Museum Treasure: Rama’s coronation

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:

Rama's coronation. Ivory, Mid-18th Century
Rama’s coronation. Ivory, Mid-18th Century

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 !).

Rama's coronation. Sandalwood, 18th Century, Trivandrum
Rama’s coronation. Sandalwood, 18th Century, Trivandrum

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.

20 thoughts on “Museum Treasure: Rama’s coronation

    1. Art versus ethics is a dilemma I struggle with every time I see something like this. While I insisted on my parents giving away/destroying the ivory artifacts we had at home, that alone has not stopped me from admiring the art.

      The dilemma continues 😦

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  1. I loved the first one, I have always perceived ivory as a cold medium however, that particular piece evokes such warmth and the latter, despite being in wood – a traditionally warm medium, does not manage to do so.

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    1. I loved ivory as a child, till I read about the ivory trade and insisted on my parents giving away everything. But this dislike for ivory never translated to a dislike for the art of ivory carving. We had a Radha Krishna on a swing which was beautiful – one could almost feel the wind caressing Radha’s hair. Then I also had a pair of earrings made from ivory.

      I admit that it is a difficult issue of separating the art from ethics involved.

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  2. While the ivory exhibit is very clear, the other one is not so clear. But one has to admit that the workmanship of the ivory one is excellent and exquisite. Even the sinews and bone structure is visible in them, especially the bent back of Hanuman. And I will take you word for the fact that the sandalwood carving is, well, wooden, as far as the expressions go 😀

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    1. I apologise for the poor quality of the photograph. You may find it difficult to believe but this was the better of the 3 photos that I had of the wooden tableau. I guess the photograph is as wooden as the medium 😦

      I am not a great fan of ivory due to how most of the raw material was usually acquired. In spite, of my dislike and distate for ivory, it was difficult not to admire the art. And that is the reason I ebven wrote this post.

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  3. The ivory statues are definitely more appealing. The craftsman has taken great care to portray the expressions of all the characters.
    The details of the sandalwood sculpture – by this I mean the backdrop of the throne – is also amazing.

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