The children of Rama and his brothers in the palace, 1814
GREAT WORKS OF art are often created under very specific historical conditions, but something about those conditions allows us to connect with them. At a time when the country prepares for the opening of a grand temple to Rama, a deity worshipped by millions of Hindus, in Ayodhya at a bitterly contested site, a new exhibition at the Museum of Art and Photography (MAP) in Bengaluru sheds light on a ruler from the past who had turned to Rama for socio-political gain and cultural integration. The Kanchana Chitra Ramayana—literally, the Ramayana of the golden pictures—commissioned by Raja Udit Narayan (reign 1796-1835) of the small and then fairly nascent kingdom of Banaras is easily the most elaborate effort to illustrate Tulsidas’ Awadhi retelling of Valmiki’s epic. With 1,100 folios including 548 paintings gilded liberally with gold, the project, which began on Ramanavami in 1796, took 18 long years to complete, with dozens of artists from established centres of miniature painting such as Awadh, Delhi and Datia working on it. It was perhaps the first time that Banaras became a site of artistic convergence, inviting the best painters from all over north India to contribute to one of the greatest interpretations of a foundational text. “We can imagine the artists interacting with, influencing and learning from one another,” Kavita Singh, the art historian who curated this pathbreaking exhibition, had said in a lecture before she died earlier this year. The work, Singh said, filled a gap in our understanding of the history of miniatures and countered older art historical narratives that claimed the tradition of miniatures had died out by the 19th century.
The Kanchana Chitra Ramayana, too, would have remained in obscurity in the Banaras royal family’s private collection were it not for the dispersal of folios from the book in the art market for profit over the past four years. Folios continue to show up at auction houses, fetching between `10 lakh and `15 lakh a piece. In many of them, Udit Narayan’s name and seal have been scratched out to hide the art work’s provenance. Fortunately, the work was photographed in its entirety by American professor Richard Schechner in the 1970s and remains available in the archives of the Center for Art and Archaeology, American Institute of Indian Studies, Gurgaon. This is for the first time that a museum will display folios—80 of them, mostly received as gifts from private collectors—from Udit Narayan’s Ramayana and attempt to read between the lines to reveal the purpose and the unique appeal of this epic collaborative project.
UDIT NARAYAN ASCENDED the throne when royals had lost all their power—they could no longer maintain armies, collect taxes, raise fortifications, or even adjudicate. The Kanchana Chitra Ramayana was born of the afflatus of a king who wanted to exercise his autonomy, albeit in the religio-cultural sphere, in response to the absolutist political authority of Pax Britannica. “Though a Saivite, Udit Narayan had his reasons for choosing Rama. He wanted to appeal to the Ramanandi sect, to the merchants and the landlords who were bhakts of Rama. He also wanted to tap into the fact that Tulsidas wrote part of the Ramcharitmanas in Banaras, and possibly, to the whole notion of Rama being the ideal king,” says Parul Singh, co-curator of the exhibition and Kavita’s student. In many paintings depicting the ideal kingdom under the rule of Rama—‘Rama rajya’—it is Banaras that the artists consciously equate with Ayodhya. During a walkthrough of the two galleries at MAP showing the work, Parul points to a folio from the Uttarkand depicting the eight blessings, among them a sacred river, faithful women, hours spent in satsang, and a righteous king, possibly painted to resemble Udit Narayan, watching over what is clearly early 19-century Banaras, with its pennants, bathing ghats, the Ramnagar fort and subjects clad in contemporary textiles from the region. Another folio illustrating the first meeting of Rama and Sita depicts the Girijadevi temple built by the Banaras rajas. “By situating the story of Rama in contemporary Banaras, Udit Narayan is trying to make his kingdom the locus of the Rama rajya of the day,” Parul says.
The Kanchana Chitra Ramayana is, in a sense, propaganda, and a sumptuous one at that. Page after page shows scenes teeming with detail, faithfully translating the text on the opposing page, with all of Tulsidas’ quirks, into exquisite images. There are great processions with a hundred characters packed into a 48x35cm folio, palace scenes that drip gold, lush landscapes and forests, vast receding architectural vistas, strange creatures filling the sky and the oceans, and Rama, the infallible and beauteous lord, rendered in scores of ways by various hands.
In a lecture she gave earlier this year, Kavita Singh noted that the stylistic variety of the work is unmatched, showcasing at least two types of the Jaipur style of painting, provincial Mughal-inspired styles such as the one from Murshidabad, two distinct styles from Awadh with closely observed ethnographic scenes and lyrical terrace landscapes, and the Delhi style with its blue-gold borders. The paintings bring an unprecedented density to the narrative and translate abstruse philosophical concepts into interesting images, she said. One of the four narrators of Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas is Kakabhushundi, the crow-sage who exists outside of time. In a series of folios, Kakabhushundi disabuses Garuda of the maya that is his ego and narrates the story of his own salvation at the hands of Rama. The discourse is captured in minutely detailed scenes depicting the sage’s life story, his tour of the seven worlds, and the million worlds he glimpses inside Rama when he swallows him. “There were surely Ramayanis who were explaining some of the deeply philosophical parts of the Ramcharitmanas to the artists. The work demanded a high degree of collaboration,” Parul notes. The scene with the crow preaching to the king of birds is also a hat-tip to Tulsidas’ caste-less Ramayana outreach programme, and there are other folios that reinforce the image of the writer as someone who was successful in broadcasting the glory of Rama to not just the upper castes but to all sects, to women, and even to Muslims.
The Delhi school of painters illustrated much of the Lankakand, Parul says. “They have cited a lot of Shahjahani architecture in Lanka, and the asuras (demons) have been painted in a distinct Mughal style. By giving these folios to the Delhi painters, did Udit Narayan intend to equate Lanka and Ravana with the Mughals? We will never know.” In a scene that goes on for nine pages, Angada, Rama’s monkey emissary, is seen with Ravana, attempting to strike a truce. The artist simply varies the architecture and the viewing angle to striking effect, keeping each folio unique and interesting. Other scenes are almost too busy, packed with layers of detail drawn from the accompanying text. In scenes where Rama’s baraat is proceeding from Ayodhya—depicted, of course, as Banaras— to Janakpur, the text talks about seven highly specific omens, including a cow feeding a calf, a man carrying curds and fish, a pair of deer, and a fox walking forward and then looking back. The artist depicts all of these in the painting, along with scores of elephants, baraatis and other characters, snaking all the way from the stately shores of Banaras to Sita’s home. “This one folio alone could have taken four months of work,” Parul says.
Despite the obviously high standards the artists were held to, there are omissions and commissions, some of them corrected later by a different hand. In the scene where the monkey army is building a bridge to Lanka, the artist forgets to show Nala and Nila, the architects gifted with the power to make anything float in water, touching the stones—a detail that seems to have been added later. “There was obviously a review process in place. But despite that, we see many subversions. The Delhi school of painters, for instance, have painted in their state pennants instead of those of Banaras, but perhaps this was more out of habit,” Parul notes.
There is a curious blend of miniature and contemporary styles in some paintings, with realistic physiognomies reminiscent of the Company style which, till recently, was thought to have replaced the miniature styles of north India. There is also a conscious temporalising of scenes. Tulsidas’ Prayag is a sparsely populated place but what we see in the Kanchana Chitra Ramayana is a thriving pilgrimage site with hamlets, temples and contemporary habitation. In another scene set in the aftermath of Dasaratha’s death, Kausalya is supposed to attempt to convince Bharata to take the throne, but the artist’s depiction digresses from the text as he is very careful about the separation of women’s spaces, which is a contemporary concept. There are also artistic liberties taken—an imagined bathing scene, for example, involving Sita in Janakpur, with Rama looking on voyeuristically, before the swayamvar. While Sita’s chastity is never in question in Tulsidas’ version, in a Rama rajya scene where the four brothers are shown living together in the palace in Ayodhya with their two sons each—each an ideal family unit—she wields a broom to drive home the point that the ideal woman, even if she is queen, cares for her household.
The MAP collection is missing key scenes from the Kishkindhakand, but it more than makes up for the break with its numerous Rama rajya folios, scenes of the bloody, uncensored war in Lanka, and synoptic views of each of the kands, all of them brimming with characters. There is a lovely painting set at the end of the war, when Vibhishana rewards the monkeys by showering them with riches from his pushpaka vimana. The monkeys have no use for them, however, and try to eat the jewels and end up wearing the clothes upside down and on their heads and arms. “These paintings are not just a curator’s delight, but also a meaningful glimpse into why Tulsidas’ retelling of the epic continues to be popular,” says Parul. “In Valmiki’s Ramayana, Rama is imagined as an ideal human being and king. In Ramcharitmanas, he is not just divine, he is the supreme god upon whom Shiva, Indra and all other gods long to gaze.” By commissioning not one but three teekas or commentaries on the work—a textual commentary called Manas Dipika by Pandit Raghunath Sindhi, the Ramnagar Ramlila which was intended as a performative commentary, and the Kanchana Chitra Ramayana—Udit Narayan was covering all his bases. The intellectual class, the commoners and the nobility would all be in his thrall—or so he hoped. And certainly, the Banaras raja gained a reputation as a learned upholder of tradition, even in the eyes of the British—however, they refused to grant him any real powers. “The British were fond of Ramcharitmanas as a text and seemed to approve of this endeavour. Other kingdoms acknowledged Banaras as a site of culture, with the Maharaja of Rewa writing some of the dialogues for the Baalkand scenes to be staged at the Ramnagar Ramlila—a spectacle like no other, featuring the king himself as a protagonist,” says Parul. If spectacle is what Raja Udit Narayan was going for, the artists of the Kanchana Chitra Ramayana certainly got the brief.
(Book of Gold: The Kanchana Chitra Ramayana of Banaras is on view at Museum of Art & Photography (MAP), Bengaluru, till March 8, 2024)