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The Art of Storytelling

A review article by Gary Gach
of the exhibition at Asian Art Museum
200 Larkin Street, San Francisco, CA 94102, USA
October 21, 2016 – January 15, 2017

(click on small images for large images with captions)

The Rama Epic opened on Diwali at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, and is now on view through January 15. For a museum serving a broad community, it's a splendid choice. Too many Americans are unfamiliar with the Rāmāyaṇa. Yet its influence continues as a living cultural treasure. One of the most sublime of the world's sacred stories, it also appeals to contemporary fascination with such pop epics as Star Wars and Game of Thrones.

The exhibit's subtitle — Hero, Heroine, Ally, Foe — previews the four archetypes being celebrated. Our hero is Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu, whose reign re-established order in the world and ushered in a Golden Age. He is thus the role model for such leaders as the kings of of Thailand; the recently deceased and much mourned King Bhumipol, for instance, was known as Rama IX. Rama’s bride Sita, an avatar of Lakshmi, is a classic romantic heroine, who reveals her own supernatural powers at the very end. Asian parents today point out the virtues of Rama and Sita — their loyalty, unselfishness, compassion, duty, and valor — for their children to emulate.

Hanuman, their ally, is quite erudite for a monkey. Besides being a thorough communicator, he's also a mighty warrior with magical powers. (One modern portrait of him on view here appears on a poster for body builders.) And Ravana, their foe, has to be sufficiently complicated so as to be a worthy opponent of Rama. So, besides possessing a vast accumulation of power (along with 10 heads and 20 arms), he's also a Vedic scholar, a connoisseur of music, a skilled astrologer, and expert statesman, beloved by his wives and followers. Put the four together, add a diverse supporting cast, plus a few drops of essential conflict, and you have enough story for a seven-volume epic.

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A number of firsts combine to make this an unspeakably exquisite presentation of the Rāmāyaṇa. For starters, the Museum's outdone itself with more loans from more museums than ever before — and for good reason. The Rāmāyaṇa's sweeping popularity truly transcends borders, extending from the Himalayas to Sri Lanka, from Pakistan to Indonesia. This first-ever, international, multi-religious view enables us to appreciate the Islamic and Buddhist reception of the tale, as well its foundational role in Hindu culture.

Odilon Redon: Sita

The show extends across not only geography but also spans 1,500 years of portrayal and performance. This means portraits made in ancient times cohabit the same space as an Odilon Redon and anime video. In The Rama Epic, past present and future merge into the mythic dimension, the realm of timeless time.

The exhibit features a range of genres. Scenes from the Rāmāyaṇa have not only been written, painted, and sculpted, but also appear in architecture and on musical instruments, in textiles and as masks. (Special credit goes to Marco Centin for devising a way to see a 200-year-old Balinese shadow puppet — made of hide, and in mint condition — both frontally and, through the back of the frame, as shadow.)

Alongside pictorial representation, the Rāmāyaṇa is known through performance. Indeed, it is arguably the most widely enacted story in the world. To illustrate this, the Museum has created a database of performances, searchable by country, media, or scene. Anyone can submit a video, which will remain an active archive beyond the exhibition.

Similarly, the Rāmāyaṇa material has inspired an innovative form of acoustiguide. At 25 access points in the exhibition, visitors can listen to a mini-radio drama, with script courtesy of The Rāmāyaṇa; these are also available on iTunes and Google Play. And, at intervals throughout the day, storytellers standing beside artworks recite the scene at hand from memory, in fine bardic tradition.

Hanuman and the mountain of herbs

To top it off, there's the spatial arrangement of the show. A separate room spotlights each of the four primary characters. Each room is divided into color-coded halves: one portion for exploring their personality, and one for viewing their experience of the story. So, on the one hand, in Sita's room we never see the battle at all, because, being in captivity, she'd had no idea it was even taking place. In Rama's room, on the other hand, we don't see Sita at all during her period of captivity.

Over the ages, particular scenes have been depicted many times. For instance, when Hanuman finds the mountain of healing herbs he's been seeking, he doesn't know which herbs to pick — so he brings back the whole mountaintop. [In this 18th-century watercolor, the mountain is in the lower right.]

Rama slays Tataka

The Rāmāyaṇa is a training vehicle for living an ethical, spiritual life. Thus, certain scenes raise questions to contend with. For instance, when his guru, Vasistha Maharshi, charges Rama with liberating the forest from the demoness Tataka, Rama initially hesitates at slaying a woman. After he'd then cut off her hands, Vasistha commands him to transcend his personal reservations: half measures are not enough. And so he slays her.

Sita in captivity

Questions arise regarding Sita in captivity, and her eventual reunion with Rama. Could she have freed herself, but instead chose to wait for her husband to liberate her? When she's finally reunited with Rama, despite all he's gone through to bring her back, why does he succumb to distrust of her faithfulness?

Walking through the exhibition. I had the feeling of being in a universal village, in which the museum was the invisible, village storyteller. Occasionally, I'd look at a piece of framed art and it suddenly became a mirror into my own life situation — or an x-ray image of a friend's. In between the four rooms and the 135 pieces on exhibit, I caught a glimpse of what a salve Story can be for us human beings when it's placed in our landscape to help us understand the important points in our own lives.

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Curator Forrest McGill tells me he first conceived of the idea for this exhibition 10 years ago, and that it's taken about five years to actually put it together. The Rama Epic is the final show in a year celebrating the Museum's 50th anniversary — and thus marks the beginning of its next 50.

The fragility of some of these loans means the Asian Art Museum will be its only venue. Fortunately, the catalogue is a sterling resource. Available in hard- and soft-cover, the 278-page book includes essays by Forrest McGill, Sally J. Sutherland Goldman, and Robert P. Goldman, whose final, seventh volume of the Rāmāyaṇa appears this year. (ISBN 0939117762). Om Sri Ram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ram.

Gary Gach is author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Buddhism, third edition (Nautilus Book Award), and editor of What Book!? ~ Buddha Poems from Beat to Hiphop (American Book Award). His work has also appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including American Cinematographer, The Atlantic, Buddhadharma, Harvard Divinity Review, Language for a New Century, The New Yorker, Technicians of the Sacred, Tricycle, and Yoga Journal.


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