In the 16th and 17th centuries, Muslim rulers and artists commissioned some of the most beautiful and artistic works of Hindu epics. A Muslim painter, Sāhib Dīn, painted the largest illustrated Ramayana in History – the Mewar Ramayana. This is also perhaps one of the most beautifully illustrated manuscripts of Hindu mythology.
The story goes back to Mughal Emperor – Akbar.
The Mughals under Akbar began a tradition of commissioning translations and paintings of Hindu epics on an unseen scale. So great was the royal family’s love of this art, that when Akbar’s mother was on her deathbed, she asked for her copy of the illustrated Ramayana, five folios of which were made expressively for her.
But even as Akbar patronized the arts, he was at war with the Rajput kingdoms – most notable of which were the Mewars. It is from this war, and the peace that followed, that the largest illustrated Ramayana in history would be commissioned.
When Jagat Singh of the Rajasthani Sisodiya dynasty was born in 1607, his family had been at war with the Mughals for forty long years. The Mewar kingdom had been almost wholly annexed by the Mughals – and for eight years, Jagat and his father Amar Singh lived in the forests along the hills of Chittor, leading the resistance.
The Rajputs were unable to stem the Mughal advance, and in 1615, Amar Singh capitulated to Emperor Jahangir. The period of the war had been one of cultural renaissance – where the Mughals commissioned translations and paintings of the finest Hindu epics. The Mewars too kept up their patronage of the arts, but it was only with peace that they were able to give it their all.
When Jagat Singh was eleven, he and his father would have been shown the illustrated manuscripts of the Mahabharata and Ramayana that Emperor Akbar had commissioned the previous century. They were works of unprecedented scale – and mighty as the Mewar’s artists were, they would have to expand their workshop dramatically to be able to match such art.
Jagat Singh had to outdo the Mughal emperor – for the Sisodiyas considered themselves the descendants of Ram. But rebuilding an artistic base from the ruins of war would take time. Between 1605 and 1628, the Mewars were too engaged in rebuilding their palace and libraries to build on their school of painting. To pull off a renaissance, the services of a highly-talented Muslim painter named Sāhib Dīn were enlisted. The Mewars had employed Muslim painters on Hindu works in the past, most notably those of Nasiruddin who made the Chawand Ragamala series in 1605.
Ragamala was a popular genre of painting, where the musical ragas of classical music were depicted in illustration. With bright colours and neatly-fitted pastels, Sāhib Dīn made his first mark on the art world with his 1628 Ragamala. Creating it was a task that required a deep understanding of music, mythology and painting technique.
Dīn delivered on all three counts. Jagat Singh knew he had found the right person, and had the artist work on several other Hindu texts in the coming years to build on his skills. Work began on the Mewar Ramayana in 1659, it took five full years before the project was completed. It was a joint effort of artists of all religions – and featured up to 450 full size paintings with accompanying Sanskrit texts for each. The texts were written by a Jain scholar named Mahātmā Hīrāṇanda.
The complicated plot lines were elegantly captured in Dīn’s work. He blended Western Indian styles of painting with storytelling devices of the Mughals – such as using diagonal passages to include layers of plot and character. Bright colours give the Ramayana a fresh look, and the total experience is unlike any other.
With the Ramayana’s completion, the Mewar school of art had found its voice. This manuscript would remain the largest illustrated version of the Ramayana, and influenced countless other artists with its style.
Journey to the public domain
Two centuries later, a British colonel named James Tod was gifted four volumes of the set by Maharana Bhim Singh. In turn, Tod would become the Rajput’s foremost historian. He brought it back with him to Britain and presented it to the Duke of Sussex, an avid bibliophile. Soon after, the British Museum bought the collection.
The remaining volumes were compiled together by the British Library, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, the Udapiur Palace and a private collection held at the Baroda Museum. The result is a fully translated and viewable Ramayana – available online.
The Mewar Ramayana, is one of the greatest achievements of Indian art. As an art form, it is representative of India’s pluralistic traditions and tells the story of Indian rulers and artisans who created works of art that are of immense cultural value. Few will remember the battles of Akbar and the Mewars as will be thankful to both for their works of art. And where sighting such works were once a privilege reserved for those in the royal court, today they are available to everyone.
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