Ramayana works at click of button

Ramayana works at click of button

Till some years ago, art historians thought the major chunk of these miniature paintings has been lost 

Valmiki’s epic Ramayana is one of the greatest seminal works in the history of world literature that spawned hundreds of interpretations, plays, dance, paintings and original poetic works across Indian sub-continent and regions in the Far East.

One of the most important works produced during 17th century was carried out in Mewar kingdom by miniature artists in Rajasthani style and north Deccani School of painting. These paintings will be available in the cyberspace for the connoisseurs and scholars alike for viewing at the click of a button after March 21.

Two years of collaboration with British Library in London, the famed Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastusanghralaya Mumbai (CSMVS) (formerly known as Prince of Wales Museum) has managed to digitise almost 85 per cent of the total miniature paintings.

The history of Mewar Ramayana is as fascinating as the intensity of fascination people have for epics through ages. Unlike the terse, sharp and spare verse of the other well-known epic Mahabharata, Valmiki’s Ramayana is dreamy with emotions conveyed more through the prismatic vagaries of nature.

The two epics depicted the social stratification and the class and the caste hierarchies that were setting in the northern part of the sub-continent. How­ever, unlike Mahabharata, which portrayed the interne­cine chaotic stresses of society in a state of transition from nomadic to agrarian culture, Rama­yana was more grounded in a society that was already agrarian wanting to lose itself in a world of order away from the everyday rife and strife that had begun marking the fast ossifying social structures.

Probably that was one of the reasons that poet Valmiki’s story of a king’s life intertwined with the lives away from the palaces, fascinated not just scholars but even commoners and power elites who found the “mythical hero” a powerful symbol and a weapon to use specially after 16th century Bhakti poet Tulsidas, a Vaishnavite, deified the key protagonist Rama as a “benevolent king who was an incarnation of Lord Vishnu.”

“And probably it is because of this deification that Rana Jagat Singh I of Mewar who lived in mid-17th century commissioned a series of miniature paintings depicting the entire drama of Valmiki’s Rama­yana… his kingdom Mewar was besieged by Mughals and he probably wanted to send a message to his subjects of his clan’s linkages with Rama’s ‘Suryavanshi (Solar clan),” says Vandana Prapanna, a senior curator at CSMVS, Mumbai.

The work commissioned by Rana Jagat Singh (1628-52) was later completed during the reign of successor Rana Raj Singh in 1653. In the court atelier, three artists carried out this massive project then-- Sahib Din, Manohar and the third artist’s name is now lost in the mists of time.

“While the first two artists who were considered as the two major artists of the period in the Rajas­thani school of paintings, the latter work shows that it was carried out by an artist who probably hailed from Aurangabad and had a style akin to the southern Indian school of paintings. So what you have now is a mix of two distinct styles of paintings with multiple perspectives through which the characters are looked at and whose attires and traditional dresses also undergo changes,” Prapanna points out.

What is surprising is that till some years ago art historians, scholars and art collectors thought the major chunk of these miniature paintings was lost after one of the Rana Jagat Singh’s descendants Rana Bhim Singh gifted away a large number of illustrations to a British Indologist Colonel James Tod who took it to London in 1823 and in turn prese­nted them to Duke of Sussex.

Soon after that it was last seen in early 20th century in British Museum and thereafter it was considered as lost. In total, there were 704 illustrations made in a span of four to five years. Ironically, the manuscripts in early 20th century disappeared from the Indian sub-continent. “What we know is that a major chunk of the 704 illustrations comprising all books was lying somewhere in England.

Here, we had 23 illustrations then Rajasthan Oriental Research Institute in Jodhpur had 72 in their posse­ssion, then Baroda Museum also was in possession of some paintings… in all in India we had 149 paintings.”

However, 164 years after these paintings went missing in London, a chance search in 2008 of one of the vaults of British Library revealed 555 folios with Sanskrit texts on one page and stunning illustrations by post-medieval and pre-modern period artists from Mewar and Deccan. All of them in pristine state with a modicum of smudge created by the ravages of time. However, British Library later finding some of the paintings deteriorating framed them individually for public.

Two years ago, CSMVS began the digitisation project in collaboration with the British Library,  and other institutions, to bring together all the books  along with the paintings; the project was sponsored by Jamsetji Tata Trust, World Collections Progra­mme and Friends of the British Library.

The meta data for the digitisation was created by British museologist Jeremiah Losty and art historian Dr Roda Ahluwalia and the manuscript will now be put on the web in the form of Turning The Pages (TTP) technology which is an interactive anima­tion of books, developed by British Library to allow the user to leaf through the pages of a rare book or manuscript in a highly realistic manner.

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