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Rich in detail: Indian miniatures at NGA

Cate Lyons

The story of Rama is one of the world’s great epic poems. Think of The Odyssey and you’ll have a very good parallel.

Love, betrayal, loyalty, good and evil, it has it all. Written in the fourth century BCE, the story of Rama — a compassionate and just ruler; the ideal man — has shaped Indian life and culture for over 2,500 years. It has also been a key theme for Indian miniaturists who have illustrated aspects of it in exquisite detail and bold colours for the past 500 years.

The National Museum in New Delhi is home to over 17,000 of these treasures. For the first time in Australia, 101 key works are on display at the National Gallery of Australia until 23 August in its exhibition The story of Rama.

Our hero Rama is easy to spot. An avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, Rama is always depicted with blue skin. A striking image of him – and the one chosen to promote the exhibition – sees him sitting cross-legged on a lotus blossom against a pure orange background. His face in profile, he wears a gold crown studded with jewels and topped with lotus flowers. He holds a bow and arrow, which are his signifiers.

Rama’s great love is the virtuous and beautiful Sita whose hand he wins after easily lifting and stringing a bow no other warrior could even lift. In fact, he is so strong that when drawing the bow he breaks it. His strength and courage amazes everyone.

But as in all good epics, the course of true love does not run smooth and is beset with obstacles. These include the demon king Ravana being bent on revenge, his abduction of Sita, the lovers’ exile, and the brave exploits of the monkey army.

It is the many miniatures that depict the monkey army that are really worth keeping an eye out for in the exhibition. Everyone should have a monkey army.

It is Hanuman, the monkey general, and his army that help Rama search for Sita. A striking 18th century image of Hanuman shows him carrying a mountain. Sent to collect a life-restoring herb, when he can’t find it, he uproots the entire mountain to carry back. His strong tail — a weapon he uses to deadly effect at times — curls up behind him as if balancing the weight of the mountain.

His face beautifully morphs from a human head into a monkey snout. His hair is painted with such precision you can identify each and every strand. The same goes for the anklets, armbands, necklaces and large earrings that adorn his body – you can see every link in the chain, every bead in his necklace.

In The great battle between Rama and Ravana, the forces of good and evil go into final combat. There is a furious energy in this busy painting as wild eyed and multi-fanged demons charge Rama and his monkey army. As Rama calmly fires his bow from atop two white horses, his nemesis Ravana is shown with his ten heads being decapitated and regrowing. Meanwhile two small heavenly bodies float serenely above scattering flowers on Rama. It’s bright, gory, frenetic and completely bewitching.

Ultimately, after undergoing a trial by fire to prove she has remained faithful to Rama after years in captivity, Sita decides enough is enough and she asks mother earth to take her back into her womb. There is a wonderful painting in the final room that shows Rama and a host of figures in the court watching on in shock as she gently descends.

When you look at these miniatures you’ll be stunned by the clarity and variety of colours, and marvel at the detail in the jewellery and the landscapes – keep an eye out for the birds and animals dotted in the background.

But spare a thought for the artists who created them. None of these pieces are signed. All were produced in workshops where artists specialised in one particular thing – maybe they painted hands or hair, demons or borders. There were even family dynasties of expert painters.

Each painting would take a team of artists six to seven months to produce. And they were dealing with often highly toxic minerals such as lead to create the pigments. (Although Indian yellow – a clear, deep and luminous colour – was created from the urine of cattle fed only on mango leaves and water.)

The story of Rama is fantastic, but you don’t need to know it to enjoy this exhibition. The virtuosity and liveliness of each work tells you all you need to know.

Check out the NGA website for talks and lectures as well as activities for children on the Ramayana story.

Feature image of Kangra style, Pahari  (Sage Narada requests Valmiki to write the story of Rama, early 19th century, opaque watercolour and gold on paper from the National Museum, New Delhi, India) courtesy of National Gallery of Australia. 

Cate Lyons

Cate Lyons is a Canberra-based professional writer and editor with over 20 years experience. She’s not a writer like J. K. Rowling or Stephen King. She hasn’t written her blockbuster yet. But she is an excellent wordsmith who produces copy with care and thought and has a flair for creative copywriting and web content. She is also a voluntary guide at the National Gallery of Australia. More about the Author