In India, popular perception in religious art largely spread through calendars, posters and periodicals. These colourful works of art were important in reinforcing images that we instantly recognise today. For instance, if we were to try to imagine Rama’s coronation in Ayodhya, it would be something like this — Rama and Sita seated on the royal throne with Hanuman bowing at their feet. Rama’s brothers, Lakshmana, Bharata and Shatrughna are in attendance, as is the Vanar king Sugreeva. The royal priest, Vashishta, is busy conducting the ceremony.
It is a gloriously celebratory image, but uni dimensional, and oh-so-safe-and-recognisable, if you know what I mean. And frankly, quite boring as the expressions on all the faces are fixed and beatific.
But then, sometimes, one comes across depictions that shakes you out of the boredom and makes you look at the same thing all over again, but with delight this time.
I came across two artifacts/tableaus on Rama’s coronation at at Mumbai’s Bhau Daji Lad Museum. Though both were instantly recognisable for what they depicted, they had more than an element of surprise on offer. Here is the first one:
The beautifully carved tableau in ivory (mid-18th Century) took my breath away and I felt that I had stepped back in time and was witnessing something special. The expressions on all the faces conveyed the emotions prevalent at the event — Hanuman’s devotion (look at his posture), Sita’s tender gaze at Hanuman, Rama’s stately look, the priests busy with their ceremonies, Lakshmana proudly holding the umbrella…
The second tableau was made of sandalwood and though equally stunning, was severely symmetrical making it a little uninteresting for me. Also, the expressions were quite wooden (pardon the pun !).
In both the tableaus, the artists have not deviated from popular representation of the subject; and yet, their art is refreshingly unique and bears the stamp of their individual expression. Whenever I see such works of art, my first thought always is: what goes through the mind of the artist while making this?
Two tableaus on the same theme, but so very differently executed. Which one did you like?
The Museum Treasure Series is all about artifacts found in museums with an interesting history and story attached to them. You can read more from this series here.