Detail of an illustration from a Ramayana series: Rama, Sita and Lakshmana in the forest (Guler style at Kangra, circa 1775)
It’s hard to recall a more depressing month in recent memory than November, 2013. The judgment in the Aarushi Talwar murder case and the sudden destruction of Tehelka because of rape charges against its editor have together overwhelmed us with difficult questions about the prevalence of law and order in this country, the efficacy of our criminal justice system, the state of women’s rights, the safety of the workplace for professional women, and widespread corruption in the media.
In both instances — the double murder of Aarushi and of her parents’ domestic servant, Hemraj, as well as the alleged rape on two occasions of a Tehelka woman journalist by her boss, Tarun Tejpal, in an elevator in a Goa hotel during an ideas conclave called THiNK — the exact sequence of events, and culpability for the crimes committed, are difficult to establish to a certainty. Both matters are sub judice. Political stakes are high and this muddies the waters even further. While it is important for both sets of circumstances to become absolutely clear through investigation, and while the facts have eluded us thus far, the real reason why these two cases are so riveting to a larger public is that they actually go to questions of character rather than circumstance, and force us to make moral judgments rather than worrying only about legal outcomes.
We begin to ponder what kind of human beings we are and what kind of society we have made for ourselves, where it is conceivable for parents to be accused of killing their children and for employers to rape their employees, where justice is denied to the innocent and venality is rewarded with ever more wealth and power. In other words, substantive questions overtake procedural ones. If it were not so then all the spin and manipulation in the world would not keep us enthralled by these confusing, awful and ultimately — very possibly — irresolvable spectacles.
Recently, at the National Museum in New Delhi, an exhibition of miniature paintings titled Rama Katha ran for several weeks until the end of October. Last year, I had attended an illustrated lecture by the painter, Gulammohammed Sheikh, on the history of Indian paintings based on the Ramayan. Hoping to see some of the works that he had talked about, I decided to go to the National Museum.
One of the main takeaways from Sheikh’s lecture, for me, had not to do with questions of this or that style, period or regional recension in Indian painting, nor even with the versions of the story of Rama that vary widely across the subcontinent, in both textual and artistic traditions. All of that becomes obvious after any kind of preliminary perusal of this narrative and its expression in Indian literature and art. Rather, I was struck by something that Sheikh was able to show through the careful exegesis of particular works, especially the Pahari miniatures, and this was the capacity to simultaneously represent in the protagonists, and evoke in the viewer, emotions and qualities like love, anger, anxiety, fear, longing, loyalty, pain, courage and so on. One might look carelessly at these paintings and see them as unrealistic, as lacking in depth or perspective, as privileging convention over innovation, and as reproducing stock scenes, figures and episodes from a well-known literary repertoire. But to look upon them thus is to be totally mistaken.
Sheikh’s reading opened my eyes to the powerful undercurrent of affective meaning and empathic power in the miniature, its ability to draw us in, to get us emotionally involved in the predicaments of the characters depicted at particular junctures of their story. It helps that it is a story we all know, but what makes a given painting work is that it acts as a reminder, not just of what happened to Rama, Sita, Hanuman or Ravana, but of what happened to the viewer too, at some point in his or her life, and of how he or she felt in that situation.
The reader may accuse me of retreating from ugly realities into beautiful images. This would not be an entirely unfair accusation. But isn’t this precisely the function of art — to create a space where one can extrapolate the universal from the circumstantial, reflect on one’s life, and relate one’s personal experience to the human condition more generally? In the Pahari miniatures, one may see Rama touching a stone to release Ahalya from it; Lakshmana cruelly chopping off Surpanakha’s nose; Ravana kidnapping Sita: all different sorts of allegory for male power over female sexuality in a patriarchal culture.
Desire and violence leap out of the canvas 200 or 300 years after these paintings were made by Pandit Seu, his sons Manaku and Nainsukh, and their sons and students, in the tiny principalities of Guler, Jasrota, Basohli, Nurpur, all set in the Himalayan foothills between Jammu and Dharmashala. But one may also see Rama, Lakshmana and Sita absorbed in their simple domesticity in exile, the shy intimacies of Rama and Sita as they live out their early years of marriage in the forest, Sita’s loneliness and heartbreak when she is abandoned, pregnant with twins, long after their return to Ayodhya and Rama’s assumption of his rightful kingship. There is no lack of sympathy for Sita in these moments: indeed, she stands at the very centre of the entire Rama Katha, she is its narrative and emotional core.
The birds, animals, trees and flowers, the clouds, mountains and winds, the horizons, rivers and landscapes in the Pahari miniature, far from serving as a backdrop comprised of natural elements, in fact contribute in a significant way to building up the mood of these paintings. They are subtle, detailed and suggestive at once, and so integral to the composition that it becomes hard to imagine the action unfolding in any other kind of setting.
Even more masterful is the treatment of the non-human characters in the Ramayan: Hanuman, Vali, Sugriva and Angad, the great simian warriors; Jatayu, the raptor who is helpless to prevent the abduction of Sita; Maricha, the illusory golden deer, which entrances Sita and precipitates the war between Rama and Ravana; the monkeys and bears who build the bridge to Lanka so that Rama and his armies may cross the sea to defeat their enemy. The way in which these creatures hover at the delicate line between animal energy and human emotion is breathtaking. They are part of the picture because they are a part of us. The world created by the poets, Valmiki and Tulsidas, is sylvan but also dangerous, saturated with meaning but also intractable in some fundamental sense; the occurrences that unfold are apparent but their deeper significance is often mysterious. The Pahari masters grasped the logic that makes the epic perpetually relevant to us. Poet, storyteller, painter, reader, viewer and listener alike, we turn to art because in its purview the particular gives way to the perennial.
In the past weeks, I have returned again and again to Pahari miniatures — in museums, in books, in my mind. Partly, this a refusal of sorts: one wants to think about things that people have thought about for centuries, and not react from moment to moment, drowning in a relentless cascade of events, ever more transitory and evanescent in our age of social media. Partly, there is a wish to understand the running contradictions in our culture, where the treatment of women swings wildly between celebration, veneration, care and love, on the one hand, and humiliation, oppression, misogyny and disrespect, on the other hand.
But, at some level, it is also an attempt to recover, whether from literary, intellectual or aesthetic expressions, frameworks of justice and reconciliation that speak to ordinary people and make sense within our lived social contexts. If the higher courts continue to deny the benefit of the doubt to Aarushi Talwar’s beleaguered parents, or if the Tehelka case falls short of establishing a clear precedent to curb sexual harassment in the workplace, then we must be prepared to recall, reflect upon and, if necessary, critique the normative foundations of our culture, that are both recessed in our consciousness and elaborated in our traditions.
In this way, the moral chaos that besets our politics and society could be navigated with a degree of confidence and dignity, and with some hope of coming out of the pervasive darkness into a daybreak of cultural self-renewal.