From the classical folk style of Kalighat to the provincial Mughal style from Bundelkhand, 101 artworks from 21 schools of miniature painting are currently on display at Delhi's National Museum. Part of the on-going exhibition "Rama Katha", each of these masterpieces depicts significant events from Ramayana. The paintings have been arranged in such a manner as to form a chronological narrative of Rama's life. So the exhibition starts with a 19th century miniature done in Kangra style depicting Sage Narada urging Valmiki to pen down the story of Rama to instances from the Uttarakanda showing Lava and Kusha tying up the sacrificial horse in the hermitage.
"The National Museum has a collection of 17,000 miniature paintings, thus making it one of the largest in the world. 500 of these depict events from the Ramayana; so we have chosen 101 which depict all the schools of miniature paintings," says Vijay Kumar Mathur, curator (learning and education) who has put together the exhibition. So you have the refined Mughal style followed by the Basohli, Guler, Nurpur Mandi, Kangra, Chamba and Bilaspur styles from the Pahari school while the Rajasthani schools of painting are represented by Mewar, Bundi, Kota, Jodhpur, Jaipur, Bikaner, Kishangarh and Deogarh. Especially interesting are the mix of traditional and folk styles from Central India as seen in the miniatures from Malwa, Orchha, Datia, Raghogarh, Bundelkhand and Bijapur.
The exhibition came about as a result of a loan request for miniatures based on the Ramayana by the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels. "We decided to oblige them by doing an exhibition instead. There are nearly 70 paintings in this collection that have never been displayed before, so I took a view that it would be odd if we denied our own people an opportunity to see these masterpieces before it travelled to Brussels in November," says Venu V, director-general, National Museum. Some of these paintings include a solo portrait of Rama done in Basohli style and another one of Ravana sitting alone, sad and pensive in Kangra style. "It is very rare to find solo portraits of either Rama or Ravana," says Mathur.
There is also a painting done in Mughal style showing Rama breaking Shiva's bow which is burnt on the edges. "We call it the burnt Ramayana. It was found by us in this condition only, but we worked hard to restore it," he explains. Each of these miniatures is swathed in cloth and stored in wooden boxes. "We check each of these periodically and send them to the conservation lab for chemical treatment if the colours start flaking. However, we don't retouch or re-colour any of these," elaborates Mathur.
The miniatures done in Bikaner-Deccan mixed style stand out for their intricate detailing. The story goes that Emperor Aurangzeb, who spent considerable time in Central India, drowned books and paintings based on the Ramayana and Mahabharata. "Anup Singh of Bikaner, who had fought with distinction in Deccan, saved all the manuscripts and carted them to safety to his kingdom. It is believed that those rare manuscripts are still preserved in the Anup Sanskrit Library but are not open to public. He also brought artists from Deccan to Bikaner, hence the mixed style," says Mathur.
There are certain instances from the Ramayana that have been interpreted by different artists from different schools of painting. So you have the story of Rama in pursuit of the golden deer being told in Orchha style dating back to the 17th century, in Mandi style from the mid-18th century Shangri Ramayana folio and the Kalighat style from the 19th century. "When you have these variations side by side, it gives you an opportunity to view and understand the different styles. Every school of painting approaches each event - be it the Rama-Sita wedding or Jatayu attacking Ravana - from its own contextual point of view," says Venu.