In the upstairs pink-washed interiors of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, the god-king Rama is depicted with celestial blue skin, using pigment made from crushed lapis lazuli. All colours, obtained through natural processes by pounding vegetables or powdering rocks, are applied with a single-haired squirrel brush, and Rama’s jewels, almost imperceptible, are made of fireflies with clipped wings.
Courtesy of the National Museum, New Delhi, The Story of Rama is an exhibition of 101 miniatures from 16–19th century India, which together retell the Sanskrit epic-poem Ramayana. It is a story that is fundamental to the cultural consciousness of India, and is at the heart of the Hindu moral compass.
It is very difficult not to be awe-struck, almost moved by the loveliness of these works. The technical mastery is exquisite and the presentation in the gallery is equally lush. But these are cultural objects of historical significance to India, and the deeper significance any viewer here might find seems contingent on the viewer’s capacity to re-orient themselves in two different ways, to two different things: to the priorities of Indian art, and to the content of the Indian epic-poem.
Unlike the Western painter of the same period, the miniaturist seems not to prioritise geometric proportions of material form, but instead pines for lyrical expression through precise figurative exaggerations—the many hands and heads of Ravana, the spotted skins of his ministers, the elongated faces with crescent-shaped eyes. The names of the artists are very rarely recorded or preserved, because they are not important. Anonymity, paradoxically, validates the artwork; a signature on an image of gods and goddesses is considered a sign of the artist’s vanity, undermining the religious vibrancy of the work itself. Besides, the miniatures seek to add to a collective literature, rather than be in themselves singularly innovative works. The content of these paintings, after all, is not original. As if an index, they point outside of themselves to fragments in the epic-poem. Broadly speaking, these artworks function as a retelling, a transference of what already exists in literature into miniature form. The content of each painting, in other words, is un-interpretable, unless interpreted through the epic-poem.
In the final few miniatures of the exhibition, in an alcove space within the gallery, we learn of a raw deal meted out to Sita. Her banishment by her husband-king Rama jolts us, and compels us to question how it is that one comes to imagine as an incarnation of the divine he who exiles his wife on account of washer-people’s gossip. Rama is acknowledged as the moral ideal, and yet, the ideal is something altogether tragic.
However, it is too easy to vilify Rama. For the sake of this delightful exhibition, I encourage viewers to suspend quick judgement, think-through this sad story, and read Ramayana in the miniature paintings as a complex tragedy of tangled obligations and vows, war and exile, love and loss. After all, contrary to popular understanding, Ramayana is not a simple tale of good overcoming evil, followed by a homecoming party of heroes marking Diwali.