The two great Sanskrit epic poems – “Ramayana” and “Mahabharata” – and Divali, the Hindu festival of lights, are treasured in most of Asia, and they have a universal appeal. Divali this year is observed as an official holiday on October 30, not only in India, but from Malaysia to Suriname, from Myanmar to Singapore, and in numerous other countries.
The heroes of “Ramayana” provide the focus of a beautifully displayed, unique exhibit in San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, “The Rama Epic: Hero, Heroine, Ally, Foe.” (http://www.asianart.org/exhibitions_index/exhibitions) The essence of “The Rama Epic” parallels Divali, with the ancient tale’s account of Prince Rama’s rescue of Sita, his abducted wife, with help of the monkey warrior Hanuman, against the evil, 10-headed demon king Ravana. (Both “Ramayana” and “Mahabharata” deal with Dharma – a key concept of cosmic order in Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism – and the tasks of vanquishing evil, attaining wisdom.)
Forrest McGill, Wattis Senior Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art, who is responsible the “Rama” exhibit says: “For many Indians and people of Indian heritage an important association of Divali is that it commemorates the triumphant return of Rama and Sita to the capital after their long exile.”
From McGill – who has made the subject a centerpiece of an illustrious career – and exhibition designer Marco Centin comes a superb show illuminating a complex subject, little known to the majority of an American audience. The organization of the exhibit is clear, informative, and beautiful… the visual delight limited only by low-key lighting necessitated by the sensitivity of some of the precious objects. Each principal character of the epic gets a distinct space: Prince Rama is represented in the Osher Gallery; abducted wife Sita gets half of the Hambrecht Gallery, monkey warrior-king Hanuman the rest; the demon king Ravana resides in the Lee Gallery; and the Resource Room is used for alternative endings of Sita’s story.
Both at the museum and online (http://ramaepic.asianart.org), there dozens of videos with the story, depicting such dramatic episodes as Sita’s abduction (https://youtu.be/Vr-tg1QGVfI) and Sita’s trial by fire to prove her innocence (https://youtu.be/NFLjvVRC0XU).
The 135 pieces of art in the exhibit span over regions and time, ranging from ancient objects to representation from recent years. Says Museum Director Jay Xu of the “Rama” epic: “It has timeless value and myriad representations in different cultures, particularly across South and Southeast Asia. Though its tale is thousands of years old, the ‘Rama’ epic is a living tradition and is constantly evolving.”
In McGill’s description, the exhibit presents “a multimedia tradition… its exciting, touching, morally uplifting episodes have been recounted, sung, enacted on stage, danced, performed as classical puppet theater, and, in recent decades, presented in TV serials, movies, and video games.” The artworks – sculpture, paintings, ivory carving – have been borrowed from museums around Europe, Britain, and the U.S. McGill and Centin enriched the contents with video clips of TV serials and videos or recordings of classical, court, and folk performances for the epic’s key episodes.
Among objects not to be missed: a thousand-year-old large, intricate bronze of Sita; bizarre theatrical masks; a large (folded) painting of “Rama” scenes from Burma; 20th century lithograph of Hanuman, seemingly a patron saint of body-builders.