Over two thousand years, the Ramayana has found expression in more than a dozen languages and in every kind of art from fifth-century Gupta sculpture to twentieth-century television soaps. So voluminous has the output been, writes scholar AK Ramanujan in his essay, Three Hundred Ramayanas, that as long ago as the fourteenth century, the Kannada poet Kumaravyasa chose to write the Mahabharata instead because he heard “the cosmic serpent which upholds the earth groaning under the burden of Ramayana poets”.
This fortnight, art historian BN Goswamy will explore the epic’s enduring presence in Indian art and life with an illustrated talk featuring Mughal, Pahari and Rajasthani paintings and more. The talk will be followed by a performance by leading bharatanatyam dancer Malavika Sarukkai. The event, organised by the National Centre for the Performing Arts and the Sahachari Foundation, is the third such collaboration between the historian and the dancer.
Goswamy is the country’s preeminent expert on miniature painting. But his talk will go beyond art, he said in an email interview from his residence in Chandigarh, to “try and share with the audience my perception of the place that the Ramayana occupies in the average Indian’s (or Hindu’s) mind”. Goswamy said, “Strictly speaking it is not on an art historical journey that I will be embarking upon, but one that explores states of mind.”
The Ramayana has great personal meaning for Goswamy, whose writings on the subject are both precise and full of feeling. In his preface to the seven-volume illustrated Ramayana published earlier this year by Diane de Selliers, Goswamy recalls that as a child he would sit down with his siblings every evening to hear his father recite from the epic. An oleograph of Ram and Sita would be propped before them and a small rug placed nearby, reserved for Hanuman. Before his father began reading, he would invite the warrior monkey to come and listen “for it was his belief … that the immortal Hanuman, who still roams the earth, would never even miss a word of any recital of Rama’s great deeds”, writes Goswami. The children drank in every twist in the tale, every description. “It was all very real, the daily experience becoming over time a part of ourselves,” he writes. “Themes of eternity, honour, faith, devotion: things that shaped our lives in some manner.”
Many Hindu homes place the Ramayana more highly than the Mahabharata – Goswamy notes that few households even have a copy of the latter epic. “The Mahabharata is a far more complex text and one in which far more contradictions are to be found than an average person can handle,” he explained. But the Ramayana is also not simply an engaging epic story. “It is in essence seen as a dharmashastra, something that lays down codes of conduct, establishes ideals, defines values, charts a course for lives,” Goswamy said.
For the purposes of art, the epic serves up every possible theme – war, kinship, exile, love, revenge, nature. Just as there are diverse written and oral versions of the tale, there is “an enormous variety in the renderings of the epic” in Indian painting, said Goswamy. Still, it can be astonishing to see the resonations across languages and art forms. The twelfth-century Kamba Ramayana begins with rain tumbling down on Ayodhya. In Ramanujan’s translation of the Tamil poem, the waters turn “forest into slope, field into wilderness”, a flood that “roared on like the pasts / that hurry close on the heels / of their lives”. The image echoes in a very different context in a sixteenth-century Pahari painting singled out by Goswamy in his preface essay. The painting shows the royal exiles being ferried across a river. The figures are tiny and the river is enormous, like a flood, reflecting, Goswamy suggests, the painter “coalescing the river of his experience with the uncharted ocean of sorrows” that is this world.
This fortnight’s event highlights this kind of “wonderful osmosis between the arts”, said Sarukkai in a phone interview from Chennai, where she lives. She described her dance beautifully as “painting in the now”. Her collaboration with Goswamy, she said, has made her pay attention to the finer movements of the dance vocabulary, “just as one may take a magnifying glass to a miniature to detect the subtler lines”.
Sarukkai will perform two very different pieces, both choreographed by her. The first piece will enact the Marichavadam episode from the Tulsidas Ramayana in which Sita is lured by a golden deer. The second piece will dramatise a part of the intense and lyrical Kamba Ramayana. “The Tulsidas piece is for the sheer narrative beauty, the high drama and the grand characters,” said Sarukkai, “while the Kamba explores the rich emotional content in the poetry.” The choreography will thus move from “action-oriented narratives” to the “emotion-drenched stillness of painting”, she said.
Sarukkai has performed these pieces many times over the years, but each time they feel different. “The epics are never literal, they work on many levels and they reverberate in the telling and retelling,” she said. “So, too, there is a re-envisioning of space and character in every performance.”
By Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar on January 05 2012 6.30pm