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A rare golden Ramayan from Varanasi goes on show

Featuring five schools of art, the ‘Kanchana Chitra Ramayana’ or Golden Illustrated Ramayana, is a work of unusual beauty

Detail from ‘Kaka Bhushundi Gets The Form Of A Crow and Becomes “Kaka” Bhushundi’ (1814). Photos: courtesy Museum of Art and Photography, Bengaluru
Detail from ‘Kaka Bhushundi Gets The Form Of A Crow and Becomes “Kaka” Bhushundi’ (1814). Photos: courtesy Museum of Art and Photography, Bengaluru

A significant exhibition is taking place at the Museum of Art and Photography (MAP), Bengaluru. For the first time, 75-plus folios from the Kanchana Chitra Ramayana, or the Golden Illustrated Ramayana, are being showcased to the public as part of the exhibition, Book Of Gold.

This ambitious manuscript, based on Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas, was commissioned by the royal court of Banaras (now Varanasi), and created between 1796-1814. The show challenges old art historical narratives—it has long been believed that the miniature tradition was disappearing around this time in the 19th century, but the Kanchana Chitra Ramayana shows that it was still flourishing in some pockets of India.

The luminosity of the folios makes them a sight to behold, with gold having been crushed into the pigment by the artists to create paint. The precious metal adds a glow to the spaces between lines, punctuation marks in the text and the illustrations. What makes the show even more poignant is that it is the last one to be co-curated by art historian Kavita Singh before she died in July this year.

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“In lines inserted by scribes into the colophon pages at the end of each volume, they spoke of this book as ‘gem-like’, ‘shimmering’, coursing with ‘rivers of ink and gold’,” writes Singh in her essay in the publication accompanying the exhibition.

'Rama In His Vishwarupa Form’ (1814)
'Rama In His Vishwarupa Form’ (1814)

In the exhibition, one can also see how this manuscript brought together artists from workshops and ateliers across northern India, creating a “parliament of artists”—a term coined by Singh. “What sets apart this manuscript is how the different stylistic schools of miniature painting converged to create a rare and unique masterpiece,” states Arnika Ahldag, head of exhibitions, MAP.

Unfortunately, as usually happens with most commissioned miniature paintings, the work gets to be known by the identity of the patron, while the artists remain in the shadows. For this manuscript as well, details of specific artists are not known.

However, the curators were able to identify styles based on workshops prevalent at the time. They have categorised them as: a) artists using stylistic idioms from Awadh, Jaipur and Murshidabad; b) late-18th century Delhi or Lucknow; c) stylistic idioms from late-18th century Awadh; d) workshop associated with Jaipur; e) Delhi; and f) Datia.

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The Kanchana Chitra Ramayana seems to have inspired production of other illustrated manuscripts in Varanasi, including several other Ramcharitmanas manuscripts, albeit of a less ambitious scale.

‘Kaka Bhushundi Narrates His Own Story To Garuda’ (1814)
‘Kaka Bhushundi Narrates His Own Story To Garuda’ (1814)

Singh started work on the project, and the accompanying publication, nearly one-and-a-half years ago, when Abhishek Poddar, founder and trustee, MAP, had a conversation with her. He showed her the 75-plus folios in the MAP collection, and she was fascinated by the vibrancy of the colours, the use of gold and the finesse in painting.

Delhi-based Singh, together with one of her former PhD students, Parul Singh, conducted in-depth research on the history of the folios and selected four scholars to contribute essays to the publication. Parul Singh is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the interdisciplinary programme, 4A Laboratory: Art Histories, Archaeologies, Anthropologies, Aesthetics, at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz—Max-Planck-Institut in Florence, Italy.

For this show, the duo had to work across time zones, connect over video calls, and communicate through PowerPoint presentations, and Excel sheets. According to Ahldag, this was, perhaps, an unconventional way of curating an exhibition. But it was a response to the challenges of long distance, and her illness.

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Despite being ill with cancer for the last few years, Singh worked on the exhibition and publication and had made plans to spend a few days at MAP, but it was not to be. The MAP team worked with the exhibition designer Oroon Das to realise the exhibition, based on the texts provided by the curators. The exhibition and the publication took about one year to be completed, and includes an audio guide and activity corner for young learners.

The exhibition can be viewed at the Museum of Art and Photography, Bengaluru, till 8 March.

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