Thursday, December 01, 2016
The Rama Epic at the Asian
The Rama Epic at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum is a clear, marvelous, fascinating exhibit exploring India’s 3,000-year-old epic poem in Sanskrit, the Ramayana.
The show, which will be up through the middle of January, focuses on four major characters from the saga, each with their own room filled with sculptures, paintings, drawings, tapestries, shadow puppets and even videos of various Southeast Asian cultures acting out variations of the story in everything from village festivals to a Bollywood TV series with lots of silly, sparkly special effects. (Click here for some excerpts on the museum website.)
The museum’s Senior Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art, Forrest McGill (above), has done an amazing job with this exhibit. For once, the wall signage by each piece is lucid and informative, avoiding ArtSpeak and arcane art history discussions while illuminating the various ways the poem’s episodes are illustrated in different cultures and in different times. The many objects from the Met in New York, the British Library, and the Asian's own permanent collection are beautifully installed by Marco Centin.
By the end of a two-hour tour, I felt like I actually knew the broad outlines of the tale: heroic Prince Rama is expelled from palace to forest because of political intrigue, living there with his brother and beautiful wife Sita. After the latter is abducted by the 10-headed demon king Ravana, Prince Rama and his brother join up with the Monkey King Hanuman and his simian armies, and embark on many adventures before crossing the ocean to Ravana’s palace. Multiple battles ensue, Ravana is finally defeated, and Prince Rama and Sita return to rule their own land for hundreds of years. Or not, depending on which variant of the ending you follow.
Coincidentally, the Sanskrit scholars Robert Goldman and his wife Sally Sutherland Goldman at UC Berkeley just finished the seventh and final volume of the first complete, annotated, modern English translation of the 24,000 verse saga. It may be time for my omnivorous reader friend Patrick Vaz to tackle the poem and give us a book report.