Reading the Ramayana, differently

BNG’s column

No. 594 (January 20. 2019)

Yaavad sthaasyanti girayah, saritashcha mahitale

Taavad Ramayana-katha lokeshu pracharishyati

[As long as mountains stay firm, and as long as rivers flow on this earth, the story of the Ramayana shall continue to be told and recited in this world.]

— Popular Sanskrit saying

Seeing those large and extensive series of paintings that used to be produced in India once — not in the north alone, like Rajasthan or the Hills, nor in known groups of styles, like Rajput or Mughal, for instance — one often wonders who constituted the ‘audience’ for those. Surely they must have been commissioned by rulers or persons of means, but how were these viewed, and by whom? These are not the sharpest of questions, but one has the feeling sometimes that some of the series — a Gita Govinda, a Bhagavata Purana, a Rasikapriya — consisting of a sizeable set of folios, with not only texts, like those in Sanskrit or Braja-bhasha, written on the back of each folio with accessible translations or summaries following the texts, were probably meant for small groups of persons. This, because what was in the images might not have been self-evident, or their subtleties needed to be brought out. Why else, one is entitled to wonder, would, on the back of each folio of the 18th century Gita Govinda series from Guler, for instance, each Sanskrit verse was followed not only by a literal translation in Hindi, but also a familiar sounding commentary in the local dialect. A bevy of girls might be seen clinging to Krishna in the image but the commentary on the back would contain formulations like ‘eh kadeha hai krishan’ (what is he like, this Krishna?); ‘gopiyan kya galaandiya hun” (what are the gopis saying to one another?). Then follow, in the same easy manner, the answers to these simply put questions as given in the somewhat hard-to-reach verse in Sanskrit. One can visualise viewing sessions where a group of persons — young princes and princesses, or women in the royal household — would be sitting on a carpeted floor around a learned pandit who would show them the paintings one by one, and then proceed, like a katha-vachak, to ‘explain’ them while pointing to the finer points both of the image and the text.

Are there grounds for thinking along these lines? Whatever the case, my mind travelled in this direction again when, in a catalogue, I chanced recently upon some scattered folios — four of them in fact — of what must have been an extensive series of paintings of the Ramayana. The series is quite late — early 19th century is the probable date — and is painted in the style that one associates with workshops active in the Jaipur-Alwar region. In comparison to the usual size of miniatures, the folios are large, measuring as they do 14 inches by 19. Stylistically, these are not the greatest of works, but paintings are packed with figures and action, isolated episodes from the great epic rendered in emphatically compressed manner, the same figure/s appearing several times over. In different spaces on the same page, for instance, at one place Hanumana is seen looking for the miraculous herb, sanjivani, which will save Lakshmana lying senseless on the battlefield; at another he meets with resistance from a demon in disguise; at a remove from this, unable to identify the herb, he uproots a part of the mountain on which herbs grow; a little further away Bharata appears, and shoots Hanumana down mistaking him for some demon sent by the enemy; upon discovering that he is none else than an ally and devotee of Rama, and sensing that there is no room for delay, he asks the great vanara to ride, together with the mountain rock, an arrow of his which he shoots straight in the direction of the battlefield where the herb is needed; and finally, in one corner of the same page, the healer-priest appears and brings Lakshmana back to life using the herb that Hanumana has brought. All of this, and more, on the same page. One grows almost breathless asking the eye to travel quickly from one space to another. This really is the pattern on each page: action piles upon action, the whole surface gets populated, space and time are transgressed, all in the interest of the narrative moving forward.

In the midst of all this, the eye moves inevitably to the wide margins of the page which are filled to the brim, unlike any other Ramayana series that one knows, with blocks of text written in clear Devanagari script. At the top of each page all the action that is seen in the painting is summarized, this block of text beginning with the words: “ya patra mein yeh chitra hai…” meaning, “on this leaf is shown this painting…” On other parts of the margins appear excerpts, first, from the relevant shlokas from the Sanskrit text of Valmiki’s Ramayana, and then, in another space on the margins, excerpts – dohas, chaupais, sorathas – from Tulasidasa’s revered opus, the Ramacharitamanasa.

What does all this tell us? I have not spoken even passingly of the quality of the paintings here, nor about the style. This, because there is need to return to the point with which I began. Seeing these folios, I can visualize the scene as I did before: a very learned person – a pandit perhaps, knower of the great texts that the paintings illustrate – seated on the marble floor of some palace, with a small group seated around, young or old, men or women, master or servant, to whom he shows the painting, narrates the gist of the action, and then recites from the sacred texts, once in Sanskrit and then in Avadhi-Hindi. A reading, and seeing, of a different order.

*****

¬

Captions for visuals

(All paintings are from the same Ramayanaseries; Jaipur, early 19th century; all of them have broad margins with texts)

1. (no. 3280)

Episode: Hanumana and the Sanjivani herb

Blocks of text on the margins

2. (no. 3283)

Episode: Hanumana and the Sanjivani herb

(Detail)

3. (no.3269)

Episode: The queen Mandodari pleads with Ravana

Detail

4. ( no. 3278)

Episode: The sage Vasishtha instructs Sumantra after king Dasharatha faints

Detail

5. (no. 3287)

Episode: In the forest Rama gets news of his father’s death, and performs shraaddha

Detail

RELATED Paper reading contest