A new exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met), New York, Sita and Rama: The Ramayana in Indian Painting, showcases 30 outstanding paintings that narrate Rama’s rescue of his wife Sita.

On display until February 2020, this eclectic collection — astounding in its range — is a great repository of narratives for anyone interested in unravelling the story of the Ramayana.

Drawn from the Met’s expansive collection, the works were produced for the Rajput and Pahari courts of north India between the 17th and 19th centuries, and captured the collective visual imagination of court artists who created these masterpieces.

1. Rumal with Scenes from the Ramayana_sm

Above image: Rumal with Scenes from the Ramayana. India, Jammu and Kashmir, Chamba. 18th century cotton with silk, tinsel, and metal embroidery.

The exhibition was organised by Kurt Behrendt, associate curator in the Department of Asian Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, who says that these sophisticated paintings capture the dramatic moments that make the story of the Ramayana accessible to the audiences who are not very familiar with the epic.

“I do believe that the artists working in the 17th to early 19th centuries had a very different understanding of the Ramayana than we do now,” Behrendt says. “Today these paintings remain evocative and meaningful, offering us a window into how artists and the patrons who sponsored them, understood this great, epic story.”

Among the highlights of the exhibition is the early 19th century masterpiece Rama, Sita and Lakshmana Begin their Life in the Forest, that represents the sophisticated late Pahari painting tradition; it is a visually arresting piece: the landscape is lush, the palette subtle, and the style understated.

2. Rama and Lakshmana Search in Vain for Sita

Seen here — Rama and Lakshmana search in vain for Sita: Folio from a dispersed Ramayana series. India, Rajasthan, Mewar, ca. 1680–90. Ink and opaque watercolour on paper.

A rare late 18th century textile piece in the exhibition, The Combat of Rama and Ravana, depicts the penultimate battle in the Ramayana, when Rama and his monkey and bear armies fight Ravana and his hordes of demons. The surrounding battleground is filled with combatants and the dismembered bodies of the slain. This vivid and masterful example of south Indian textile painting, kalamkari, demonstrates the artist's ability to capture in lively brushwork the energy and majesty of the epic battle.

Each school of painting seemingly also had specific pigments it preferred to use over others, which makes it easy to distinguish its work from others’. Important pigments include indigo, lapis lazuli, malachite, iron and copper oxides, lead white, Indian yellow, cochineal, vermilion and lamp black.

Behrendt says that personally, he finds the late 17th to early 18th century Shangri Ramayana series especially compelling. “The artists who created this series take advantage of vibrant colour fields and patterns to create spatially complex paintings. These works stand in contrast to the late 18th century Kangra paintings with their emphasis on fantastic landscapes,” he explains.

3. First Generation after Nainsukh and Nainsukh

In this image — First generation after Manaku and Nainsukh. Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana at the Hermitage of Bharadvaja: Folio from a dispersed Ramayana series. India (Kangra, Himachal Pradesh), ca. 1780. Opaque watercolour and ink on paper.

Behrendt adds that the choice of illustrating certain moments is quite telling. “The juxtaposition of the dense, textually correct narrative of the late 18th century paintings from Kangra stands in contrast with earlier works from the Rajasthani courts that present key events from the story more graphically using an early stylistic vocabulary,” he points out.

The piece de résistance of the exhibition includes a rare 19th century painting titled Tantric Form of Monkey God Hanuman that is a new addition to the Met's collection. This is the first time it is being displayed publicly.

This coloured drawing shows a complex tantric manifestation of Hanuman. In his many hands, he holds attributes, including a club, sword, axe, horn, and flowers as well as the peak of a mountain (in his upper left hand), which relates to an episode in the Ramayana. Characteristic of this tantric aspect of Hanuman, he tramples on male and female demons and his arms symbolise the 12 elements. He wears a crown and projecting above are five subsidiary heads: a goose (hamsa), snake, mule, lion, and horse.

The array of secondary heads seen here does occur in other tantric paintings of Hanuman from Rajasthan and Gujarat dating to the 18th and 19th centuries, though the specific textual source for this remains unknown. Hanuman’s arched tail forms a halo above his heads that supports a row of hanging severed heads. At the center of his chest is a solar disk. Other tantric examples of Hanuman will often set a diagram (yantra) within this solar disk. This will take the form of a star set within a lotus that has the names of all great monkey warriors from the Ramayana (Sugriva, Angada, Nala, etc.).

The importance of these paintings cannot be emphasised enough. As Behrendt says, “The spectacular paintings featured in this exhibition capture something of the 17th to 19th century understanding of the great epic. Over the centuries and across Asia, the Ramayana has been the subject of many artworks, and this exhibition can only show a sliver of the major tradition.”

See more from the exhibition —

5. Hanuman Receives Rama and Lakshmana with Medicinal Herbs

Workshop active in the first generation after Nainsukh. Hanuman revives Rama and Lakshmana with medicinal herbs: Folio from a dispersed Ramayana series. India, Punjab Hills, kingdom of Guler, ca. 1790. Ink and opaque watercolour on paper.

6. Textile Panel with Scenes from the Ramayana_sm

Textile panel with scenes from the Ramayana. Nepal, ca. 15th century. Silk embroidery on polished cotton.

7. Rama Receives Sugriva and Jambayat, the Monkey and Bear Kings

Rama receives Sugriva and Jambavat, the Monkey and Bear Kings: Folio from a Ramayana. Islamic, Mughal period (1526–1858), ca. 1605. Ink, opaque watercolour, and gold on paper.

8. Ravana Receiving News of Rama from the Demon Akampana

Ravana receiving news of Rama from the Demon Akampana: Folio from a Ramayana. Islamic, Mughal period (1526–1858), ca. 1605. Opaque watercolour and gold on paper.

9. The Death of King Dasharatha

The death of King Dasharatha, the father of Rama: Folio from a Ramayana. Islamic, Mughal period (1526–1858), ca. 1605. Opaque watercolour and gold on paper.

10. The Monkey King Vali's Funeral Pyre

Workshop active in the first generation after Manaku and Nainsukh. The Monkey King Vali's funeral pyre: Folio from a dispersed Ramayana series. India, Punjab Hills, kingdom of Kangra, ca. 1780. Ink, opaque watercolour, silver, and gold on paper.

12. Mourning the Assumed Death of Rama and Lakshmana

Mourning the assumed death of Rama and Lakshmana: Folio from the dispersed Shangri Ramayana series (Style III). India, Punjab Hills, kingdom of Jammu (Bahu), ca. 1700–1730. Opaque watercolour on paper.

13. The Monkey Prince Angada Steals Ravana's Crown

The Monkey Prince Angada steals Ravana’s crown: Folio from the dispersed Shangri Ramayana series (Style III). India, Punjab Hills, kingdom of Jammu (Bahu), ca. 1700–30. Opaque watercolour on paper.

14. Rama and Sita Enthroned

Rama and Sita enthroned. India, Rajasthan, kingdom of Bikaner, ca. 1650. Opaque watercolour and gold on paper.

15. Rama Visits Sita and Tells Her of His Banishment to the Forest

Rama visits Sita and tells her of his banishment to the forest: Illustrated folio from the dispersed Shangri Ramayana (Style II). India, Punjab Hills, kingdom of Jammu (Bahu), ca. 1690–1710. Opaque watercolour, gold, and silver on paper.

16. Rama, Sita and Lakeshmana Begin their Life in the Forest

Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana begin their life in the forest. India, Punjab Hills, kingdom of Kangra, ca. 1800–1810. Opaque watercolour, gold and silver on paper.

17. Rama Enters the City Gates of Mithila to Seek Sita's Hand in Marriage_sm

Rama enters the city gates of Mithila to seek Sita’s hand in marriage: Illustrated folio from a dispersed Ramayana series. India, Punjab Hills, kingdom of Kangra, ca. 1780. Ink and opaque watercolour on paper.

18. Indra Offers Sita a Plate of Divine Food

Indra offers Sita a plate of divine food: Illustrated folio from the dispersed Shangri Ramayana series (Style IV). India, Punjab Hills, kingdom of Jammu (Bahu), ca. 1710–40. Opaque watercolour and gold on paper.

19. Hanuman Bearing the Mountaintop with Medicinal Hears

Hanuman bearing the mountaintop with medicinal herbs. India, Rajasthan, ca. 1800. Ink and opaque watercolour on cloth.

— All images courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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