India is one of the world’s oldest cultures and the Ramayana is one of its most important works of literature, as culturally significant in Asia as the Odyssey is to western civilization. It is both an epic romance and a sacred Hindu text, rooted in an oral tradition thousands of years old. The earliest written version in Sanskrit dates from approximately 400 – 700 B.C. The story of Rama, an Indian prince and the human avatar or incarnation of the god Vishnu, its characters personify Hindu moral ideals such as integrity, loyalty, fidelity, courage and responsibility.
“Many Arrows from Rama’s Bow” occupies a single large gallery at the Seattle Asian Arts Museum with scenes from the Ramayana arranged in chronological order following the story line. The paintings are small and densely layered with saturated color, minute detail, narrative scope, and allegorical symbolism. They span some 400 years beginning with the Mughal School in the 16th century, so the show is also a history of Indian painting. “Rama, Sita and Lakshmana cross the river” (1700-20), painted in Mewar in northwestern India, is rendered in bright opaque color and flat perspective; a stylized pattern represents waves on the water. Next to it, “The travelers leave under cover of night” is the same episode painted some 50 years later in the northern city of Kangra, as a nighttime scene in dark complex shades of translucent color with realistic perspective giving visual depth to the landscape.
India had political and trade connections with Persia (Iran), China, and Europe, which in turn influenced Indian art. The Mughal emperor Akbar brought Persian painters into his court; their style is visible in intricate surface patterns, elegant lines, and asymmetrical compositions. Akbar collected works by European artists; his painters adopted their innovations in perspective, atmospheric effects, night and action scenes. Rocks and trees are rendered in Chinese-style brushwork. Balanced composition and an almost scientific realism in the portrayal of people, animals, and plants are characteristic of Hindu influence. Akbar commissioned the painting “Hanuman’s monkey army, Rama and Lakshman in front of the castle in Lanka” (1590) which exemplifies many of these qualities. The density of information and detail in these small works warrants close study. Magnifying or reading glasses may be useful.
A companion exhibition, “Women’s Paintings from the Land of Sita” introduces the work of artists from the Mithila region of Bihar state in eastern India. Mithila women traditionally painted murals on the walls of their homes as a ritual to protect the household. During a severe drought in the 1960’s, an artist working for the Indian government encouraged them to paint on paper, so their work could be sold for income. Their success as artists transformed the lives of these women, their families, and the economy of their communities. The paintings in this exhibition are from the local collection of Gursharan and Elvira Sidhu; most date from the 1970’s and 80’s.
All of the Mithila works are ink drawings on paper, boldly stylized folk art images that contrast with the refined court paintings of the Ramayana. They employ flat perspective with coloring book-like areas of solid color and intricate decorative patterns that recall Mughal painting. These works are bigger and more expansive with large areas of white, in keeping with their origin as murals.
The Mithila artists continued the narrative tradition of Indian painting. The first gallery displays scenes from traditional legends and village life including the changes brought about by their success, as in “Visiting Scholar Purchases Paintings” (late 1990’s) and “New York City” (1978). Two galleries focus on individual artists. “Lalita Devi paints her own life story” is a collection of autobiographical scenes from the artist’s childhood and wedding. Eleven paintings by Baua Devi recount the legend of the Nagas and the Kanya, in which a young woman befriends a family of magical snakes who bring her good fortune. Since Bihar is the legendary birthplace of Sita, wife of Rama, the painters of Mithila identify with her. They have succeeded in emulating this icon of the strong, supportive woman.
“Many Arrows from Rama’s Bow: Paintings of the Ramayana” is a jewel box of a show. Forty-four works, mostly paintings, tell the story of Rama’s journey in vivid color, fantastic imagery, and gem-like detail. The companion exhibition, “Women’s Paintings from the Land of Sita” is like finding a hidden compartment in the jewel box, full of colorful, surprisingly modern folk jewelry. Both shows, on view at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, contrast views of India’s painting and literary traditions.
“Many Arrows from Rama’s Bow: Paintings of the Ramayana” and “Women’s Paintings from the Land of Sita” are on view at the Seattle Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park through December 2. Anthropologist Carolyn Brown Heinz lectures on “Painting Sita’s Garden: Mithila Artists Portray Their Lives” on October 25 at 7 p.m. at SAAM. Information at (206) 654-3100 or visit www.seattleartmuseum.org.