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Vishvamitra Asks Dasharatha's Permission to Take Young Rama and Lakshmana into the Forest
Page from a dispersed series of the Ramayana

Artist/maker unknown, Indian

Made in northern India, India, Asia

c. 1605

Opaque watercolor and gold on paper

Sheet: 9 9/16 × 7 1/2 inches (24.3 × 19.1 cm)

Curatorial Department:
South Asian Art

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
125th Anniversary Acquisition. Alvin O. Bellak Collection, 2004

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The first illustrated version of the Ramayana was made in the imperial Mughal workshop using Emperor Akbar's Persian translation. This slightly later version was done for a Hindu Rajput patron who probably resided at the Mughal court. Unlike Mughal paintings done for Muslim patrons, where blocks of Persian text are integrated into the image, the pages in this Ramayana have the original Sanskrit text on the back, following the North Indian Hindu manuscript tradition. In addition, the pages were probably stacked, rather than sewn together (the irregular shape is due to fire damage soon after the manuscript was completed). Here King Dasharatha talks with a holy hermit who requests the help of two young princes (blue-skinned Rama and his brother Lakshmana, seen just behind the throne) to drive a demon out of his forest hermitage.

Additional information:
  • PublicationIntimate Worlds: Indian Paintings from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection

    The Ramayana, one of the most important texts of the Indian tradition, recounts the tale of Rama, a legendary prince who lived in the city of Ayodhya in northern India and came to be regarded as a manifestation of Vishnu. Conceived when the three wives of King Dasharatha partook of a divine nectar, Rama and his three brothers were destined to vanquish the demon Ravana and thereby restore order to the world. Rama’s valorous exploits, unflinching acceptance of the hardships of the fourteen-year exile his father was forced to impose upon him, and virtuous behavior made him an exemplary subject for kings to invoke and emulate.

    It is somewhat paradoxical that illustrated manuscripts of the Ramayana were not produced until the emperor Akbar ordered the Sanskrit epic translated into Persian, the language of the Mughal court, so that he and his courtiers could hear and read the stories that much of the populace took to be the embodiment of ancient truths. Between 1588 and 1605, three copiously illustrated manuscripts of the Ramayana were produced for Akbar and his highest-ranking officer, each representing a different variety of the Mughal style. The presentation manuscript, dated 1588-92, commanded the services of the court atelier’s finest artists, who, taking their cue from the vivid textual descriptions, produced exceptionally imaginative and spatially complex compositions. A second manuscript of 1594, illustrated by a half-dozen or so lesser imperial artists, does not keep pace with the most advanced developments in Mughal painting, but does incorporate some rarely seen features, notably narrators and listeners encapsulated in discrete areas and rock grotesques. The third copy, made between 1597 and 1605 in a subimperial workshop whose members had limited familiarity with imperial practices, so habitually simplifies its compositions, draftsmanship, and coloring that its paintings approximate the standard of the imperial idiom only occasionally.1

    This fourth Mughal Ramayana series falls outside the pattern established by the first three manuscripts in several curious ways. First, it is not a bound volume with a continuous text, but an extensive unbound series of upright individual leaves with selected verses written on the reverse. Second, the language of those verses is not Persian but Sanskrit, which suggests that the patron was a highly educated Hindu.2 And third, the paintings are not easily situated as another predictable stage in the gradual and general debasement of the imperial style. Rather, their artists retain selected aspects of the imperial style and dispose of others altogether, employing the typically fine figure style of imperial painting, but replacing space-enclosing architectural settings with an utterly original set of resplendent decorative elements. This unique synthesis may well have been a one-time affair, for it had no obvious stylistic successors in subimperial Mughal painting or among the many emerging regional styles of northern India. It does have, however, a demonstrable connection to the Mughal workshop, one that both sheds light on the date of the series and helps flesh out the fate of certain artists who had been dismissed from the imperial atelier at the end of Akbar’s reign.

    The connection comes through a group of minor artists who are known primarily from their contributions to the 1597-99 Baburnama in the National Museum in New Delhi and the 1598-1600 Razmnama, but who disappeared from the annals of the imperial library establishment immediately thereafter.3 The best known of these artists is Jagajivana, whose figures typically have a sloping nose and an almond-shaped eye, whose delicately colored rocks are rendered with scumbled paint, and whose landscapes are muted by atmospheric effects.4 Likewise, Makara’s work in the 1598-1600 Razmnama compares very closely to at least two paintings in this dispersed Ramayana series.5 Among the other former imperial painters who seem to have taken up employment with the patron of this Ramayana are Lohanka, Khemana, and Bhora. Because there is negligible stylistic distance between the key features of the 1598-1600 Razmnama and most paintings of this Ramayana series, the latter date no earlier than 1600 and no later than 1610. This painting illustrates an episode when Rama and his brother Lakshmana are first called to duty. Vishvamitra, the sage seated opposite the enthroned Dasharatha, entreats the king to grant him permission to take these two princes into the forest to destroy some nettlesome demons who are disrupting his ritual sacrifices. Dasharatha, instinctively worried about the danger that might befall his four sons, whose youth is indicated by their diminutive size, initially demurs, yet ultimately acquiesces to Vishvamitra’s request when the preceptor reminds him of Rama’s inevitable destiny.

    The scene is presented against a vivid architectural backdrop. The two central figures are framed by a large curving canopy with a densely beaded fringe. Between them stands a golden doorway, one side closed off by a half-door with unexpected orange panels, the other open to reveal a dense black-and-white checkerboard pattern at the bottom; this pattern reappears in several other paintings in this series, presumably by this unidentified artist, but nowhere else in Mughal painting.6 Moreover, the doorway is strangely attached to nothing whatsoever; instead, it is isolated against an abstract black field marked with simple golden crosses. Above the canopy, the black field reads first as the negative space within a light blue arcade, and then more plausibly as a series of flattened crenellations floating before two different tiled patterns. This delight in abstract designs recurs throughout this artist’s work, with brilliantly inventive ornamental panels often overwhelming the figures nearby and impeding any sense of pictorial space. This predilection for decorative forms carried through even into the sky, where it gives rise to blue-and-white streaked ribbon-shaped clouds, a motif virtually absent from Mughal painting since the days of the Hamzanama over thirty years before.7

    The Ramayana series to which this painting belonged was damaged by fire soon after it was completed, a fate that explains the irregular shape of many of its now-dispersed paintings and some sketchy passages in the upper and lower corners of others. A number of the paintings have stamped impressions of the seal of the Datia Palace collection on the reverse, and one has three faint and unrelated Datia-style sketches as well, thus indicating that the series once belonged to the royal collection of that Central Indian state. This provenance is further corroborated by the fact that the gloss is written in a dialect of Hindi spoken in the region of Bundelkhand in Central India. On the basis of this connection, Terence McInerney has proposed that the original patron of the series was Bir Singh Deo Bandila, a wealthy Hindu noble noted for his lavish patronage in the region.8 Having served Jahangir while he was still a prince, and rising dramatically in prominence throughout his subsequent reign as emperor (1605-27), Bir Singh Deo would have enjoyed exactly the kind of social position necessary to commission cast-off imperial artists to make an illustrated Ramayana series for his edification and pleasure. John Seyller, from Intimate Worlds: Indian Painting from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection (2001), pp. 62-63.

    1. For these three manuscripts, see John Seyller. Workshop and Patron in Mughal India: The Freer Ramayana and Other Illustrated Manuscripts of ‘Abd al-Rahim. Supplement 42 of Artibus Asiae. Zurich: Museum Rietberg in association with the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1999.
    2. Most pages also have a one-line gloss that Asok Das informs me is in the Bundeli dialect of Hindi.
    3. The Razmnama’s colophon (British Library, London, Or. 12076) contains the date of A.H. 1007/A.D. 1598-99. A marginal note on one painting is dated 24 Farwardin Ilahi, regnal year 45, which is equivalent to April 13, 1600.
    4. Compare his Razmnama painting (Baroda Museum and Picture Gallery, 198/15) with his Ramayana paintings: one now in a private collection (Seyller 1999, p. 34, fig. 13); National Museum, New Delhi, 56.93/4 and 56.114/9; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, M82.6.5; and two other works in a private collection.
    5. Compare Makara’s Razmnama paintings—British Library, Or. 12076, folio 51a; British Museum, 1923 11-15 013; and San Diego Museum of Art, 1990:306—with the following from this Ramayana—Bharat Kala Bhavan, Varanasi, 7653 (Chandra 1957-59, fig. 22); and Bharata Before Rama, in a private collection.
    6. Other paintings by this artist are found in the Goenka Collection (Goswamy with Bhatia 1999, pp. 46-47, no. 36); Howard Hodgkin Collection (Topsfield and Beach 1991, pp. 26-27, no. 4); Bharat Kala Bhavan, 669 (Morley 1981, fig. 530); Leon and Cynthia Polsky Collection (Seyller 1999, p. 34, fig. 12); National Museum, New Delhi, 56.114/8 (Chandra 1957-59, fig. 24a) and 64.351; and a private collection.
    7. For the sole example of this motif in the Hamzanama, dated c. 1557-72, see Victoria and Albert Museum, London, I.S. 1513-1883 (Guy and Swallow 1990, pp. 68-69, no. 46). A related cloud form appears in the Jaipur Ramayana; see Das 1999, p. 37, fig. 1.
    8. For a summary of his career, see Nawwab Samsam-ud-Daula Shah Nawaz Khan and ‘Abdul Hayy, The Maathir-ul-Umara, 2nd ed., trans. H. Beveridge, ed. Baini Prashad (Patna: Janaki Prakashan, 1979), vol. 1, pp. 423-25.