Rukmani Kumari Rathore, Indian art specialist, on an illustrated manuscript of the Hindu poem with its own epic narrative — a survivor of an inferno, once possessed by a warrior queen, and now being offered in London on 12 June
‘For anyone with a connection to Hindu religion and culture, the Ramayana is a fundamental text,’ says Rukmani Kumari Rathore, specialist in Indian art at Christie’s. ‘This illustrated version is particularly special.’
The Ramayana, which tells the story of the divine prince Rama’s quest to retrieve his wife Sita from the clutches of the ten-headed demon Ravana, was first written down by the sage Valmiki some time between the 5th and 1st century BC. Comprising 24,000 verses across seven books, the epic poem has, over the centuries, been translated from the original Sanskrit into countless languages. One of the most famous retellings was by the poet Tulsidas, in the 1570s, during the reign of the Mughal Emperor Akbar.
On 12 June, an illustrated manuscript featuring Tulsidas’s text for the second book of the Ramayana will be offered in the Arts of India sale at Christie’s in London. Full of narrative incident, the second book recounts Rama’s expulsion from Ayodhya; his journey to a far-flung forest, in search of a new home; and the death of his father, King Dasharatha, who is unable to bear the pain of missing his son.
Outside India, incredibly few books of the Ramayana survive intact in illustrated-manuscript form. ‘For a complete volume to come to us like this is rare,’ says Rathore. ‘Usually, what we see are individual folios that have become separated from the original. Here, though, we have a bound volume consisting of 194 different folios, just as it did the day it was first produced.’
Also rare is the fact that this version is both signed and dated. Most Indian artists of the 18th century are anonymous to us, but this volume was signed by Ramcharan Kayasth, from the Jaipur School of painting, in 1796-97. Although little is known about Kayasth or the context in which he worked, ‘his signature was probably a testament to his importance at the time’, suggests Rathore.
‘It’s remarkable to think that this book was owned by someone so central to Indian history’
‘This volume features 179 painted illustrations, each of which would have taken Kayasth and his workshop weeks to complete, and there were seven volumes in total,’ the specialist continues. ‘This could only have been a commission for a supremely wealthy prince.’
A note accompanying the volume, typewritten in English in the early 20th century, declares that it was once owned by Lakshmi Bai, queen of the northern state of Jhansi. A leading 19th-century figure of resistance against the British Raj, Bai fought to her death in the rebellion of 1857-58. According to the note, ‘her house having been set on fire after her fall, six volumes of this book [the Ramayana] were burnt with other furnitures, but this one was found uninjured in the debris after the fire was extinguished.’
‘It’s remarkable to think that this book was owned by someone so central to Indian history as Lakshmi Bai,’ Rathore says, ‘and equally remarkable that it survived when the other six volumes of her Ramayana did not. It’s impossible to imagine, seeing this manuscript before you, what a long and eventful past it has had.’