I’ve written about the Ramayana before here on the Margins. It’s a big enough topic to consider again whenever I stumble across a way for a new audience to come to it.
As I’ve said in a previous post, the Ramayana is a heroic epic, an important Hindu scripture, and a cultural touchstone for the peoples of South and Southeast Asia. Over the millennia, it has inspired poets, artists, dramatists, dancers, and more recently movie directors and video game designers. Its characters have been treated as archetypal figures, worshiped as gods, held up as role models and rejected as horrible examples. It’s a story that most people of South Asian descent know in some form. It’s a story that most North Americas barely know at all.
In its classic form the Ramayana as a sprawling epic that can be overwhelming for those of us who didn’t grow up on the central story. Friends reading for the first time often have the feeling that they need flash cards, or some other kind of cheat sheet. The phrase “you can’t tell the players without a program” comes to mind.
San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum has a solution for those of you lost in the tangle of story. In The Rama Epic: Hero, Heroine, Ally, Foe, art historian and curators for an exhibit of the same name* explore the Ramayana as both story and social model, using art objects created over a period of fifteen-hundred years from many different countries.* Instead of allowing the audience to founder in the details, The Rama Epic focuses on the four characters who stand at its heart: Rama, his wife Sita, the monkey-god Hanuman, and the ten-headed demon-king Ravana. Each character is the subject of two thoughtful essays. One examines the changing nature of the character’s role as hero, heroine, ally or foe. The second examines the character’s basic iconography. The end result is a visual feast that allows readers to engage with and make the Ramayana their own.
My own favorite version of the Ramayana didn’t make it into The Rama Epic. A shame really. Sita Sings the Blues is a great example of a modern artist creating a Ramayana of her own.**
*I haven’t see the exhibit in person. Just the catalog, which is pretty dang spectacular. The exhibit runs through January 15. If you get a chance to see it, let me know what you think.
** Time for me to watch it again I think. Right after my annual viewing of A Charlie Brown Christmas.
The guts of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers. LINK