Pondering over numerous frames on the walls of Delhi’s National Museum, visitors are marveling at the intricacy with which various schools of art have depicted the Ramayana. Familiar with the epic, they recognise most characters, however, what they do not recall are some of the episodes of the well-known tale.
But curator VK Mathur reassures them. He notes that there is slight variation in the numerous adaptations of the epic across various continents and sects. He walks towards an intricate Datia-style miniature depicting the reception of Rama hosted by Sita and her female companions at her palace. The 18th-century work from Bundelkhand, Mathur notes, depicts kunwar-kaleva, a tradition in Madhya Pradesh where bridesmaids hosted a party for the groom after marriage. “This will not be found in other schools depicting the Ramayana,” says the curator.
Flipping through the museum’s collection of over 500 miniatures depicting the Ramayana, it took Mathur close to four months to select 101 for the exhibition “Rama-Katha”. This depicts the tale of the Ramayana — right from the birth of Lord Rama to Sita’s descent back into the earth — through frames painted over centuries by different schools of art, including the Pahari style from the mountains to Rajasthani from the desert expanse, Malwa of Central India, provincial Mughal-style from Bundelkhand (eastern Uttar Pradesh), Deccani from Bijapur (Karnataka) and the classical folk style of Kalighat (West Bengal). The oldest work in the collection is an early 17th-century provincial Mughal style work from Orchha. The crowded court of King Janaka has the blue-skinned Rama breaking the bow of Shiva during the swayamvara of Sita.
While to relive the tale through miniature art was one of the objectives of the exhibition, another was to showcase the distinct features of these schools. “The Kangra school has more elongated features with soft faces, Mewar has more oval faces and Krishangarh has lotus-shaped eyes,” notes Mathur. The disparities are evident when different schools depict the same scene. So while the 17th-century provincial Mughal portrayal from Orchha has a slender Rama chasing a petite deer in a lush green