Exile and the Kingdom

“The Combat of Rama and Ravana”, 18th century, Coromandel Coast. Image: Met Museum

An ongoing exhibition of miniatures inspired by the Ramayana, at the Met in New York City

Originally published in India Today.

Far from the bustling, big-ticket shows of Dutch Masters or Camp fashion, beyond the high-ceilinged galleries of large American canvases, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a maze of jewel-box galleries. Hosting exhibitions like Sita and Rama: The Ramayana in Indian Painting, these dimly lit chambers hint at the museum’s even vaster subterranean collections.

When airing out its cache of South Asian miniature art, the Met has periodically shown groups of paintings from the Ramayana—most recently in 2005 and 2010. This current exhibition, on view in two rotations until August 2020, includes 30 paintings and a couple of textile pieces.

“Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana at the Hermitage of Bharadvaja”, ca. 1780, Kangra. Image: Met Museum

Mounted in a room painted deep vermilion, Sita and Rama is accessed via a landing—installed with the dome and balconies of a sixteenth-century Jain prayer hall from Patan—in the museum’s Asian wing. Its limited size has advantages. In larger exhibitions, like the National Museum’s 2013 Ram Katha, it can be difficult to take in much detail from any one miniature before moving on to the next; minimal placards devoid of information about style or provenance also tend to flatten such shows, emphasising the unity of their mythical subject over the specific history of each object.

Sita and Rama is as intimate a viewing of a collection of miniatures as anyone who isn’t a royal patron—at leisure to rifle through their folios—could hope for. Of course, unlike the complete manuscripts commissioned by such patrons, the works here are distilled from a range of sources, spanning various Pahari and Rajput courts between the 17th and 19th centuries, and arranged in rough narrative order.

“The Monkey King Vali’s Funeral Pyre”, ca 1780, Kangra. Image: Met Museum

At least one of them though plays fast and loose with narrative order, adding Hanuman to a scene of Rama’s early exile. This early nineteenth-century Pahari painting, “A Thorn is Removed from Rama’s Foot”, is a compositional masterpiece full of harmonious rounded shapes: the curve of Rama’s reclining body; Sita and Lakshmana’s bent, leaf-covered heads; a pair of bows and swords; a trussed deer; rolling hills; a meandering stream lined with smooth white stones; and finally, Hanuman’s rump, turned skyward as he bends to drink water.

The scene is a rare idyll among the others. There’s the unsettling “Rama and Lakshmana Search in Vain for Sita”, a seventeenth-century Mewari painting that sets off the anxious search against a blue background with sparse trees, a cave and a lake. A painting from Jammu, “Indra Offers Sita a Plate of Payas”, vibrates with the danger of the scene—Sita’s demon guards sleep nearby—and its rich yellow field.

“Rama and Lakshmana Search in Vain for Sita”, ca. 1680–90, Mewar. Image: Met Museum

The sense of loss in “The Death of King Dasharatha” is heightened by this Mughal-style miniature’s missing portion, due to damage from fire. This mysterious folio is part of a set from circa 1605, possibly commissioned by the Bundela Rajput noble who assassinated Abu’l Fazal (author of the Akbarnama) as part of Jahangir’s plot against his father. It’s not the only object with an interesting history; for example, several of the works here belong to the Kronos Collection, amassed by wealthy art collector Steven Kossak, who became an art history graduate student in his late 30s in order to become a curator at the Met.

For the engaged viewer, each object in this concise show has the space to come alive, set off against its particular history, ultimately strengthening the idea of the Ramayana’s multiplicity over its sometimes monolithic stature.

“The Death of King Dasharatha”, ca 1605. Image: Met Museum

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