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

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The unique wall art of Jaisalmer

All guidebooks and people who have visited Jaisalmer rave about its beautiful golden fort, the grand havelis, camel rides, sunset among the dunes, its Jain temples, cenotaphs, etc. But none (at least I haven’t come across any) talk about the unique wall art of Jaisalmer. When I saw the first one (see photo below), my reaction was one of horror: how could something like this be painted on the walls of an old haveli?

1-P1030192 Then I saw more of these and then some more. In fact, almost every house in Jaisalmer has such announcements painted near the entrance. The announcements are of weddings, upanayan ceremonies, housewarming ceremonies… And realised that this is a custom, a tradition in Jaisalmer and one that is unique to this city, as its residents kept telling me. Almost all these “announcements” have auspicious symbols accompanying it like the kalash, the swastika, and Ganpati.

A small selection of Jaisalmer’s wall art in Jaisalmer is presented below:

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I, Rama or Ayyo, Rama !

I, Rama: Age of Seers by Ravi Venu (Cratus Media, pp. 264, Rs.225) is the first book in the “I, Rama Series”. The series is a retelling of the Ramayana from Rama’s point of view.

This is His tale… let Him share His story with you…His account of the Legend. This is the story of that mighty king through His eyes, but my hand. (p.17)

I, Rama is narrated as a flashback to Rama’s twin sons Lava and Kusa, his brothers Lakshman, Bharat and Shatrughan, and his foremost devotee, Hanuman. It is not a simple straightforward flashback as there are tales within tales and flashbacks within flashbacks. So, even if it is Rama, who is narrating the tale, he narrates it through another’s voice. This volume takes the readers through the origins of the Ishvaku clan, the reign of Dashrath, the birth of Rama and his brothers, Rama and Lakshman’s sojourn to the Dandaka forest with Vishwamitra, Sita’s swayamvar and her ensuing marriage with Rama, and his encounter with Parasurama. The book ends with Rama, Sita and Lakshman being exiled from Ayodhya.

This is what I, Rama narrates, a story that anyone who has read the Ramayana will be familiar with, including me.

Now, how do I write a review of a book that is yet another retelling of the beloved Hindu legend, the Ramayana?

How do I write a review of a book that is part science fiction, part fantasy, part mythology and ends up being an uncooked khichdi of genres?

How do I write a review of a book with that is woven around a unique premise, but is written very badly?

How do I write a review of a book that was much-anticipated, but which failed to deliver?

How do I write a review of a book whose language is so archaic that it made me cringe?

How do I write a review of a book called I, Rama, but one that made me go “Ayyo, Rama”?

How do I write a review of a book that I struggled to complete and then did not want to review it?

I, therefore, decided not to write a usual review. What I have written is this…

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Puranic tales for cynical people and humour for all

How often do you pick up a book on the basis of its title? I do that sometimes, often to be disappointed. But Puranic Tales for Cynical People (Indialog, 2005), written by Parashuram and translated from the original Bangla by Pradip Bhattacharya and Shekhar Sen, was an exception. I purchased this book in 2005, read it from start to finish, and loved it so much that I was all set to read it a second time. That never happened, and after a while it got shelved with my other books, hidden but not fully forgotten.

Until recently, that is. My brother unearthed it recently during a raid on my bookshelves in search of some reading material. Thanks to him, I was able to once again delight in the book’s sometimes light, sometimes acerbic, and sometimes irreverent humour.

Parashuram was the pen name of Rajsekhar Bose (or Basu, if you please) (1880-1960). Under this nom de plume, he wrote a 100 short stories, which were published in 9 collections. Twenty of these stories have been put together in this collection of Puranic Tales for Cynical People by the translators.

The basic premise of most of these stories revolves around the intriguing possibility of placing “well-known characters from the Puranas in situations that might have been”. In other words, they cater to the question of what happened next or a behind the scene narration of a famous story or incident. For example: what happened to Surpanakha after the Ramayana? Did the celibate Hanuman ever consider matrimony? Did Vishwamitra and Menaka always have a lovey-dovey relationship? Do apsaras always stay young?

In the process, Parashuram pokes fun at everybody—from the Creators (Hindu, Christian and Muslim) themselves, to venerable sages and other characters that any reader who is even reasonably acquainted with Hindu mythology will be able to identify and relate to.

Some of the lesser known characters that Parashuram breathes life into are Yayati (‘Yayati’s Senility’), Revati (‘Revati Gets a Husband’) and Maharishi Jabali (‘Jabali’). Two of the stories actually make caricatures of two of the crankiest,  hot-tempered and feared sages—Durvasa (‘Bharat’s Rattle’), and Vishwamitra (‘The Clay Girdle’).

Two stories explore the possibility of what happens when (i) the creators of the world’s 3 main religions meet (‘Three Creators’); and (ii) the 7 immortal men from the Puranas meet—Ashwatthama, Vyasa, Hanuman, Vibhishana, Kripacharya, Parashuram (the sage that is, not the author), and the Daitya king, Bali—at ‘The Gandhamadan Conclave’. Both these stories are absolutely delightful. While the former hits out at the claim of comparative superiority of one religion over others, the latter story emphasises the fact that all wars are essentially unfair.

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Hampi: Where mythology, history and today coexist

Vali and Sugreeva. Relief at the Hazara Rama Temple, Hampi

Where do I begin writing about Hampi—its many stories and histories, its kings and legends, its glorious past and ultimate ruin, its temples and other monuments, and its present day avatar. At the beginning, of course !

By Hampi (which is situated on the banks of the river Tungabhadra), I not only mean present day Hampi, but also the region around it.

Many millennia ago, the area was called Kishkinda or Kishkindanagari. This was the kingdom of the vanar Vali and later his brother Sugreeva, and home to the vanars who formed the bulk of Rama’s army in his battle against Ravana in the RamayanaAnegundi, the birthplace of Hanuman, is also located in this area. Anegundi was the erstwhile capital of the Vijayanagara Empire, before it was shifted to Hampi. One can still see the remains of old stone bridge connecting the old and new capitals.

Remains of the bridge across the Tungabhadra connecting the old capital, Anegundi, and the new capital, Hampi, of Vijayanagara

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