The Ramayana, or tales of Rama, is an ancient Indian epic that spread from India to various parts of Southeast Asia. Of immense significance to Hindus, its protagonist Rama is considered to be an avatar (incarnation) of the Lord Vishnu (one of Hinduism’s Holy Trinity of gods who descended to earth in ten avatars), and the epic relates the major events in Rama’s life, from his birth to his death.
The representation of the Ramayana in the visual arts gained popularity not only for its lively narrative possibilities, but also because performance of the epic is considered a holy and auspicious act of devotion. Illustrations of the Ramayana can be found in a variety of media and contexts, ranging from temple carvings and manuscript illustrations to masks, puppets, textiles, and, most recently, in film and television, where its popularity continues today. This exhibition brings together works from the collection of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum and private collections that are inspired by this favorite narrative in the arts of India, Indonesia, and Southeast Asia. The flexibility of the narrative lends itself well to adaptation into diverse cultures and regions, as seen in the Mughal, Rajput and paithan paintings of India, temple arts of Thailand, shadow puppets from India and Indonesia, and story cloths from Bali exhibited here.
The original text of the Ramayana was written in Sanskrit; however, the epic has undergone transformation all along its travels within India and throughout Southeast Asia, where different versions exist in local languages. Though the broad narrative remains consistent, regional variations are to be found, with some episodes being omitted while others are elaborated upon or made relevant to local contexts. That the epic has been a rich source of inspiration for over a millennium, and continues to be so, is telling of its consistent appeal, rooted in the universality of its themes that address love, loyalty, valor, morality, strife, victory, and human frailty.
We are grateful to the donors and lenders whose generosity has made this exhibition possible. We also thank Cornell’s South Asia Program and Southeast Asia Program for their support of the exhibition’s accompanying educational programs.
Chief Curator and Curator of Asian Art
PhD student, Cornell Department of the History of Art and Visual Studies