The British Library Gets Epic With The Ramayana

By Londonist Last edited 127 months ago
The British Library Gets Epic With The Ramayana

The British Library isn't always so good at promoting their free exhibition space, but they do tend to lay on something special for those who happen to wander in. Make a point of doing so for this summer's exhibit,

href="">The Ramayana: Love and Valour in India's Great Epic

, which takes the narrative potential of the museum show and runs with it. Walking through the exhibit is an experience in storytelling — is, in fact, a

journey, and one that can easily take an hour or two.

The emphasis on a single narrative is especially appropriate here. For one thing, the core of the show is a series of more than 120 Rajput paintings from a single set of 17th century manuscripts belonging to the library. As the binding on the volumes began to warp (and we know how much librarians hate that), the conservation team decided to unbind and individually mount each page. While you can still read the original volumes from home, in virtual form, as part of the library's Turning the Pages series, their dismantling now allows us to literally stroll through the books from beginning to fiery, bloody end.

Though the manuscripts themselves and the other materials on display span centuries, cultures, and artistic styles, the plot is surprisingly easy to follow, as everything draws on an epic penned by the Great Sage Valmiki around 100-500 BC. You can ask any Indian schoolboy or schoolgirl for a summary, but if you haven't got one handy, just rest assured it involves giant demons, magic arrows, an army of monkeys, and a macho fight over a woman. It's all so theatrical that the library decided to bring in some people who know more about telling a story than your average curator: the Tara Arts theatre company, a troupe so dedicated to interpreting classic texts that they're apparently willing to step out of theatre altogether.

Experiencing the exhibit means learning how to "read" the miniature paintings. Charged with portraying every single incident of the grand tale, the courtly artists revived a more ancient technique of simultaneous narration, in which the characters wander around the page acting out several scenes in a single space. Though the exhibit doesn't point out the connection, it's surprisingly easy for the modern eye to follow this peculiar form because it's essentially an ancient comic book. A few paintings take the concept even further, injecting drama into specific motions by portraying them in instantaneous sequence, a la Duchamp's Nude Descending a

Staircase. Scenes such as the death of the giant Kumbhakarna verge on ancient animation, making us think that if the ancient Rajputs had owned camera equipment, Rana Jagat Singh might have been the first Walt Disney.

By Paul Cox

The Ramayana is on until 14 September at the British Library, accompanied by a series of film adaptations and discussions. For more information go to the Ramayana website here. Image courtesy of Martha M's Flickrstream under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

Last Updated 10 June 2008