Rare portrayal of Ravana's funeral in Andhra art

According to scholars, Indian dramaturgy prohibits enacting on the stage the death of main characters in a drama and in art too, though several battle-related deaths were shown.

Published: 28th October 2021 12:30 AM  |   Last Updated: 27th October 2021 11:50 PM   |  A+A-

Ravana's Funeral, a painting on paper (dated 9 October 1757) by Nandigam Nagesam and Kamaroutu Venkatesam  of Rajahmundry, Andhra Pradesh

Ravana's Funeral, a painting on paper (dated 9 October 1757) by Nandigam Nagesam and Kamaroutu Venkatesam of Rajahmundry, Andhra Pradesh.

The death of Ravana at the hands of Rama has been narrated variedly in several versions of the Ramayana. According to Valmiki, Rama cuts the 10 heads of Ravana about 101 times and yet, they keep on reappearing. Then, Matali, the charioteer, urges Rama to shoot Ravana with the most powerful arrow, Brahmastra. Accordingly, Rama shoots the weapon at the belly of Ravana and his death follows.

Gona Buddha Reddy, who ruled Raichur under the Kakatiyas of Warangal, wrote Ranganatha Ramayana (c. 1240) in Telugu. In this, it is said that when Rama gets baffled at the reappearance of the heads, Vibhishana reveals that Ravana bears a pot of amruta (nectar) inside his navel; Matali requests Rama to shoot Brahma's weapon at it. The weapon puts an end to Ravana's life. The same version was also narrated briefly in the Adhyatma Ramayana in Sanskrit and in the Molla Ramayana of Atukuri Molla (15th century), a prominent Telugu poetess.

Ravana-kashtam (Ravana's funeral pyre) is a well-known Sanskrit idiom and is attached to a popular legend. After the death of Ravana, Rama consoles his enemy's wife, Mandodari, and asks her to seek a boon from him. She says, "I should not become a widow ever." According to an age-old belief, a wife becomes a widow only after her husband's body is reduced to ashes after his funeral. Rama assures her, "You will never become a widow." And so, a belief prevails that Ravana's funeral pyre keeps on burning eternally. The idiom is still frequently used, not in the context of the epic, but if a problem or a troubling dispute between two individuals lingers perpetually.

According to scholars, Indian dramaturgy prohibits enacting on the stage the death of main characters in a drama. In art too, though several battle-related deaths were shown, it is very uncommon to find the depiction of the death and cremation of the main legendary characters. However, the death of Bhishma in the Mahabharata is frequently shown in art since the storyline of the epic stresses that his death occurs only when: firstly given that he wishes it, secondly on an auspicious day, and thirdly not at the hands of any human being. A few ancient playwrights have included the death of legendary figures, both noble and evildoers. For instance Bhasa (3rd century CE) in Pratima (The Statue), a drama in Sanskrit, portrayed the death of Dasaratha of the Ramayana, and in the Kutiyattam drama performances of Kerala, the killing of Bali Chakravarti is being enacted on the stage even now.

In a few Indian paintings of the 18th century, the deaths of a few great epic characters have been shown, as in the case of a Pahari painting that depicts the funeral procession of Dasaratha. In this context, I would like to throw light upon a rare manuscript with 86 paintings, executed in 1757 at Rajamahendravaram (Rajahmundry) in Andhra Pradesh. The paintings, now preserved in a museum in Germany's Hamburg, were done together by two painters, Nandigam Nagesam and Kamaroutu Venkatesam. Both were active in the mid-18th century and produced many other sets of paintings. A few museums abroad contain their work and at least one painting is in Hyderabad, in a private collection. Of the 86 paintings in Hamburg, 53 cover the Ramayana. The painters did not follow any specific text, but the impact of several versions could be seen in their paintings. At times, they also visualised certain episodes that were not narrated in any textual version of the epic. A commentary on all the paintings, on the obverse of each folio, was written in Telugu by Kolapelli Buchenna, and the same was also translated in brief into Persian by an anonymous person. In 1993, I managed to acquire black-and-white photographs of the paintings and the corresponding text, and after thorough research, published two volumes in Telugu, between 2001 and 2003. Later, I also translated the book on the Ramayana and published the same in 2005.

Interestingly, a painting (folio no. 50 of the Ramayana set) by Nagesam and Venkatesam covers the funeral scene of Ravana. In ancient Indian art, the funeral pyre, to the best of my knowledge, is very rarely depicted, if not unrepresented, in both paintings and sculptures. That way, the painting is very unique, and the idea of executing the theme might be solely credited to the two painters. The dead body of Ravana is shown placed on a pile of wooden logs. The grief-stricken Mandodari is shown seated at her husband's feet while placing her hands on the shoulders of a pair of maids on either side of her. This gesture of a woman placing her hands on the maids, depending on the context, suggests either extreme sorrowfulness or happiness. The painting also depicts the standing figures of Jambavanta, Laxmana, Rama, Vibhishana and Sugreeva. In the corresponding commentary in Telugu, it is written that Mandodari, in the painting, is saying to Vibhishana, "Why are you lamenting? You willingly helped others kill your brother. Are you happy now? Go on and rule Lanka without any opponent." With regard to the funeral of Ravana in the painting, interestingly, the two painters seem to have willingly left the logs unlit, which in my opinion means that neither Ravana perished completely nor did Mandodari become a widow. The two painters of the manuscript also produced several other interesting and unique paintings, and some of them could be discussed sooner or later.

(The writer is associate professor, Department of Fine Arts, Andhra University, Visakhapatnam and can be reached at sistlasrini@gmail.com)


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