The digital reunification of a 17th-century Ramayana manuscript from Mewar.
Souren Melikian, 2011
THIS STATEMENT BY SOUREN MELIKIAN IN HIS ARTICLE "CENTURY-OLD VANDALISM of Islamic Art, and Its Price" in The New York Times, April 16-17, 2011, describes the woebegone state of thousands of precious painted manuscripts commissioned by emperors and kings of a bygone era. The illustrated Ramayana manuscript commissioned by Maharana Jagat Singh I of Mewar (r. 1628-52) seems to have almost escaped that fate. Though not complete in its entirety, most of the seven volumes of Valmiki's epic, illustrated by artists at the Mewar court in Rajasthan in the 17th century, are intact and preserved in the British Library, London, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mumbai, two other institutions in India and in a private collection.
The British Library holds 555 folios of this manuscript, of which 300 are illustrated. These comprise five of the seven volumes: Ayodhyakanda (Book of Ayodhya), Sundarakanda (Beautiful Book), Kishkindhakanda (Book of Kishkindha), Yuddhakanda (Book of Battles) and Uttarakanda (Last Book). (The British Library also holds a Balakanda from a later Mewar Ramayana, prepared under Sangram Singh, c. 1712.) The Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya Mumbai (formerly The Prince of Wales Museum of Western India, hereafter referred to as the CSMVS) has 23 illustrated folios with Sanskrit text inscribed on the reverse, all of which belong to the first volume, the Balakanda (Book of Childhood). While the Baroda Museum and Picture Gallery has one illustrated folio of the Balakanda, the remaining 49 illustrated folios from this volume are in a private collection. The Rajasthan Oriental Research Institute (RORI) at Jodhpur has the entire Aranyakanda (Book of the Forest) comprising 72 folios of which 36 are illustrated.
Five volumes of the manuscript were commissioned for Maharana Jagat Singh I by his court librarian, Acharya Jasvant. Later another functionary, Vyasa Jayadeva, commissioned the Kishkindhakanda and Uttarakanda, both of which were completed during the reign of Maharana Jagat Singh's successor, Maharana Raj Singh I (r. 1652-80). The first volume, the Balakanda, was completed in 1649, while the Kishkindhakanda and the Uttarakanda were the last to be completed in 1653. The Sanskrit text was written in Devanagari script by a Jain scribe, Mahatma Hirananda. Five of the volumes were illustrated by the master-painters Sahibdin and Manohar with their apprentices in a development of the early Rajput style of painting. The paintings in the other two volumes are in a style influenced by Deccani painting, the artist or artists being unknown.
The manuscript epitomizes the apogee of painting in Maharana Jagat Singh's studio. It was commissioned during the golden age of Udaipur, when Mewar was finally at peace with its enemy, the Mughals, thereby enabling the arts to flourish and receive new impulses through contact with the grandeur of the imperial court. This magnificent manuscript evokes the spirit of Mewar at the time--a period of glorious resurgence of Rajput culture and of the classical Indian tradition. It was unusual, to say the least, for a ruler of a small Rajput state to undertake such a large and ambitious project, and the reasons for doing so have been well documented by art historians. Maharana Jagat Singh wished to make a statement to all that he was a dharmic (righteous) ruler of the Suryavanshi race, descended from a son of Rama himself. The Mughals were, on the other hand, likened to Ravana. The manuscript was therefore a symbol of Mewar pride and defiance against Mughal overlordship, despite the Sisodia clan's acceptance of Mughal power in 1615.
The master-artist Sahibdin has gained fame in the annals of Mewari art for his genius in depicting vivid detail and figural movement. Rajput painting in the mid-17th century was largely characterized by unrealistic representations of narratives set within brightly coloured blocks of unvaried reds, blues and greens, and Sahibdin was the first painter in Mewar who experimented with new ideas. Figure 1, depicting the Battle of Lanka raging around the ramparts of Ravana's fortress, is his tour de force. A melee of arms, torsos and weaponry entwined and juxtaposed with each other in violent engagement describes the chaos of warfare with immediacy. Figure 2 charms the viewer with the multicoloured mountain formations over which an ebullient Hanuman leaps to gather the herbs for Lakshmana's recovery, finally deciding to take the whole mountain instead. Figure 3 describing the life of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana in exile at Mount Chitrakuta is an enchanting painting with multiple depictions of the protagonists in time and space in a single folio; like figure 2, it is an example of the ancient style of continuous narration used by painters and sculptors alike for centuries on the subcontinent. This technique of simultaneous narrative was Sahibdin's forte and enabled him to include imagery of almost every episode. Tiny details such as two pairs of slippers neatly kept aside on the bank of the river, or a pair of bows with quivers of arrows hung at the entrance to the hut, reinforce Sahibdin's penchant for realism and meticulous depiction. Needless to say, Sahibdin's individualistic style must have been a breath of fresh air unusual in its time.
Sahibdin's contemporaries and successors, though indebted to him in so many ways, could not quite emulate his brilliant compositions, the movement and vitality in his painting. However, Sahibdin's apprentice Manohar, later an ustad or master in his own right, can be lauded for his original compositions in the Balakanda, Aranyakanda and Uttarakanda, some of which are charming examples of continuous narrative. In figure 4 Rama and Lakshmana accompany Vishvamitra to the place of his ritual sacrifice. They reach a hermitage and the brothers enquire about its history. Vishvamitra obliges with the story as follows: In a previous aeon Kama, the god of love, tried to smite Shiva with an arrow of love as he was passing by the hermitage, so that Shiva would lust for his wife, Parvati; but Shiva being the greatest of all mahayogis would never entertain any disturbance to his yogic discipline, and in his wrath he reduced Kama to ashes by sending out a flame from his third eye. The next morning the trio are ferried across the Ganga river en route to Vishvamitra's sacrifice.
Examples of the Deccan-influenced style of painting can be seen in figures 5 and 6. Figure 5 from the Sundarakanda portrays the famous encounter of Hanuman and Sita in the Ashoka grove, shown here as a lush tropical paradise with lotus pools, peacocks and other birds, and several varieties of trees set alongside a brilliantly coloured palace setting in Lanka. In figure 6 from the Kishkindhakanda, depicting the cremation of Vali, the monkeys who look almost human walk on their hindlegs in the kingdom of Kishkindha, vividly depicted by the painter as a group of architectural structures crowned by canopies and domes. The wisps of clouds are derived from Chinese painting via Persian manuscripts which made their way into the Deccani Sultanates in the 17th century. Artists at the courts of the Deccani sultans of the 16th and 17th centuries emulated Persian art and culture in every conceivable way, as Persia signified the high point of Islamic aesthetics at that time. Both these paintings were made by artists who may have been hired from the Deccan to speed up manuscript production.
The Digitization Process
In 2011 the CSMVS, Mumbai, and the British Library, London, proposed a collaborative effort to reunite all known folios of this exceptional manuscript, both image and text, for the first time in almost 200 years. The British Library, as holder of the largest portion of the surviving manuscript, led and coordinated the project overall, while the CSMVS was responsible for overseeing and coordinating all activities in India. "Interfiling" the folios from all participating institutions and the private collection would recreate the original sequence of all folios for each volume. The reunited folios would then be digitized and made available on the web by means of an exciting, innovative software program called "Turning The Pages" (TTP). This easy to use, award-winning program has been initiated by the British Library for some of the treasures in their holdings, and allows the user to virtually leaf through the pages of the manuscript, in a highly realistic manner.
Comprehensive information setting the illustrations in their context is presented on an accompanying webpage. Each painting has a written narrative and a "voiceover" that reads the text, intended to delight both informed and uninformed viewers by vividly describing incidents from the Indian epic, as the artist has chosen to paint it. Two art historians, J.P. Losty and this writer, provided interpretative descriptions of every illustrated folio as well as art-historical overviews for each of the seven volumes. An essay on the Sanskrit text of this Ramayana, which follows Valmiki's poem almost verbatim, was written by John L. Brockington, Emeritus Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Edinburgh. The TTP software enables viewers to zoom into both text and illustration, thereby enjoying details of paintings often overlooked. Item-level metadata has been created to the highest standards for all illustrations, allowing viewers to search for keywords such as "Ayodhya" or "Hanuman", for example, which would retrieve all the images where these words are embedded.
The folios in the British Library which were held in bound leather volumes, were disbound and hence returned to their original pothi format for purposes of conservation and digitization. The holdings in the CSMVS, the Baroda Museum and the private collection had not been bound. All the folios were framed in customized mounts and are currently stored in this manner.
The Jagat Singh Ramayana manuscript is significant as it is densely illustrated, enabling the viewer to easily "read" the manuscript without a knowledge of Sanskrit. The digital version will be an excellent resource for art historians, students and educators, as well as an informative tool for scholars of Sanskrit literature, religious studies, cultural studies and Rajput history. A long-term goal would be to build on the experience gained through this project to digitize various other primary resources in India and Britain and build a database for the benefit of worldwide scholarship.
On March 21, 2014 the digital version was launched with great aplomb at the CSMVS, Mumbai, with an exhibition in the Curator's Gallery of the Balakanda folios. The digitization is now available in the CSMVS paintings gallery for visitors to explore, listen to and view. Web users worldwide can access the manuscript via the following links: http://www.bl.uk/ramayana and http://csmvs.in/the-mewar-ramayana. It is to be hoped that other institutions in India will emulate this exciting project and associate with various institutions and collectors around the world to make accessible treasured resources that would otherwise be hidden from us.
Ahluwalia, R. "Sahibdin--his illustrations in the Ayodhyakanda and Yuddhakanda of the Ramayana of Jagat Singh I", Master's dissertation, soas, 2000.
Dehejia, V. "The Treatment of Narrative in Jagat Singh's Ramayana: A Preliminary Study", Artibus Asiae 56, 3/4 (1996).
Losty, J.P. Love and Valour in India's Great Epic, The Ramayana. London: The British Library, 2008.
Losty, J.P. The Art of the Book in India. London: The British Library, 1982.
I would like to thank Marina Chellini of the British Library and Vandana Prapanna of the CSMVS for sharing information about the reunification and digitization of this manuscript.
Caption: 1 (previous pages) Yuddhakanda folio 29r: The Battle of Lanka at Ravana's formidable fortress, depicting a chaotic tumult of warring factions. The ten-headed Ravana is in the centre of the fortress; Rama and Lakshmana are on the left. Painted by Sahibdin. Courtesy of the British Library Board.
Caption: 2 Yuddhakanda folio 100r: A fantastic re-creation of Hanuman's famous leap northward, his lifting the mountain of healing herbs and carrying it back toward Lanka. Painted by Sahibdin. Courtesy of the British Library Board.
Caption: 3 Ayodhyakanda folio 71r: Life on Mount Chitrakuta depicts Lakshmana hunting blackbuck and cooking kababs on a spit, while Sita sits in the hut and Rama recites prayers next to a sacred fire; the brothers then sit down to eat their meal on plates of large leaves while Sita waves away flies. Attributed to Sahibdin. Courtesy of the British Library Board.
Caption: 4 Balakanda folio 53v: Vishvamitra, Rama and Lakshmana reach a hermitage and the brothers enquire about its history. The next morning the trio are ferried across the Ganga river en route to Vishvamitra's sacrifice. Painted by Manohar. Courtesy of The Trustees, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mumbai.
Caption: 5 Sundarakanda folio 4: Hanuman meets Sita in the Ashoka grove. Sita is at first sceptical of the monkey, but Hanuman wins her trust by handing over Rama's ring. Painted by an artist in a style that exhibits Deccani influence. Courtesy of the British Library Board.
Caption: 6 Kiskkindbakanda folio 25r: This illustrates the cremation of Vali, the monkey king who was killed by Rama. Vali's corpse is borne aloft by fellow monkeys in a palanquin which is then placed on the funeral pyre and set alight. Sugriva, the new leader of the monkeys, is shown wearing white, a sign of mourning. Painted by an anonymous artist in a style that exhibits Deccani influence. Courtesy of the British Library Board.
Please note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.
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|Publication:||Marg, A Magazine of the Arts|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2015|
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