Imran Ali Khan thinks about Sourindo Mohun Tagore’s Ramayana.
One of the amazing things about doing research on the internet is finding the things you would not have found otherwise. And so it was one late afternoon when the sun had the special quality to peep through the trees outside my office window, that I found this.
What always amazes me about the Ramayana and representations of it in the arts, is its ability to unselfconsciously become very much part of the age in which it is being referenced, instead of escaping safely into a disparate past. This rendition of the Ramayana, with Rama, Lakshmana, Sita and Hanuman is probably closest to an image of Tipu Sultan in the manner of its representation and iconography. With Rama very much in the center, his attention fixed on Sita as she seems to make an imperious request, with Lakshmana who seems to be very much the shadow of Rama, the other Rama whose duty comes very much before the self, the characters occupy the spaces we allot to them, the signified positions of power — Sita to the right of Rama and Lakshmana to the left, Hanuman at their feet.
It is of course important to remember that this was drawn almost 40 years after a Daniel or a Cooke lithograph, much after the Indian had been represented in colonial art , at a time when Company painting had become popular amongst the ‘native’ elite, and when the style of the miniatures of the 17th and 18th century had been co-opted to suit the style and taste of the colonizer.
The spaces that paintings like this occupy often become signifiers of classical elegance and sobriety, and allow the viewer to negotiate with the imagined spaces of the ivory tower. And so it is here with the perfect arches, chequered marble floors, the voluptuous diwan, the brocade umbrella and the clear skies in the far distance.
The viewer, however, is not allowed into the space — the characters that occupy it refuse to maintain a relationship with the viewer, lost as they are in their own dreamy negotiations, casting over themselves a gossamer web of disinterest. But Rama, Sita, Lakshmana and Hanuman by their presence, and by the spaces that they occupy in the Indian consciousness, begin to negate the physical spaces that surround them. They take the foreground of our imagination, pushing the setting back and creating a tension between themselves. The physical spaces give way to the temporal, and we begin to engage with them instead. To view this is to understand that though they co exist, they may also negate each other by their mere presence.
It is Sita who, even though she does not form front and center, becomes the point of contact for the viewer. She is shockingly small but it is the action and positing of her hand, her lifted chin, her little finger and her movement towards Rama that tells us that she is holding forth. She speaks, Rama listens, but she speaks without pulling the focus off her husband who remains in the central arch behind. Rama meanwhile seems to reach out, his body twisted away from her, his hand raised, almost in a gesture of appeasement . Given the posture that he takes on here, we must ask ourselves where we are in the Ramayana — has Sita fallen out of favour by the harsh words of the dhobi? Or have they returned very recently from Lanka where she was made to testify her unbending faith to Rama?
Lakshmana, who becomes in this painting, as I mentioned earlier, the mirror of Rama, looks absent from the scene, almost as if his sense of duty dominates his mind and dulls his senses, occupied more with the weight of the brocade umbrella than with the spaces his brother and sister-in-law occupy. His gaze remains fixed on Sita, as if he hears the words but cannot partake in the conversation.
But it is Hanuman who makes for the most interesting part of this image. Hanuman is separated from the other three, who occupy their allotted spaces, and they from themselves. He is unlike any Hanuman we have met and a far cry from the Hanuman in Ravi Varma oleographs or folk art. He is almost like a toy, a pet that sits around waiting to be fed — domesticated, as it were, and physically small. He sits almost like Sita does, looking away from all three, distracted. He is not here, as we have seen him before, on his knees worshiping the divine couple, and looks entirely incapable of lifting the Dronagiri Mountain, almost incapable of lifting anything. Why has Hanuman changed? Is this depiction, unlike a Ravi Varma, not about the devotion to the divine but about the private moments we are not privy to? Or did the artist just feel that it was impossible to explain to the outsider that our monkeys are sometimes divine? Art historians and post-colonial thinkers have often asked whether these representations become part of a ‘derivative discourse’, one that is dependent on western scientific rationalism for its own intellectual unpacking.
We come to this painting with almost as much awe as we would to a Kalighat painted at the same time, but with a sense of awe that allows us to participate in the private moments of the divine.
This image has been taken from The Ten Principal Avataras of the Hindus: A Short History of Each Incarnation and Directions for the Representations of the Murtis as Tableaux Vivants by Sourindo Mohun Tagore, published in 1880 in Calcutta.
Imran Ali Khan is the Project Coordinator for Kiski Kahani and has been with Open Space for a year and a half. The first story he ever heard was about a boy who didn’t listen, he hasn’t stopped listening since then. Imran was Ramayanafied many years ago, and still laughs when he hears what the monkeys did in Madhu Vanam.