of monkeys and bears (led by Hanuman the monkey king) to search for her. Following a great battle, and Sita’s rescue, the couple return to Ayodhya, inaugurating Rama’s rule (Ram-raj) and a golden age for mankind.
Explore How the Story Has Been Represented and Retold
The exhibition explores how this story has been represented and retold over the centuries in the many different countries and cultures it is known. It is traditionally attributed to the authorship of the sage Valmiki and dated to around 500 to 100 BC. Comprising 24,000 verses in seven cantos, the epic contains the teachings of the very ancient Hindu sages.
One of the most important literary works of ancient India, it has greatly influenced art and culture in the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, with versions of the story also appearing in the Buddhist canon from a very early date. The story of Rama has constantly been retold in poetic and dramatic versions by some of India’s greatest writers and also in narrative sculptures on temple walls. It is one of the staples of later dramatic traditions, dance-dramas, village theatre, shadow-puppet theatre and in the annual Ram-lila (Rama-play) in India and Southeast Asia.
The Mewar Ramayana Manuscripts
The Mewar Ramayana manuscripts were produced between 1649 and 1653 for Rana Jagat Singh of Mewar in his court studio at Udaipur. The manuscript of the text was copied in seven large volumes in nagari script by Mahatma Hirananda between 1649 and 1653, and illuminated by Sahib Dib, Manohar, and other artists in the court studio of the Ranas of Udaipur, Jagat Singh (1628-1652) and Raj Singh (1652-1680).
Illustrated on the grandest scale, with over 400 paintings, the vivid, brightly coloured scenes are packed with narrative detail and dramatic imagery, with no episode of the great epic overlooked. Two of the volumes have been identified as being painted by the studio master Sahib Din with other paintings being completed in a related Mewar style, but the volume set in the monkey kingdom of Kishkindha, is in an anonymous style heavily influenced by painting from the Deccan, parts of which had long been identified with the monkey kingdom of Kishkindha itself.
Sahib Din Principal Artist at Udaipur Court
Sahib Din was the principal artist working at the Udaipur court studio in the 17th century. His known works span the years 1628 to 1653. By select and inventive borrowings from the type of popular work produced in the Mughal capital, he was able to transform Rajput painting into a sophisticated vehicle for the depiction of Rajput society and ideals. Four of the original seven volumes are in the British Library, having been given by Maharana Bhim Singh to James Tod, the historian of the Rajputs, in about 1820.
The exhibition has also agreed loans of paintings, textiles and sculptures from other major collections in the UK, including the V&A, the British Museum and the Ashmolean Museum, as well as shadow puppets and dance costumes from the Horniman Museum. Many of these items have never, or seldom, been publicly displayed. A final ‘hands-on’ section will show how central the Ramayana is to contemporary Indian life.
British Library Sound Archive
The show also includes original British Library Sound Archive recordings of readings and chantings of the Sanskrit and other versions of the Ramayana, the singing of devotional hymns to Rama and dramatic and dance music from India and South-East Asia including Gamelan music associated with shadow puppet plays in Bali and Java.
These Mewar Ramayana manuscripts are brought vividly to life by the exhibition design of the Tara Arts Theatre Company, known for producing vibrant adaptations of European and Asian classics. Tara Arts are transforming the library’s exhibition gallery into a colourful space to explore the tales in the Ramayana and to draw visitors into the story in a theatrical and dynamic way, which is hoped will appeal to a wide audience that will attract families and school children as well as art-lovers and academics.
The showing of The Mewar Ramayana is accompanied by a full events programme including films, performances, shadow-puppetry and gamelan music, talks and discussions. A selection of images from the manuscript has been digitised and is available to view with Turning the Pages technology in the exhibition and online on the library’s website. The Ramayana Love and Valour in India’s Great Epic runs until 14 September at The British Library, 96 Euston Road, London.