An Introduction to the Kanchana Chitra Ramayana
In the midst of preparations for the inauguration of a grand temple dedicated to Lord Rama in Ayodhya, a contentious site with a storied history, the Museum of Art and Photography (MAP) in Bengaluru unveils a remarkable exhibition—the Kanchana Chitra Ramayana.
Raja Udit Narayan of Banaras commissioned this opulent masterpiece between 1796 and 1835. It comprises 1,100 folios adorned with 548 gold-drenched paintings and offers a unique perspective on cultural integration and socio-political manoeuvring.
Let’s delve into this historic saga and immerse ourselves in this unique amalgamation of art, culture, and political foresight.
The Story Behind A Unique Artistic Convergence: A Propaganda in Paint
Udit Narayan of Benarus ascended the throne during an era of diminished royal authority. He did not possess any military power and was not allowed to build fortifications or even collect taxes. He sought autonomy in the religio-cultural sphere, but how would he accomplish such a task? Choosing Rama as the focal point, the king aimed to appeal to the Ramanandi sect, merchants, and landlords devoted to Rama.
He commissioned artists from renowned miniature painting centres like Awadh, Delhi, and Datia to collaborate on the project he had in mind. His project culminated in the production of one of the most elaborate visual renditions of Tulsidas’ Awadhi retelling of Valmiki’s epic.
The ingenuity of this artistic convergence challenged prevailing narratives that suggested the demise of miniature painting traditions in the 19th century. Through the vivid paintings of the Kanchana Chitra Ramayana, the exhibition sheds light on Udit Narayan’s vision of establishing Banaras as the contemporary Ayodhya and the embodiment of ‘Rama rajya’.
Political Symbolism: Decoding Artistic Choices
The MAP exhibition prompts contemplation on Udit Narayan’s political symbolism, especially in scenes illustrated by the Delhi school of painters portraying Lankakand. The deliberate use of Shahjahani architecture and Mughal-inspired depictions of asuras raises questions about the king’s intentions.
Scenes like Angada negotiating with Ravana for a truce, which spans nine pages, showcase meticulous attention to unique details and perspectives.
The Kanchana Chitra Ramayana: Unveiling Subversions
The Kanchana Chitra Ramayana is a visual feast and displays unparalleled stylistic variety. We observe influences ranging from Jaipur and Mughal-inspired styles to distinct Awadhi and Delhi styles in its paintings. Scenes like Kakabhushundi’s discourse reveal philosophical facets of the Ramcharitmanas. They reflect the high degree of collaboration required for this monumental work.
By commissioning three commentaries on the work, including the Kanchana Chitra Ramayana, Udit Narayan sought to engage the intellectual class, commoners, and nobility alike. Despite the British acknowledging Banaras as a cultural centre, real powers eluded the king. Nevertheless, Udit Narayan’s pursuit of tradition earned him a reputation as a learned ruler.
Reaching Philosophical Depths Through Collaborative Artistry
Among the intriguing narratives depicted is the discourse of Kakabhushundi, the crow-sage who exists outside of time. Scenes depicting Kakabhushundi’s discourse with Garuda explain the profound philosophical elements of the Ramcharitmanas and exemplify the high degree of collaboration required for this monumental work. They also serve as a nod to Tulsidas’ inclusive outreach, who preached the glory of Rama to people of all sects, women, and Muslims.
The Kanchana Chitra Ramayana: From Obscurity to Illumination
Originally concealed within the private collection of the Benaras royal family, the Kanchana Chitra Ramayana’s folios found their way into the art market over the past four years. Many of them fetched high prices when they were inevitably sold at auction houses.
The anonymity imposed on the artwork’s provenance through scratched-out names and seals gives the Kanchana Chira Ramayana a curious air of mystery. Thankfully, American professor Richard Schechner’s comprehensive photography of the work in the 1970s recorded its original form in the archives of the Center for Art and Archaeology.
The Kanchana Chitra Ramayana exhibition at MAP, Bengaluru, offers a glimpse into the historical tapestry woven by Udit Narayan and the collaborative efforts of diverse artists. Displaying 80 folios, mostly from private collectors, this exhibition runs until March 8, 2024, inviting visitors to delve into the intricate world of this golden-painted epic.
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