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The Ramayana: Love and Valour in India’s Great Epic

01/04/2008, By

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The Ramayana, one of the world's greatest and most enduring stories, is considered to be fundamental to the art and culture of India and South East Asia and is still regularly performed in dance, drama and shadow-puppet theatres around the world. For the first time over 120 paintings from the British Library’s lavishly illustrated 17th century manuscripts of the story from the volumes of Rana Jagat Singh of Mewar (1628-1652) are going on public display in its summer exhibition: The Ramayana: Love and Valour in India’s Great Epic.

The Mewar Ramayana manuscripts is brought vividly to life in a stunning exhibition design by Tara Arts Theatre Company. Renowned for producing vibrant adaptations of European and Asian classics, Tara Arts transform the Library’s exhibition gallery to create a colourful and captivating space to really draw visitors into the story in a theatrical and dynamic way, so that it appeals to a wide audience - from art-lovers and academics to families and school children.

The exhibition explores the story of the Ramayana and how it has been represented and retold over the centuries and in different countries and cultures. The Ramayana is an ancient Sanskrit epic which follows Prince Rama’s quest to rescue his beloved wife Sita from the clutches of a demon king with the help of an army of monkeys. It is traditionally attributed to the authorship of the sage Valmiki and dated to around 500 BCE to 100 BCE. Comprising 24,000 verses in seven cantos, the epic contains the teachings of the very ancient Hindu sages.

One of the most important literary works of ancient India, it has greatly influenced art and culture in the Indian subcontinent and South East Asia, with versions of the story also appearing in the Buddhist canon from a very early date. The story of Rama has constantly been retold in poetic and dramatic versions by some of India’s greatest writers and also in narrative sculptures on temple walls. It is one of the staples of later dramatic traditions, dance-dramas, village theatre, shadow-puppet theatre and in the annual Ram-lila (Rama-play).

The exhibition features loans of paintings, textiles and sculptures from other major collections including the V&A, the British Museum and the Ashmolean Museum, as well as shadow puppets and dance costumes from the Horniman Museum. Many of these items have never, or seldom, been publicly displayed.

A final ‘hands-on’ section shows how central the Ramayana is to contemporary Indian life. The exhibition also includes original British Library Sound Archive recordings of readings and chantings of the Sanskrit and other versions of the Ramayana, the singing of devotional hymns to Rama and dramatic and dance music from India and South-East Asia including Gamelan music associated with shadow puppet plays in Bali and Java.

The Mewar Ramayana manuscripts were produced between 1649 and 1653 for Rana Jagat Singh of Mewar in his court studio at Udaipur. Illustrated on the grandest scale, with over 400 paintings, the vivid, brightly coloured scenes are packed with narrative detail and dramatic imagery, with no episode of the great epic overlooked.

Two volumes have been identified as being painted by the studio master Sahib Din with other paintings being completed in a related Mewar style, but the volume set in the monkey kingdom of Kishkindha, is in an anonymous style heavily influenced by painting from the Deccan, parts of which had long been identified with the monkey kingdom of Kishkindha itself.

The exhibition is accompanied by a full events programme including films, performances, shadow-puppetry and gamelan music, talks and discussions.

Jerry Losty, curator of the Ramayana exhibition and former Head of Prints, Drawings and Photographs at the British Library, commented: “I am thrilled that we are able to display the magnificent Mewar Ramayana manuscript; one of the finest manuscripts of the Ramayana epic ever produced, it vividly illustrates this great story. The cumulative effect of seeing picture after picture packed with detail is truly remarkable and offers visitors a unique experience that has previously only been available to a very few scholars.“

16th May to 14th September
The British Library
St Pancras
96 Euston Road
London NW1 2DB
+44 (0)870 444 1500
Admission free

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