Traditional and Contemporary Art from India at Seattle Asian Art Museum

Most societies have epics, their own heroic stories through which the values of the culture are reinforced and social cohesion is strengthened. In India, the Ramayana is one of the two most important such tales. SAAM’s “Many Arrows from Rama’s Bow: Paintings of the Ramayana” displays works from the 16th through the 20th C. illustrating the story of Rama.

Complementing this traditional or court art is “Women’s Paintings from the Land of Sita”, an exhibition of contemporary works made by village women in the far northeast Indian state of Bihar. There, it was common for women to paint the walls of their homes. When in the 1960s quality paper was introduced to the communities, the artists were encouraged to adapt their work to this new medium. Here too we see images of Rama and his wife Sita, but we also see depictions of daily life and ceremonial events.

The two exhibits provide wonderful insight into Hindu values, Indian life and the Hindu aesthetic. To fully appreciate the Ramayana court paintings, you should have some understanding of the narrative that the paintings depict. So here it is: Prince Rama, the eldest of four brothers was an expert archer, so good he won his wife Sita by his prowess. He was destined to rule when his father stepped down, but his father’s conniving second wife forced the king to name as his successor her son, Bharata.

Rama was exiled, but noble Bharata promised to save the throne for him. Into the forest went Rama and Sita, and there the evil king of Lanka (probably the modern Sri Lanka) abducted her. Rama aided by Hanuman’s monkey army built a causeway to Lanka, and fought the 10-headed king, Ravana. With Hanuman’s magical powers, Rama won; Sita was released, her purity proven, and they returned to Ayodhya where Rama assumed his kingship.

The concepts of male dominance, supernatural intervention, and women’s purity and service to men that are evident in these traditional court paintings are seen in modern form in the paintings of the women from the land of Sita. Here you see snake spirits, women carrying out daily chores, appeasing the god’s in whatever form they might take. These paintings are highly stylized depictions that include household activities as well as the events leading to a wedding ceremony.

The series done by a featured artist, Baua Devi, is remarkable for its bold colors and modernity. There’s no question that these are paintings from another culture, yet they remind one of early 20th C. Western masters. Brilliant pinks and yellows combined with golds and blacks command attention, as does the spatial organization.

The Ramayana show is presented in collaboration with The San Diego Museum of Art. The contemporary women’s paintings are from the local collection of Gursharan and Elvira Sidhu.

Through December 2 at SAAM in Seattle’s Volunteer Park (206 654-3100 or

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