In August 2021, I received a surprise e-mail from eminent art historian, professor Kavita Singh of Jawaharlal Nehru University. She asked if I knew of a magnificent illustrated manuscript of the Ramcharitmanas of Tulsidas (1574 AD), the popular Hindi retelling of the Ramayana story, produced for the Maharaja of Banaras at the end of the 18th century. She wondered whether I knew that this seven-volume work was now being “dispersed” – broken up and sold, page-by-page, in the art market. Finally, she asked if I would assist her and her former student Parul Singh in preparing an exhibit of some of its folios for an exciting new museum, MAP (Museum of Art and Photography), in Bengaluru, at the invitation of its founder, Abhishek Poddar.
I had indeed heard of this legendary manuscript, popularly known as the Kanchana Chitra Ramayana (“Golden Illustrated Ramayana,” because of the copious use of gold in its production), from the late Maharaja Vibhuti Narayan Singh (1927-2000), when I interviewed him in 1982 during my research on oral performance traditions of the Ramcharitmanas. He told me proudly that this work, produced at immense cost for his ancestor Udit Narayan Singh (reigned 1795-1835), was one of the treasures of his family. Prepared by a veritable army of painters, calligraphers, and illuminators working under the guidance of revered Ramayanis – traditional scholars of the Tulsidas epic – it was, the Raja emphasised, “not just an illustrated Ramayana,” but rather a “visual commentary” (drishya tika) on the Ramcharitmanas. Nearly two decades later, when I accompanied a television crew making a documentary on the legacy of Tulsidas who had received permission to film inside the Ramnagar palace library, I was permitted to see a few pages from one of the seven bound volumes. Now, after another two decades, I learned from Kavita Singh that this treasure, hidden from view for nearly 200 years, was no longer intact—yet paradoxically, it might now be seen, at least in fragments, by a wider audience.
I was happy to assist in the project, albeit marginally. The volumes of the Golden Ramayana had been vertically bound like modern books, with a page of elegant Devanagari calligraphy facing each large and sumptuous (18.5×14 inch) painting that “commented” on it—the entire Ramcharitmanas text comprising more than a thousand pages of text and paintings. Dispersed, however, each painting stood alone and out of context, and the text on its reverse side did not correspond to it but rather belonged to what would have been the next painting in the series. As a scholar of the Manas, it was easy for me to read each page and then extrapolate backwards to identify the text – usually two to three stanzas – that would have preceded it, and thus I was able to save my art historian colleagues a little time as they began delving into the complexity, detail, and nuance of these paintings and selecting and ordering those to be shown at MAP. And as it turned out, time was important: Singh was undergoing treatment for a rare and aggressive cancer that would tragically cut short her life on July 30 of this year, a mere month and a half before the opening of “The Book of Gold,” the magnificent exhibition that now represents the fruit of her final labour and on which she worked tirelessly almost to her last breath.
The result – some eighty paintings gorgeously mounted in two large galleries on the third floor of MAP by the Museum’s talented curatorial and design staff – is not simply a dazzling and beautifully documented exhibition that pays fitting tribute to its principal curator. It is also, as Singh observes in her writing on the show, a demonstration of the need to revise the art-historical narrative about pre-colonial painting in North India, which long held that little of substance or innovation was produced after the end of the 18th century, especially in the Banaras area. As the show makes clear, master painters from several urban “schools” – probably including Jaipur, Delhi, Lucknow, Murshidabad, and Datia – were enlisted to work on this massive project, which continued for 18 years (1796-1814). Given lavish resources, including pigments of gold and lapis lazuli, by a patron who aspired to surpass the illuminated codices of the Mughals, and guided by the visionary input of Ramayanis who were often adepts of the rasika school of meditation/visualisation, they produced stunning paintings. Each must have taken weeks to complete, teeming with individualised figures as well as detailed renderings of costumes, buildings, cities, villages, and landscapes dense with vegetation, animals, and birds. Though I had seen impressive digital scans of many of them, nothing prepared me for the explosion of colour (on pages shielded from light for nearly 200 years, and now carefully lit to protect their pigments) and the almost unbelievable abundance of detail in each one. In the Balakanda paintings of Ram and Sita’s wedding, for example, the rendering of hundreds of figures includes exquisite detail of brocaded fabrics, jewellery, mandaps, and carpets, within architectural settings that evoke the courtly world of late-18th-century Ramnagar, and the triumphant Uttarkanda evocations of “Ramraj” similarly conjure a utopian Banaras of multi-storied houses (the cutaway interiors of which play M.C. Escher-like tricks of perspective), each showcasing model behaviours of the exemplary citizens of Ram’s capital.
The curators have wisely avoided a mere chronological recapitulation of the familiar Ramayana narrative and have instead grouped paintings in thematic sets, accompanied by lucid documentation that sets the “Golden Book” within (among other contexts) the cultural history of Banaras state, the political aspirations of its rulers, the idiosyncrasies and innovations of Tulsidas’s epic narrative, and the almost obsessive culture of religio-aesthetic scholasticism and connoisseurship that developed around it. The paradoxical juxtaposition of themes of inclusive, egalitarian bhakti and Brahman-brokered varnashrama-dharma, so evident in Tulsidas’s writing, is likewise rightly identified and contextualised. Besides the sheer visual ananda the show affords (and I spent a good part of two days in the galleries, often gasping in wonder), it offers the attentive viewer a marvellous introduction to one of the great classics of Indian literature as well as a detailed picture of art and society in the eastern Ganga valley on the cusp of colonialism.
Additionally, the exhibition features a digital flip-book of the entire seven-volume work as it existed pre-dispersal. This record, so rare in the world of piecemeal manuscripts, exists due to the happy circumstance of the Maharaja having consented, in 1976, to have all seven volumes photographed by the Center for Art and Archaeology of the American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS). Protected for a half-century in the Institute’s archive in Gurugram, these images were recently digitised and made available to Kavita Singh and her collaborators and now constitute a unique resource for further study of this masterpiece. And finally, yet another MAP gallery offers a display by brilliant digital/video artist Amit Dutta that playfully yet reverently animates various elements from the paintings to astonishing visual effect.
This extravagant exhibition, on display through March 8 2024, is in every way a rare treat, for it is extremely unlikely that we will ever again be able to see so much of the fabled “Golden Book,” superbly displayed and documented, in one place.
Philip Lutgendorf, Emeritus Professor of Hindi and Modern Indian Studies at the University of Iowa is the author of The Life of a Text: Performing the Rāmcaritmānas of Tulsidas(1991) and Hanuman’s Tale: The Messages of a Divine Monkey(2007). His seven-volume translation of the Ramcharitmanas has appeared as The Epic of Ram in the Murty Classical Library of India series (2016-2023).