An 18th century painting from India depicting Hanuman leaping across the ocean is among the dozens of artworks spanning centuries on view at the Asian Art Museum in “The Rama Epic: Hero, Heroine, Ally, Foe.” (Courtesy Museum Rietberg Zurich, photo by Rainer Wolfsberger)

‘Rama Epic’ artworks bring ancient poem to life

Venerated, colorful and adaptable to the spirit of any age, literature’s “Ramayana” classic is explored afresh in an exhibition that, through stellar artwork, sharply considers the story’s most significant characters.

“The Rama Epic: Hero, Heroine, Ally, Foe” at the Asian Art Museum contains paintings, sculptures, puppets and performing-arts videos — 135 works total — depicting events and characters in the “Ramayana,” the seven-book adventure written more than 2,000 years ago and attributed to the Hindu poet Valmiki.

Created as an allegory reflecting ancient Hindu teachings, the “Ramayana” has become part of the moral and cultural fabric in South and Southeast Asia and in Muslim and Buddhist as well as Hindu societies.

The exhibit reflects this wide-ranging influence and how the Ramayana has evolved.

A model of virtue, and an avatar of the god Vishnu, Prince Rama is in exile with his devoted wife, Sita, and his brother Lakshmana, when Ravana, the 10-headed demon lord, abducts Sita.

To rescue her, Rama joins forces with monkey lieutenant Hanuman, whose feats will include leaping over an ocean. Battles occur, and Rama and Sita are reunited. But Rama is uncertain of the fidelity of his faithful wife and forces her to undergo a test of fire.

In some versions of the epic, Sita’s story doesn’t end happily.

Intended to be more than a “Ramayana”-101 course for newcomers, or filling but familiar fare for the initiated, the exhibit closely examines the epic’s four major characters: Rama, Sita, Hanuman and Ravana.

A separate gallery is devoted to the characters and their complete journeys. This approach, says curator Forrest McGill, reveals “new, relevant meanings” in the “vividly human” epic.

The artwork, borrowed from museums across the U.S. and Europe, it contains gem-quality pieces.

Highlights include paintings from the “Mewar Ramayana” (1649-53), a series of Indian court paintings regarded as perhaps the most richly detailed illustrated depiction ever made of the epic. In one scene, Ravana battles Lakshmana and Hanuman. In another, Ravana’s wives weep at Ravana’s funeral.

In Indian paintings created around 1720, Hanuman makes his heroic ocean leap, or climbs Mount Mahendra with fellow monkey Angada and bearlike Jambavan. A painting from the Sanskrit poet Bhanudatta’s “Rasamanjari” expresses Rama’s concerns for Sita.

An accordion manuscript (approximately 1870) from Buddhist Myanmar shows Sita dressed as a Burmese princess.

A shadow puppet of Hanuman wooing Ravana’s niece comes from a series of Cambodian puppets created shortly before the Khmer Rouge exterminated this tradition.

Also on view are bronze and copper statues (1000-1100), a painting titled “Sita” (approximately 1893) by French symbolist artist Odilon Redon, a 20th-century lithograph portraying Hanuman as a pumped-up strongman, and an image from filmmaker Nina Paley’s feminist “Sita Sings the Blues.”

Video excerpts show “Ramayana”-inspired performing arts, from dignified dance concerts to a cheesy Indian TV melodrama.

IF YOU GO
The Rama Epic: Hero, Heroine, Ally, Foe
Where: Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., S.F.
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, closes Jan. 15
Admission: $15 to $30; free for 12 and younger
Contact: (415) 581-3500, www.asianart.org

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