Having enjoyed watching each episode of Ramayana, the 3000 years old epic, on our television sets, did we ever wonder whether our future generations will have access to it? The stories of righteousness that we grew up watching, will they get to see the same moral stories. And learn the same values? The bigger question might have been whether they would want to watch them the way we did. And still adore them the way we did? And their generations. And maybe theirs? Or will the charm slowly die down?
Certainly not! The beautiful epic has been put to life once again, and this time in a way that our generations will have a treat watching it. For our youth that almost breathes digital, out comes the version of Ramayana that’s not just digitised but much more enriched. The question that now arises is how?
So here it is. Much before even Nina Paley’s ‘Sita sings the blues’ came into play (we’re talking of more than 300 years ago here), Rana Jagat Singh of Mewar had launched the first draft of an animated version of Ramayana. This might have been his first attempt at that time, but who knew it’s going to travel to the British Library one day and emerge as a beautiful animated piece that will excite the people of the digital era. Between 1649 and 1654, three artists worked day and night in the courts of Jagat Singh and produced more than 370 paintings that enlivened the text from the epic. “In some images, you can see the story unfolding on different areas of the page, with the same character repeated in different situations – almost like a comic book,” says Catherine Eagleton, head (Asian and African Studies) at the British Library.
Putting the pieces together
The exquisite 17th century manuscript, which was split between India and the UK for more than 150 years, was digitally reunited recently. The entire work had been in India until the early 19th century, when four of the seven books were gifted to British political agent James Tod by Rana Bhim Singh, who was then the ruler of Mewar. The four books – the Ayodhyakanda, Kiskindhakanda, Yuddhakanda and Uttarakanda – are currently held by the British Library. The London-based library also has 18 folios of what is presumably the fifth book, Sundarakanda, acquired in 1912. Over time, the remaining folios became separated among Mumbai’s CSMVS Museum, the Rajasthan Oriental Research Institute, Baroda Museum and Picture Gallery, and a private collection in Mumbai.
In both countries, the 17th century paintings were first captured in high-quality photographs and digitised using the British Library’s Turning the Pages (TTP) software. It’s a large manuscript that will take about 2 minutes to open up for you I you have a moderately speedy Internet connection. You can then navigate through and hop from book to book and explore it just the way you would skip pages on a hard book.
Acknowledging the Mewar artists
You will be amazed at the level of details you can see upto, for each painting. Vandana Prapanna, coordinator and curator, CSMVS, gives credit for this clarity to the Mewar artists’ technique. “The paintings have stayed in good condition after all these years because the artists had used mineral colours strengthened with babul tree gum and coated them with a kind of varnish.” The paper too was thickened by sticking two or three sheets together. The folios reveal the styles of prominent miniature artists Sahibdin and Manohar, who combined the Mewar and Mughal schools, as well as an unknown artist who painted with a Deccan influence. The pieces are painstakingly thorough, with fine brushstrokes marking everything from details on utensils to creases on sleeves.
On the 15th May 2008 Shriji inaugurated an exhibition of paintings of the Ramayana at the British Library. He thanked Sir Colin Lucas, Chairman of the British Library for his invitation and congratulated the curator Mr. Jerry Losty for successfully bringing out the vibrant relevance of the paintings. He also thanked Sir Gulam Noon who has generously supported the British Library’s ‘Turning the Pages’ project. Applauding this endeavour Shriji said,
The Ramayana is an epic tale composed nearly 3000 years ago and remains a stirring tale of the ultimate triumph of righteousness. The several messages it embodies are significant to our way of life even today. I believe ‘Turning the Pages’ will open new avenues of understanding between people and provide access of important artistic representations to people of different faiths. This accords with the ideology of the House of Mewar whose unwavering tradition of cultural and religious integration has endured across many centuries of both peace and upheaval.