The opening folio of the Mewar Ramayana is an image of Kumbhakarna, Ravana’s giant brother. He is deep in slumber, even as everyone around him tries to wake him up, after Ravana’s orders to engage him in the war against Rama.

An army of lilliputs has arrived on elephants, one has even brought a braying donkey. There are some who have climbed on top of Kumbhakarna, beating him with their weapons to awaken him. Some more have brought large piles of food, and large pots of liquor for him to consume once he wakes up – he is bound to feel hungry after this long a slumber.

Image: Roli Books
Image: Roli Books

One of the platters brought to Kumbhakarna has human and monkey heads piled up, another has buffalo and elephant heads. Near Kumbhakarna’s legs is a band of four women with musical instruments – one that resembles a sarod, and another like the South Indian percussion instrument thavil.

Amidst all this chaos, Kumbhakarna sleeps peacefully with his mouth open, snoring to the skies. On his bald head is a tuft of hair. Unlike other miniatures, where he is shown fully clothed, here, Kumbhakarna sleeps in bright red underpants, probably more comfortable than his royal regalia.

This was Sahib Din’s idea of the demon, painted with a subtle wickedness that reveals more and more of itself in each folio. The giant looks strikingly close to some of the earlier descriptions of various well-fed Goswami priests you find in the numerous Vaishnava temples in Vrindavan and Rajasthan.

The art of conflict

A Muslim painter, Sahib Din was the head of the studios that Rana Jagat Singh of Mewar (1628-52) ran. We know little about Sahib Din or his life, what we do know is through his paintings from the 1630s and 1640s. The entire Mewar school was standardised by his ideas.

But how did a Hindu ruler end up commissioning a Muslim painter to paint such a culturally relevant work of art?

Mewar was the centre of Hindu culture right through the 15th and 16th centuries. The great Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagar in the south fell to wars and invasions, but Mewar withstood Akbar’s army. The Ranas left their capitals and continued fighting from the hills. In the meantime, the ancestral library in the fort of Chittor was burned and thousands of precious manuscripts lost for good. In response to this disaster, Jagat Singh decided to reestablish the library under his rule, by commissioning artistes to work on the epic texts of Hinduism.

In 1628, Sahib Din painted a series of Ragmala paintings, visualising various Ragas. One needs a good understanding of music to undertake such a project, which obviously Sahib Din had. He continued his work, visualising the 12th century erotic poem Gita Govindam by Jayadeva and later the Rasikapriya of Keshavadasa, a Hindi poet who was a contemporary of Akbar. He also explored the Bhagavata Purana and finished painting Pothis of it by 1648.

Image: Roli Books
Image: Roli Books

Some of the greatest works of art were created amidst these political wars – like Amir Khusrau, who wrote his immortal poetry even as he witnessed the Delhi sultanate change over half a dozen times. By the time Sahib Din began painting the Ramayana series, he was not only well versed in his own style of painting, which would eventually acquire a cult status, but in languages like Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit and classical music, dance, architecture, flora and fauna, culture, customs and history.

For the longest time, Sahib Din’s Ramayana was called "The Jagat Singh Mewar Ramayana" because of the patron ruler who had commissioned it. While those honorary titles stay, I prefer to to call this version the "Sahib Din Ramayana", to acknowledge the artist’s immense scholarship in recreating the scripture through his eyes. He was no less than a Tulsidas or Thyagaraja, who rewrote the Ramayana according to their perspectives.

So which Ramayana did Sahib Din follow? Before his time, there were several versions apart from the standard Valmiki Ramayana. Moulvi Abdul Qadir Badayuni had translated the Ramayana from Sanskrit to Persian, on Akbar’s orders, by 1589. A manuscript lies in the Sawai Man Singh museum in Jaipur, with over 150 illustrations. (Akbar’s mother Hamida Begum is supposed to have demanded this manuscript while she lay on her deathbed).

The temples of Rajasthan had stories of Rama sung in various traditions of Dhrupad music. There were other versions of the Ramayana, narrated in the oral traditions of nomadic communities of singing bards. There were Jain and Buddhist versions, women's songs telling the stories from their perspective.

Image: Roli Books
Image: Roli Books

It was in this long tradition of endless refashioning, that Sahib Din’s aesthetic was rooted.

God is in the detail

Browsing through the leaves of the Mewar Ramayana, you see Sahib Din’s ideas blossom in subtle ways. A panel of four in one leaf, shows King Dasharath conduct the Ashwamedha Yagna, a horse sacrifice, or the Putrakameshti Yagna for the birth of a son, told in an easy to understand sequence in the Bala Kanda. One might notice Ram and Lakshman’s beards grow as they wander through the monkey kingdom of Sugreeva in the Kishkinda Kanda.

Image: Roli Books
Image: Roli Books

When Hanuman enters Lanka in the Sundara Kanda, in Sahib Din’s art he perches atop the central market, observing traders at work, until he chances upon Ravana’s magnificent palace.

Sahib Din’s imagination is loud, colourful and full of life. His influences are numerous, and often from across the landscape. Women gossiping in zenanas, the details of their costumes revealing their origins, groups of musicians who arrive at the end of a sequence of visual narratives.

Image: Roli Books
Image: Roli Books

Daccani artists were brought to Mewar to help Sahib Din, and this migration is reflected in his artwork, in the colour palettes and sometimes in the way in which characters are portrayed. Almost all the folios are very different from those of other schools of art, like Kangra in the North, Basholi and Guler.

Delhi University’s infamous decision to scrap AK Ramanujan’s seminal essay on the Ramayana from its history syllabus in 2011 threw a new light on Ramayana scholarship across South Asia. A book on Mewar Ramayana published by Roli Books, the folios of which have been painted by a Muslim Bhakt of Rama, adds more than the eye can see to this scholarship. It reflects the cultural diversity the all-encompassing text liberally allows.

In October, the government announced an ambitious Ramayana museum in Ayodhya. Will they take into consideration artists like Sahib Din?

Image: Roli Books
Image: Roli Books

The Illustrated Mewar Ramayana (Roli Books) will be on display at the Bikaner House, New Delhi, until November 9.

Veejay Sai is a writer, editor and a culture critic.