Indian, Madhya Pradesh, Datia, Rama’s Army Attacks Ravana’s Demon Army, page from a Ramayana, 1595, opaque watercolors and gold on paper, 28 x 19 cm.
From the Times, a long one:
Together with the Mahabarata, the Ramayana is one of the great folk epics of Hindu culture. By legend, it is commonly ascribed to the Indian writer-sage Valmiki. Although its precise date of origin is unknown, it is thought by scholars to be over 2,000 years old. The original Sanskrit text is spread throughout the country and throughout Southeast Asia, often in altered versions. There it profoundly influenced the arts and the common culture. It combines moral and spiritual guidance with a story of high adventure that is both engrossing and, ultimately, tragic.
In seven books, Valmiki's Ramayana covers the life of Rama, who is said to be an incarnation of the god Vishnu. Upon losing his kingship amidst familial conflict, he leaves his city of Ayodhya and takes to voluntary exile in the woods. There he is joined by his ever-faithful wife, Sita. Sita however is soon abducted by the demon-king Ravana, who imprisons her in the city of Lanka. After enlisting the help of the monkey-man general Hanuman, and his simian troops, and after much violent struggle, he is able to take the city and liberate his wife. Although this should be a happy ending, further complications ensue, with unfortunate results.
Up now at the Johnson Museum, "Ramayana in the Arts of India and Southeast Asia" contains some stunning work. As befits it modest (by museum standards) scale, the show focuses on a relatively narrow geographic and historical range. Middle-Eastern influenced miniature paintings from India are one emphasis. A stylistically distinct body of work — paintings and shadow puppets — coming from the south of the subcontinent is another. A group of 20th century folk textiles from Bali make up a third focus. Other locales get only token representation. And although artists have been illustrating the Ramayana for much longer, the majority of work here comes from the last 300 years or so.
The first of these contains the best art here. As their size and proportions might indicate, these miniatures originate as book or album pages. They are colored in opaque watercolor, often with the addition of gold. Bookended by the rise of the Islamic Mughal Empire (16th though 19th century) and the 19th century institution of Western-style oil painting by the British colonialists, they represent a period of great accomplishment in Indian painting. Characteristic is a stylistic syncretism and the proliferation of distinctive regional and court-based approaches. For shear refinement and sophistication, the work is hard to beat.
Hanuman Sets Fire to the Golden City of Lanka (early 19th century) is a particularly striking example. To give the back-story, the monkey-general has travelled to the mythic island city (in present-day Sri-Lanka) to contact Sita. He does so successfully, but is then found out. Ravana wishes to kill Hanuman, but his moral code prohibits doing this to a mere messenger. Instead, he sets his tail on fire. In revenge, Hanuman goes around the city, setting flames, before finally escaping to rejoin Rama on the mainland.
The painting is ingeniously composed and ambiguous in its perspective. It is horizontally oriented and contains three sharply divided sections. To the right is the polygonal city, mainly colored pale and indian yellow. Its thick outer walls are as if squashed flat across the ground. Inside: a maze of buildings and doors, archways, demons, scattered purple flames rendered translucently. In the middle is an curvaceous expanse of pea-soup-green. It narrows towards the left; near the tip of the mini-penisula a light-skinned Hanuman stands in profile. He steps forward but faces back, his flaming tail echoing its handiwork. To the left is the dark blue sea covered in white swirls — abstracted waves. The combination of broad areas of flat color, with fine details rendered less opaquely is effective.
Lanka and it surrounds are also the setting for Rama's Army Attacks Ravana's Demon Army (1595). The vertical miniature uses a more naturalistic perspective than Hanuman. The city — here covered all-over in real gold, with black lines — stands against the top edge of the page, indicating its distance. In front rages a wild battle, the two sides facing each other wielding bows, swords, shields, and spears. In the lower left corner are Rama (blue skin) and his younger brother Lakshmana (light-skinned). Their postures and orange bows echo each other. Fighting with them is Hanuman's monkey army, each also blue or light. Facing them from the right of the page is a heterogeneously hued crew of horned demons. Together, the figures form a dense, rhythmic tangle. A cloud of white, in places quite translucent, surround the fighters.
The painting contains a variety of stylistic tendencies, ranging from the somewhat stiff line drawing of the city to the fluid outlines and painterliness of the rocks and foliage setting the city off from the combatants.
Three paintings from the south of India (all 19th century) show a more direct approach. Their style, which is quite uniform, is characterized by an all-over flatness and the prominent use of black outlining. Characters (excepting a multi-headed Ravana in one scene) are seen in profile. There is an ample use of bands, stripes, and various architectural motifs to structure the compositions. Forms occluding others give the only hint of depth.
A similarly blunt, dark-outlined style can be found in the numerous South Indian shadow puppets. Made of animal hide, and mounted through the center on wooden rods, they are substantially larger than the paintings. Each is punctured by cutout holes.
The most striking of these are arranged a long display. Each one is a major Ramayana character. Elevated a few feet from the ground, they match human height. With two exceptions, the colors are bold (but not garish). Rama, for one, has dark turquoise skin. The bad guys, Ravana and Kumbhakarna (his brother), are more subtle: mostly red with black, and white details. The former has eight heads rather than his characteristic 10 and again breaks from the usual profile. The latter's giant stature is indicated by his over-scaled head. In most of these puppets, the patterning is rich, with exuberant stripes, swirls, and bursts. Dense filigrees of holes help the puppets stand out, along with the (somewhat harsh) fluorescent under-lighting.
Another Indian puppet (20th century), shows Sita crouched amidst leaves, snakes, and birds. Notably, it depicts a specific scene rather than just a character. It is also unique for its lack of joints. Although its inside cutouts are delightfully intricate, the overall shape is rather formless.
For comparison, she is hung next to a Javanese Shadow Puppet of Hanuman. The stylistic contrast is sharp. Hanuman is covered head to toe in gold, with sinuous details in red, white, and black. His limbs are skinny and project in an angular manner. The decorative detailing - painted and cut - is particularly intricate. The face is wildly mannered. In further contrast to the flatness of the South Indian styles, shading appears in the form of feathery black marks around the edges of the limbs.
The Balinese embroidered cloths here may be familiar to Johnson visitors from "The Story Cloths of Bali," a show from early 2006. They represent the scholarly and collection efforts of Joseph Fischer, who has written a useful and accessible book with the same title as that exhibit (copyright 2004). According to him, the works originate from the Balinese regions of Jembrana and Buleleng, and in particular from the city of Negara, in the former district. Often they involve collaboration between a man, who selects traditional subjects and renders them in pencil outline, and a woman, who chooses the colors and does the actual embroidery. The finished pieces are used in a variety of Hindu rituals, often alongside other art-forms such as dance, architecture, and painting. Sadly, Fischer reports that the tradition is now moribund, having faded during his researches of the nineties.
Although one piece features a red background, most feature plain, off-white cotton backings, to which colored cotton thread has been applied. The threads sometimes veer towards the garish and the synthetic-looking — even iridescent colors. This is a difficult tightrope to walk when surrounded by so much classical restraint and some areas don't quite pull it off. (The 2006 show featured even more over-the-top work.) A variety of embroidery techniques are used, resulting in a richly expressive array of textures. Faces are typically rendered in outlines, while bodies and other forms are made up of solid or sketchy color-areas. Personages are labeled with Roman letters.
A scattering of sculptures from otherwise unrepresented regions round out the show. Their inclusion feels a bit teasing; still, some pieces are impressive. A pair of tall, carved wooden doors is a standout amongst these. Thai or Cambodian, each door shows a combatant: Hanuman on the left and Ravana on the right, facing each other. Their detailed armor makes them look flat and a bit stiff. This is in contrast to the more dimensional, life-like character of the animals occupying smaller sections below each. The doors were originally gilded gold and a dusting towards the door-tops remains.
Given its relatively modest ambitions, "Ramayana in the Arts of India and Southeast Asia" is a success. It features some highly impressive work — some of the miniature-paintings in particular — and it offers a compelling and accessible entryway into a rich subject.