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UNIVERSAL PLEASURE

- The digitized Ramayana is an unending visual treat

Light relief for me yesterday from wall-to-wall coverage of Vladimir Putin’s narcissistic megalomania and the fears it engenders in us all; from the latest updates on theories about Flight MH370, however much we may enjoy the mystery, notwithstanding our back-of-the-mind guilt over desperate families waiting unendingly for news; and of the worst Chancellor George Osborne can present in his budget. No doubt we will be poorer or will certainly feel so. I had the extraordinary privilege of a sneak preview at the British Library of a remarkable project about to bring us all face to face with one of the great treasures of the world, closer in fact, due to internet magic, than we could ever imagine.

In partnership with Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya Museum in Mumbai and launching there on Friday, March 21, the Mewar Ramayana, one of the most beautiful manuscripts in the world, has been digitized and will thereafter be available online for us all. Folios divided by the miles between India and the United Kingdom for over 150 years have been reunited in a website that offers the chance to explore the manuscript, the stories of the Ramayana and, in particular, its spectacular illustrative paintings, in a level of detail that actually goes beyond the scope of the naked eye when one is seeing the real thing.

Indeed, details of trees, plants and birds painted in perfect miniature have appeared that scholars with their magnifying glasses had barely taken in. It seems likely that new studies of the flora and fauna of this Ramayana will shortly be added to the treasure trove, not to mention the delight of any designer in the gilded fabrics and clothes, the colours and patterns of carpets, palaces and gardens, sometimes reminiscent too of the colour of jewels in Italian Renaissance court paintings. Beyond that, a voice over offers us both the Ramayana stories and a commentary on the pages and paintings we are viewing as we digitally turn the pages, text at the front, painting behind in most cases, in a way that reflects the traditional Indian loose-leaf format just as if we had the folios in our hands.

The Mewar Ramayana was commissioned by Rana Jagat Singh of Mewar in 1649, over 800 pages of Sanskrit text copied by a single Jain scribe working at different locations in Udaipur and painted by several different artists, including two of the seven books by Sahib Din, the greatest 17th century Mewar artist. The different hands and styles of the paintings only add to their charm and the work of Sahib Din is rightly famed for its remarkable delicacy and detail.

This Ramayana was commissioned in an effort by Rana Jagat Singh to rebuild his family’s library after the earlier loss of the ancestral library during the fall of Chittor when Mewar resisted the authority of the Mughal emperors. The Rana may too have intended to bolster the Mewar dynasty’s link with Rama, from whom it claimed descent, while connecting Ravana with the Mughal conquerors through images showing him living in very much the recognizably Mughal imperial style. It is worth noting that this Ramayana was painted by Muslim artists, indeed Emperor Akbar’s mother, Hamida Banu Begum, commissioned her own illustrated copy of the epic. Just as the Manganiars, traditional Muslim musicians of the Rajasthan desert, still sing praises of Hindu gods and celebrate Hindu festivals, the Ramayana story is part of the shared Muslim-Hindu heritage of India, whatever its Hindu ‘ownership’. It is to be hoped that the opening of the Mewar Ramayana to the widest possible audience will remind the less tolerant contemporary viewers of a closer-woven, accepting and less polarized past.

In the early 19th century, the seven books of the Mewar Ramayana were divided. Four volumes and a separate manuscript of the first book dating from 1712 were given by Rana Bhim Singh of Mewar to James Tod, political agent for Rajputana and author of the Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan, his romantic or perhaps over-romanticized history of the Rajputs, sometime between 1818 and 1823, when Tod returned to England and presented the books to Prince Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex, President of the Society of Arts. They were acquired by the British Museum in 1844, after the Duke’s death, and from there came to the British Library. The remaining books are in the ownership of CSMVS and held privately in Rajasthan.

Their digital reunion has taken three years, its scale, mirroring the scale of the epic itself, is enormous; Book 6 alone has 90 paintings, Book 7, 94. In 2008,the British Library exhibited 120 paintings from the Mewar Ramayana. Few of this which had never been shown in public and a selection were the first to be digitized at that time. As William Dalrymple wrote then, the exhibition “reveals the quality of material in the library’s Indian collections.” The remarkable digitization of this astonishing treasure now allows, encourages, us to share the whole of this hidden treasure from the collection and to hope that the energy behind the present joint venture, sponsored by the Jamsetji Tata Trust, the World Collections Programme and the Friends of the British Library, continues to build on so splendid a foundation stone.

By the time this piece is published, the Mewar Ramayana should be available online for us all. The British Library cautions that the virtual version of so vast and richly illustrated a work may take several minutes to download and advises that the best viewing experience is offered on their website. All I can say is that it is worth waiting for and I fully expect to waste many hours in the coming weeks looking at so much glory on my screen following Rama and Sita in all their joys and vicissitudes. Seeing the real folios yesterday was an unutterable thrill; the monkey armies leap from the page, the eye passes over forest and river scenes and is caught by details of everyday life or palatial grandeur. I can hardly wait to see more and to be able to zoom in at will on the smallest bird in the most hidden corner of Ravana’s garden that middle-aged eyes almost certainly missed when trying not to breathe too hard over such a unique treasure is an unendingly special treat in store.