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Painting the Ramayana

Kishore Singh  |  New Delhi 

Before the recitation of the chosen episode began, my father would raise the book to his forehead, touch it with eyes reverentially closed, and address a poetic distich to Hanuman…to come and take his seat here, ‘for the Ramayana was about to be read’,” writes B N Goswamy in his preface to the seven cantos of the Ramayana published by Editions Diane de Selliers — perhaps the most ambitious illustrated project on the epic undertaken after Emperor Akbar commissioned the first translation in 1588 with 166 miniatures, and Rana Jagat Singh of Mewar followed it up with the first of similarly illustrated manuscripts.

Editions Diane de Selliers’ ambitious project reproduces Valmiki’s 48,000 verses in seven from the original Sanskrit, translated into French by Madeline Biardeau and Marie-Claude Porcher, and in English by Robert P Goldman and Sheldon I Pollock — a translation that started in 1975 to culminate 36 years later in a 1,700 page, seven-volume manuscript (plus a reference booklet) that weighs 14 kilos and is priced at Rs 78,000.

Diane de Selliers is in New Delhi for, oh, the nth time — but on this occasion, she launched the French edition of the book at the French ambassador’s residence in the presence of Shriji Arvind Singh of Mewar whose ancestor had commissioned the iconic Ramayana which itself was turned into a book by the British Museum Library a few years ago. “But it does not have all the folios,” de Selliers points out, those pages being scattered across countries and continents including, in India, the National Museum in New Delhi, and in Mumbai and Varanasi.

To understand what went into the making of this seven-volume edition, you have to know Diane de Selliers, who set up her publishing house two decades ago, choosing to specialise in an epic book each year that would be fully illustrated by a contemporary or classical artist. These iconic volumes have included Dante’s Divine Comedy (illustrated by Botticelli), Cervantes’s Don Quixote (illustrated by Gerard Garouste), Virgil’s Aeneid (illustrated with ancient frescos and mosaics), and most recently the Japanese Tale of Genji which proved a huge success and has paid for her epic research and the publication of the Ramayana, work on which began a decade ago.

For de Selliers, the challenge lay in finding the highest quality but rarely seen and certainly never before collated 16th-19th century miniatures to illustrate the project. “One contact would lead me to another,” she says, “but everyone required me to be physically present” — which meant a lot of travelling to Jaipur, Jodhpur and Chandigarh, New Delhi and Mumbai, of course, but also to Varanasi and Hyderabad, Shimla and Ahmedabad, to unexpected places like Chamba, and to discover rare finds in Alwar.

“It was very demanding,” but also satisfying as she journeyed to museums in England, Denmark, Germany, France and Switzerland, across the USA, in Canada and Australia, Qatar and Pakistan, researching sales at Sotheby’s and Christie’s. “Over 75 per cent of the images have not been seen before,” she says — the exquisite Kishangarh paintings pitted against larger ones from Marwar, the Persian detailing in the Mughal paintings against the flat colour perspectives from Kangra and Guler, the Deccani and the tribal making it, for her “the most important book I’ve done”.

Launch apart, de Selliers will continue returning to India as she prepares for the launch of the English edition, for which she’s looking for a Rs 4 crore sponsor that the French edition will unlikely subsidise. De Selliers isn’t fazed by the sum required: “The Ramayana is a universal tale,” she says, and the 660 miniatures that take forward the story of the exile and return of a noble prince is, she believes, “luminous”. Just as the hunt for the miniatures and the scholarly texts came together like a jigsaw puzzle, the money too should be forthcoming, she believes, “Rama willing”.

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First Published: Sat, October 22 2011. 00:56 IST