By Samantha Test
Northwest Asian Weekly
Starting this month and running through Dec. 2, the Seattle Asian Art Museum invites you to revisit the story of a brave prince, his virtuous wife, and his loyal brother, as they battle a 10-headed demon and find help from a monkey general. This story is, you guessed it, the Ramayana.
The exhibition, “Many Arrows from Rama’s Bow: Paintings of the Ramayana,” is presented in collaboration with the San Diego Museum of Art and is curated by Sonya Quintanilla, who has a doctorate in South Asian art and religion from Harvard University, and Sarah Loudon, who has a Master of Arts degree.
This well-known story will be presented through 44 works of art — some which have never been publicly displayed before. This includes paintings from the 16th through 20th centuries from a variety of regions and artists. Paintings will be organized in narrative order, not chronological order, to keep the emphasis on the story.
“Even though these paintings are from different centuries and different parts of India, you can still follow the thread of the narrative and recognize the characters from one painting to the next,” Loudon said.
While the narrative and characters may be easy to discern, Gursharan Sidhu, a Seattle art collector who has lent pieces of his own collection to the exhibition, spoke of how details of the story may not be so easy to explain.
“Any paintings of this type, they’re small typically, they are very demanding. You really have to look hard,” he said.
“And the more you look at them, the more you find, the more they capture you. They’re not like paintings you find hanging on the walls of a church, where you walk up to them and it just overwhelms you by its drama. They’re not like that. You have to go through to them. They reveal their secrets only slowly.”
It is a rewarding effort.
“To Indians, this is not art, this is life,” said Sidhu. “The Ramayana is performed, it is seen. This is the underpinnings of major art and culture. This is of such profundity to them and it becomes a thing to which people turn, ask what should I do, to find inspiration.”
Loudon agrees with him on the significance of the Ramayana.
“I hope people who visit leave with a better idea of how widespread it is, just the way the narrative is a part of so many different people’s lives in different ways,” she said.
From a technical aspect, she also appreciates how the art reflects the culture.
“Another part of it is the concept of how people, gods, demons, the natural world, are all connected and all interacting with one another in this narrative,” she said.
“The landscape, too, how it changes as they travel, the different features of the landscape, the different rivers and the places, they are so much a part of it. And you can see the gods as part of it. Those are all connected.”
Running concurrently with the Ramayana exhibition is one that focuses on women’s art from India.
“Women’s Paintings from the Land of Sita” runs as a counterpart to the Ramayana exhibition. It explores the transition of traditional, ritualistic, and domestic painting, as the availability of paper to female artists grew. All works in this presentation are from the collection of Gursharan and Elvira Sidhu.
“It makes such a neat pair with the Ramayana, because the Ramayana, being the male patrons, the social ideals that it upholds, and then this is more of the local women’s counter-narratives in a way. Their own stories and their own narratives are a bit different,” Loudon said.
According to Loudon, paper first became available to village women in the Mithila region of the Bihar state in India during the 1960s. Then the paintings that already decorated the walls and floors of their homes that marked life events, lunar calendar changes, and other significant happenings, were introduced to the world.
The income the women received benefited their villages and families, as well as brought acclaim to the women themselves. (end)
For more information, visit the Seattle Asian Art Museum’s website at www.seattleartmuseum.org.
Samantha Test can be reached at email@example.com.