The Asian Tells the Ramayana Epic in Multimedia Exhibition

by Jean Schiffman

An ancient tale from Southern Asia of heroic feats, supreme beings, war and passion takes center stage at the Asian Art Museum this month.

Think "The Odyssey." Or "Romeo and Juliet." Or "Harry Potter."

Or, as Asian Art Museum chief curator Forrest McGill suggests, think of the King Arthur legend-and quadruple its importance.

None of these classical sagas even begin to approach the popularity, across generations and throughout centuries, of the Ramayana, the ancient tale of heroic feats, supreme beings, royalty, tragedy, war and passion that pervades the culture of Southern Asia. There, the epic's primary characters are household names: the valiant blue- or green-skinned prince, Rama (an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, the protective Hindu god); Rama's beautiful, long-suffering wife, Sita, daughter of the earth goddess; their devoted monkey friend, Hanuman, the long-tailed son of the wind god; and their enemy, the monstrous, 10-headed, 20-armed demon Ravana.

"The Rama Epic: Hero, Heroine, Ally, Foe" is a new, multimedia exhibition that explores, through its four principal characters, the complex and at times disturbing tale of travail, bravery and compassion. The original is generally believed to be the Sanskrit version told by the Hindu sage Valmiki 2,000 years ago; its 24,000 verses, set down in seven volumes, have since been translated and revised in Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia and elsewhere, and through Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim perspectives. The characters take on different attributes over time and geography, just as the story itself appears in many versions, right up to contemporary popular media. There are believed to be about 300 such varied interpretations; this exhibit represents the Asian Art Museum's own version.

Four rooms of the museum-which holds more than 18,000 Asian art treasures spanning 6,000 years of history-are devoted, respectively, to the protagonists' adventures on land and sea and in the air, which, along with their companions, are depicted in 135 sculptures, paintings, scrolls, masks, rod and shadow puppets and temple architecture, much of it never before seen in the U.S. The visual art, which includes the work of five local illustrators commissioned to add to the epic's cartoon canon, is enhanced by storytelling tours, dance performances and screenings.

To present a story like this in a variety of arts disciplines has been a tradition over the centuries, points out McGill. The Ramayana was seldom silently read, he explains-rather, it was read aloud, or recited from memory or enacted with puppets. "People were singing it or chanting it," he continues, "or there may have been a drum accompanying it. There may have been pictures as well…. they may have partly acted it out with music and dance and scenic and costuming elements. So it has always been a multimedia experience, and we're definitely presenting it this way."

For example, the exhibit's dynamic and interactive storytelling tours provide narrative context. Jeff Byers, a Bay Area storyteller of traditional tales who has long been affiliated with the Asian Art Museum, plus another 30 or so volunteer storytellers, lead groups of all ages through the galleries. With varying degrees of dramatic embellishment, the guides relate, among several other adventures in the journey of Rama, the key episode: the abduction and eventual rescue of Sita, which, explains Byers, sets in motion a major war.

The action begins when the demoness sister of Ravana, king of the island of Lanka, tries to seduce Rama when she encounters him and his brother in the forest. But Rama, being married, and an exemplar of dharma (in Hinduism, the concept of cosmic order), rejects her. In fact, he orders his brother to cut off her nose and ears-seemingly an overreaction, but, as McGill notes, she was quite provocative; she'd actually offered to eat Sita in order to get her out of the way (some demons are cannibals). To avenge his mutilated sister, Ravana kidnaps Sita in a carefully staged maneuver when Rama is otherwise engaged (pursuing a magical golden deer, as it happens) and flies off to Lanka with her. Sita, in captivity, is bereft, continually refusing the pleas of the demon king, who wants to add her to his harem (in frustration, he threatens to eat her for breakfast). Rama and his loyal brother set out to find her, with the help of an ancient, magnificent and doomed vulture king. Ultimately Sita is rescued by the clever flying monkey Hanuman.

As exciting as the abduction episode is, demonstrating the values of bravery and loyalty, and as ready-made for art, performance and storytelling, it is also full of unsettling scenes. "I think people have traditionally wondered if it was necessary [for Rama and his brother] to do violence to [Ravana's sister]," muses McGill. "Couldn't they just say we're really not interested? Of course, she's a demoness, and they have their reasons. But it's kind of uneasy-making these days."

And then there's Sita's long captivity. "How many hostage situations have we lived through?" asks McGill rhetorically. "Sita didn't have any information from the outside world, she didn't know if Rama had found another wife. So I think because of today's horrifying news we can think of what that would be like, not knowing from day to day whether you're going to be alive."

Finally home, Sita is shockingly unwelcome: Rama immediately rejects her, assuming she's been intimate with her captor, despite her protestations. It is only when she leaps into a fire to prove her purity and her willingness to die for him, and is saved by a goddess, that he relents (but only to reject her forever at the end of the saga). "All this will be puzzling for modern audiences," concedes McGill. "We're hoping people will think about and discuss some of these things. We don't have any answers. These are open questions that people in India and Southeast Asia have argued about over the centuries. Inevitably we'll all have different points of view."

"The Rama Epic: Hero, Heroine, Ally, Foe" shares with local audiences an iconic tale whose significance, variations and familiarity across social strata are simply unmatched in the West.

The Rama Epic: Hero, Heroine, Ally, Foe

Oct. 21 → Jan. 15

Asian Art Museum

200 Larkin St., San Francisco