There must be 200 mourners in this painting. Some are sorrowing gently and some collapse with unsupportable grief as the entire male population of Ayodhya accompanies Dasaratha’s bier to his cremation.
On the left, inside the city walls, we see pallbearers carrying the body on a stretcher fit for a king. It is canopied and covered with golden brocade and hung with flower garlands; an attendant waves the yak’s-tail flywhisk by its side, honouring the dead monarch’s body with this kingly privilege one last time.
Death that comes at an advanced age is traditionally seen as a release, and is an event to be celebrated. In keeping with the customary rejoicing at such funerals, an attendant sprinkles red gulal on those who are near the bier. But this is pro forma; the gulal sprinkler knows, those who are sprinkled know, the pallbearers and the hundreds who join the cortege know that Dasaratha may have been old but his end was still untimely, undeserved and unjust.
He should not have died; he should not have died like that; he should not have died like that with his sons so far away, in exile, unable to be by his side. Perhaps that is why almost all the men who are here in this funeral procession have had their heads tonsured. They have taken upon themselves this sign of mourning that is the son’s prerogative, and by this act they have all become substitutes for the sons who cannot be here. At the same time, they have also all become sons who have been rendered fatherless.
Starting a column on Indian art at this time in India of such loss and sorrow and mourning and isolation, there is no more apt place to begin than this painting and the exquisite series of which it is a part. There are many instances in the history of Indian art that deal empathetically with grief but there is nothing that quite equals the elegiac quality of this late-eighteenth century Ramayana from the Pahari region.
If the Ramayana is an epic about love lost – a father who loves his son but must send him away; a husband who loves his wife but loses her (again and again); the krauncha bird that loses its mate whose cry of shoka or sorrow famously becomes Valmiki’s shloka or verse – then the artists of this version had a profound understanding of the way art could make visible not just the characters of the tale, but of the wretched distances and unfulfillable yearnings that stretched between them.
Paintings in this series turn the diminutive page – just about the size of an A4 sheet – into vast vistas of echoing emptiness. There is fold upon fold of bare mountain, unrelieved by the lush flowering trees seen in miniatures from the Kangra school. Rivers are forces of nature, cold, rushing, and impersonal. Buildings are incalculably large, receding into the distance in diagonals that are unsettlingly sharp.
Rooms box people in and hold them apart. In the immensity of their surroundings, characters dwindle; they are no longer heroes or even villains because they have become incidental to the tale. Now that the composition does not revolve around them, the paintings reveal the shocking truth that none of us are in control of our fates.
In the scene of Dasaratha’s funeral, the crowd files past a white city wall as blind as justice and as inscrutable as God. The soil is empty. Emptier still is the riverbank on whose white sand the funeral pyre has been built. The logs in it, Valmiki tells us, are of sandalwood, sweet aloes and deodar, and into this already-fragrant pile the priests add more flowers and more perfumes. The flames rise up and all becomes smoke, greyly crossing the grey stream of the Sarayu and curling towards the sky. Who among the tiny mourners clapping his hands to his face would be Bharata, the son who had to light the pyre?
Paintings in this series use continuous narration, distributing several events across the page, and surely there is a third moment lower down along the river bank where, hours later, the prince enters the river to offer libations, for standing at the ready on the bank is an attendant with a golden ewer and a towel.
One significant way in which this moving painting deviates from Valmiki’s text is the overwhelmingly masculine nature of the crowd. There are laymen and ascetics, princes and priests, but nowhere does the artist depict what Valmiki tells us about the chariots of the women, led by Kaushalya, who come to the cremation spot, circumambulate it, and fill the sky with their cries.
This painting belongs to a series that scholars call the “Bharany Ramayana” after Chhote Lal Bharany, the prominent Delhi-based art dealer who once owned the series and brought it to the notice of the art market. This is said to have occurred after the passage of the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act of 1972 that restricted the export of artworks such as this. Today, pages from this series repose in collections across the world and little is known about the way they reached their destinations.
It is unlikely that their dispersal will ever be reconstructed. Last month, Bharany too fell victim to Covid19. The silence surrounding this set means we do not know where these paintings came from, by whom they were made, who might have commissioned them or even how many paintings there once were.
The best effort to collate the known paintings has been made on a blog by @ArtOfIndia1 who estimates that the series originally had approximately 200 paintings. These were not bound into a book, nor was the Ramayana text written on the reverse; instead the paintings would have been stacked together in a cloth bundle or a box to be taken out and held in the hand and seen one by one.
And how these paintings would have drawn one in. A page from the Ayodhyakanda that shows Rama, Sita, Lakshmana and their charioteer Sumantra crossing a river on the journey into exile typifies the extraordinary vision of the artists of this series. The page is almost entirely river, with grey parallel strokes suggesting the swift torrent that courses diagonally across the page. The narrow boat, so valiantly rowed by the straining boatmen, has to take its passengers safely to the other shore. While the text tells us the party easily fords the river, the painting makes the crossing fraught: it shows us how easy it is to drown.
Sumantra the charioteer calms his horses; Sita with downcast eyes looks into the waters while Rama gazes at her, but Lakshmana, drawing ever further from home, seems to hang over the edge of the boat and mourn. But you would only know this if you held this painting in your hand and peered closely at it – or today had access to a high-resolution image as we do. Else, all one would see is the terror of natural forces and the fragility of human hope.
That a set like this, that places tiny humans within nature that is unrelenting and vast , should be one of the crowning achievements of Pahari painting in its later stages is deeply ironic considering what was soon to come. In the 1920s, an ICS officer who travelled in the Pahari area and took a liking to the paintings he found there, asked an ageing painter what happened to his ilk. This is what he learnt: “With the development of the British administration in the Punjab, wide new fields of activity presented themselves to the Kangra artists. With the survey of the country for revenue purposes … the services of draughtsmen and map-makers were in strong demand. The training in hand and eye and delicacy of touch made the Kangra artists singularly fit for such work, and many took it up.”
The last works of Pahari artists may well lie not in a Ramayana or a Nala Damayanti series, but in the maps made for the Survey of India, whose relief features are delineated in delicate shades of grey, with wildernesses marked with tiny shade-throwing trees. If in the great Bharany Ramayana, humans dwindled in scale to make a philosophical point, perhaps a few decades later descendants of these same artists were to be bent over maps in which human presence was to become entirely abstract.
Kavita Singh is a professor of art history at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University.