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Exhibition

The Rama Epic: Hero, Heroine, Ally, Foe

Oct 21, 2016 – Jan 15, 2017

The Rama Epic

Bloody battles, daring rescues, passionate romance and a shape-shifting monkey warrior.
 
One of the world’s greatest works of literature, the Rama epic — the 2,500-year-old classic and its many versions — teems with excitement. The story of Prince Rama’s quest to defeat a powerful demonic king, rescue his abducted wife and re-establish order in the world is also, for many, a sacred tradition. For centuries, this beloved tale has been told again and again through visual and performing arts, literature and religious teachings in the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia and beyond.  
 
This exhibition invites you to explore the personalities and perspectives of four main characters: Rama; his wife Sita; Rama’s faithful monkey lieutenant Hanuman; and the 10-headed demon king Ravana. Spanning the ancient to the contemporary, this major international survey of 135 artworks captures the epic in a new light. Coursing beneath the drama and fantasy of the thrilling tale, discover timeless human struggles and poignant moments that will resonate with your own story.
 

Watch Stories from the Rama Epic

For centuries, the Rama epic has been presented by actors, dancers, puppeteers, and storytellers from Delhi to Bangkok and beyond. In more recent times, filmmakers and TV producers have joined in. 

View some of these performing traditions…

About the Story

The Timeless Tale

Bards and storytellers have been relating the Rama epic for over 2,000 years. Originating in ancient India, the story spread to Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand and beyond. The Rama epic now exists in dozens of languages and forms, and in as many religious and cultural contexts – from Hindu temples to village squares, from the Islamic courts of the Mughal emperors to the theaters of Buddhist Cambodia.

The earliest version of the tale is the seven-volume “Ramayana” said to have been composed by the poet Valmiki more than 2,000 years ago. Here’s a micro-summary:

The earth is threatened by powerful

demonic forces. To overcome them, the god

Vishnu takes human form and is born as 

Prince Rama. When Rama is grown, court

intrigues force him into exile in the forest

with his wife Sita and his brother.

 

The king of demons, Ravana, kidnaps

Sita and holds her captive in his capital.

Rama allies with Hanuman and other

monkey warriors to conquer Ravana’s 

forces and rescue Sita. After long and 

bloody battles, Ravana is killed and Sita 

and Rama are reunited.

 

Rama, however, expresses doubt that Sita 

could have remained faithful to him and

rejects her. Sita insists on a test: she enters

a raging fire and emerges unharmed with

her integrity confirmed. Rama and Sita

return home, and Rama is crowned king.

For thousands of years, his realm enjoys

peace and prosperity.

Many tellings of the story end here, on this high note of triumph and reunification. But the sadder, more tangled continuation of the tale offers this alternate ending:

Sita’s virtue is again doubted, and Rama

sends her away. During her new exile,

she gives birth to their twin sons. Years later,

Rama summons her back to affirm her

purity once more. Unwilling to endure

further questioning, she calls on her mother

the earth to receive her and sinks out of

sight. Devastated, Rama rules for many

more years but finally returns to the

heavens and is reabsorbed into Vishnu.

Rama Today

As long as the mountains and rivers shall

endure upon the earth, so long will the story

of the Ramayana be told among men.

-Valmiki’s “Ramayana”

The Rama epic is not only alive and well today, it lives on in myriad mediums. The story and its characters continue to evolve in contemporary theater, dance, music, puppetry, movies, TV and even video games. Today Sita takes feisty form in works from Cambodian dance to graphic novels. Southeast Asian shadow puppet traditions persist. Gigantic effigies of Ravana are set aflame to cheers in North India as part of an annual festival theater, the Ramlila (literally, “Rama’s play”). In past decades, the epic poem has taken on political overtones as its characters have acquired nationalistic or regional significance. And in recent Bay Area history, an animated film interpretation featuring a buxom Sita and less-than-admirable Rama sparked controversy and protests.

The adaptations, interpretations and commentary are endless. What’s clear is that the Rama epic still thrives and maintains its import in artistic, religious, cultural and political spheres. Each retelling is a testament to the lasting power of the drama and its moral quandaries.

Meet the Characters

Rama, the Hero

Brave and righteous prince; a god, as an incarnation of the god Vishnu.

Rama kills the demon warrior Makaraksha in combat, from a manuscript of the Ramayana, approx. 1790. India; Himachal Pradesh state, former kingdom of Guler. Opaque watercolors on paper. Courtesy of Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, Gift of Margaret Polak, 1992.95. Photograph © Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

Rama, the main character of the epic, is brave, virtuous and handsome. In short, he’s a heartthrob, and a strong one at that; he rids a forest of demons, bends a great bow that no one else has even been able to lift and kills thousands of attackers single-handedly. 

In addition, Rama is an incarnation of the great god Vishnu and, like the deity, is depicted with blue- or green-toned skin. For some Hindus, Rama (often together with Sita) is the Supreme Deity. 

Rama’s patience, selflessness, obedience to elders and determination to uphold the approved social order have also made him a model for generations of men in India and beyond. When his father, the king, is forced to send him into a 14-year exile, Rama accepts his fate without protest. Similarly, when his own wishes clash with his duty, Rama more often than not chooses the latter. After he has conquered the king of demons Ravana and set his wife Sita free from captivity, he does not welcome her back, but rather questions her faithfulness. In his mind, his duty as a ruler requires it; only after Sita proves her purity and the people are reassured will he be able to accept her. 

While Rama is widely revered, some of his actions, such as questioning and rejecting Sita, have long caused discomfort and generated debate up to today. 

Sita, the Heroine

Faithful and virtuous wife of Rama; a goddess, an incarnation of the goddess Lakshmi

Sita in the forest grove (left); Rama and Lakshmana stricken (right); folio from the “Shangri” Ramayana, approx. 1700–1710. India; Bahu, Jammu and Kashmir. Opaque watercolors on paper. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of The Walter Foundation, M.91.348.2.

Princess Sita embodies beauty, dutifulness, obedience and quiet courage. Like Prince Rama, Sita has often been held up as a model of behavior. When Rama is condemned to years of exile and poverty, he expects his wife to stay behind, yet Sita insists it is her wifely duty to accompany him and share his misfortune. 

Her suffering only escalates. When Sita is abducted by the king of demons Ravana and held captive in his city, she endures every sort of psychological abuse, from cajolery and seemingly sincere professions of love to gruesome threats. She stalwartly refuses Ravana, swearing her fidelity to Rama. As her despair grows, she contemplates suicide. Hope returns only when the monkey warrior Hanuman arrives, bringing assurances from Rama. 

After Rama finally defeats Ravana and Sita is freed, she envisions the happiest of futures beside her husband. Immediately, though, Rama challenges her faithfulness in a humiliating spectacle. Sita insists on undergoing the ordeal of entering a huge fire to prove herself, and is vindicated. In some tellings of the story, rumors of her infidelity later circulate among the people, and she is abandoned to another long exile. 

Today some are troubled by Sita’s willingness to accept the authority of her male relatives and the rules of a patriarchal society. What is widely admired, though, is her fortitude in suffering. 

Hanuman, the Ally

Strong, resourceful monkey ally of Rama; a god in his own right

Hanuman leaps across the ocean, folio from the small Guler Ramayana series, approx. 1720. India; Pahari region, Himachal Radesh. Pigments and gold on paper. Museum Rietberg Zurich, RVI 840. Photograph © Rainer Wolfsberger.

The monkey warrior Hanuman is celebrated for his prowess, determination and loyalty. He finds Princess Sita after her abduction, helps achieve victories in combat and protects Prince Rama and his brother. He even has superhero qualities: he can change form, grow larger or smaller and leap vast distances. His bravery and resourcefulness are renowned, and he is unconquered on the battlefield. 

Hanuman has qualities that may be unexpected of a monkey. He speaks refined Sanskrit and has a talent for storytelling. He also shows tender allegiance to his human friends and is a paragon of devotion to Rama and Sita. 

In India people usually think of Hanuman as celibate, with all of his love focused on Rama and Sita. In Southeast Asia, however, Hanuman is often seen as a ladies’ man, romancing female creatures from mermaids to demonesses. 

Hanuman is a god in his own right, sometimes said to be the most widely worshipped Hindu deity in all of India. In modern times his importance seems to be growing and taking on new aspects. He has become a patron saint of wrestlers, and is represented as increasingly muscular. He has also come to be associated, for some, with burgeoning Hindu nationalism. 

Throughout the ages, people have speculated that Hanuman is the inspiration behind another lively simian character: the immensely popular Sun Wukong, or Monkey King, of the 16th-century Chinese novel “Xiyou Ji” (“The Journey to the West”). After much scholarly debate, no one can say definitively. Intrigued? Launch your own inquiry as you study the varied depictions of Hanuman in The Rama Epic.

Ravana, the Foe

Mighty king of the demons who abducts Sita

Sita in captivity in the ashoka grove, approx. 1725. India; Himachal Pradesh state, former kingdom of Guler. Colors and gold on paper. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of George P. Bickford, 1966. 143. Photograph © The Cleveland Museum of Art.

Ted-headed Ravana, king of the demons, is Rama’s chief enemy. His vast ambition and lust drive him to abduct Princess Sita and engage in a devastating war against Prince Rama. He has immense power and a compelling personality, and uses them to crush anyone who stands in the way of his drive for domination. 

A worthy antagonist to Rama, Ravana is complex and larger than life in many respects. His demon kingdom is well ordered and prosperous. His erudition, including knowledge of ancient scriptures, is impressive. His sons and generals are loyal, though maybe as much out of fear as respect. His many wives seem loving and contented, and are drawn to his celebrated good looks and magnetism.

People of different backgrounds and regions have long disagreed on how to evaluate Ravana’s character. For example, at the end of the annual North Indian festival performances of the Rama epic, a huge effigy of a cartoon-like Ravana is set afire by Rama’s arrow, and everyone cheers. In South India, though, some have seen Rama as an enforcer of traditional North Indian cultural norms, and Ravana as a misunderstood or misrepresented emblem of South Indian resistance.

Exhibition Highlights

If you’re pressed for time, be sure to check out these five artworks handpicked by the exhibition’s curator. Each work offers a glimpse into the epic of the Ramayana and its for key characters: Rama, his wife Sita, Rama’s faithful monkey lieutenant Hanuman and the 10-headed demon king Ravana.
 

What People are Saying

“With 135 superb works, many from the great collections of the world, the show is a visual feast.” – Charles Desmarais, San Francisco Chronicle

“The Asian Art Museum’s curator and exhibit staff have done a masterful job of forging a path through the Rama epic […] The exhibit is like a big, colorful, animated walk-through adventure book.” – Robert Taylor, Bay Area News Group

Read more:

The Mercury Voice

7×7

India West

#Rama Epic on Social Media

“[Seeing The Rama Epic] was like my entire childhood came to life! I learned so much and had no idea the story traveled to other countries…I’m not a museum person but skipping the Rama epic felt like skipping out on Temple…” – @LeenaB

“We were fortunate to visit the Asian Art Museum during the special Ramayana exhibit, which is enthralling. It is well organized, with good detail in the interpretive panels and docents to offer additional information. We stayed much longer than expected, and loved every minute!” – @Gangamar

“Just saw glorious Rama Epic show @askanartmuseum SF. Imaginative assemblage of works delve deep into 4 characters @ClevelandArt loan on view.” – @CMASonya, Curator of Indian and Southeast Asian Art at the Cleveland Museum of Art

Photo Credit: @YogaLeila

“It was #epic!…go see it! The #Ramayana at @asianartmuseum” – @YogaLeila

“The #Ramayana exhibit was worth coming back to the city. Wonderful, colorful, well organized. So glad I caught it! @asianartmuseum” – @TarkabarkaHolgy

Main image: Hanuman leaps across the ocean (detail), approx. 1720, attributed to the workshop of Pandit Seu of Guler (d. 1740). Opaque watercolors and gold on paper. Museum Rietberg Zurich, RVI 840. Photograph © Rainer Wolfsberger.

Organizers & Sponsors

The Rama Epic: Hero, Heroine, Ally, Foe is organized by the Asian Art Museum. 

Presentation at the Asian Art Museum is made possible with the generous support of Helen and Rajnikant Desai, The Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang Fund for Excellence in Exhibitions and Presentations, Martha Sam Hertelendy, Vijay and Ram Shriram, Society for Asian Art, and Meena Vashee.

Media Sponsor: India West

The Rama Epic advisory committee: Amit Pendyal; Amrit Mann, Chhandam School of Kathak; Anirvan Chatterjee; Charlotte Moraga, Chhandam School of Kathak; Charya Burt; Eric Chrystal; Gamelan Sekar Jaya; Ivan Jaigirdar, 3rd i Film Festival; Kalpana Desai; Larry Reed, Shadowlight Productions; Mona Shah; Monica Desai Henderson; Prasad Vepa; Tanuja Bahal. 

Community Partners: Abhinaya Dance Company of San Jose