India's articulate art

The Two-Headed Deer
August 29, 1997

Profusely illustrated with 289 black and white figures and 12 colour plates, this attractive book introduces and investigates the narrative pictorial traditions of the eastern Indian state of Orissa. Until now these have received much less attention from scholars and connoisseurs than other regional traditions, such as the various Rajput "schools" of miniature painting. Joanna Willams does a great service by drawing our attention to the Orissan works, and in particular for doing so with sensitivity and scholarship.

The traditions in question are primarily the illustration of palm-leaf manuscripts and the production by professional painters of pictures on cloth or other media. Of these, the first continued into the present century and the second is still alive, and this has determined how Williams chooses to present them. Rather than examining a closed and decontextualised corpus of paintings, she insists on dealing with her material in terms of the traditions from which it sprang. For the palm-leaf illustrations, this means a lot of intriguing detective work on the artists and their work; for the professional painters, it means study of their current output and methods of working, set against the background provided by an inevitably limited but, nonetheless, valuable historical record. The reward Williams reaps for this detailed, painstaking work is to be able to make valid comparisons and draw conclusions from them. She can trace the development of style over time in an individual artist or a genre, and she can also compare between genres and between artists or regions. Some of her conclusions are significant. In particular, she is able to show that artists display a greater degree of individual artistic choice than has often been assumed to be possible within "traditional" forms of Indian art.

The book opens with a chapter telling the Ramayana story and describing the forms in which it is known in Orissa, both literary texts and oral performances. Some of the detail on the Sanskrit "original" is presumably drawn from Robert P. Goldman's introduction to the first volume of the translation he is editing (The Ramayana of Valmiki); unfortunately Williams was evidently not aware that Goldman's views on some key matters, such as chronology, do not command widespread acceptance. (It is, incidentally, also unfortunate that many of the accents used on Indian words throughout her book are incorrect.) By contrast, Williams's treatment of traditional oral performances of the Ramayana story, a treatment which she herself describes as "impassioned but unsystematic", is highly valuable, not merely in itself or as general background, but also for providing specific information on the forms in which the story is known to its illustrators - clearly an important factor in determining how they choose to present that story in their illustrations.

Apart from their geographical location, the chief link between the various traditions Williams considers is their narrativity: they all tell stories, among them the Ramayana story on which the book focuses. The widespread failure to appreciate this aspect of Indian art is signalled in an anecdote Williams relates in her introduction. She was once "looking at a fine set of illustrations of a poetic text in a museum with a discerning American collector of Indian painting. He remarked as we considered the tenth picture: 'What a waste to have these together, where they become boring; each one would be a masterpiece by itself.' This reaction is symptomatic of our treating as separate pictures images designed to be seen in sequence." Williams herself invests considerable effort in an attempt to overcome this "story-blindness". In chapter three she moves deliberately outside the range of material covered elsewhere in the book to examine Orissan sculpture depicting the Ramayana narrative, and the whole of chapter five is devoted to a consideration of the narrative strategies employed by artists. Much is said that is perceptive and interesting. One small objection: no doubt under the influence of the purely sequential scene-by-scene narration typified by manuscript illustrations, she does not pay any attention to the possibility of narratives presented place by place, such as those found in some early Buddhist cave paintings and in contemporary Rajasthani paintings on cloth, though she does cite an article by Vidya Dehejia in which this form of narration is described. It might be that this forms the "achronic principle of organisation" that she sees in some friezes. One should at least note that no sculptural sequence would ever force the viewer to circumambulate it in the inauspicious counter-clockwise direction.

John D. Smith is a lecturer in Sanskrit, University of Cambridge.

The Two-Headed Deer: Illustrations of the Ramayana in Orissa

Author - Joanna Williams
ISBN - 0 520 08065 3
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - £40.00
Pages - 210

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