Epic Tales from India


Epic Tales from India includes ninety-one paintings from the collection of the San Diego Museum of Art—tiny treasures only a few inches in dimension but outsized in their impact. In this exhibition, the main objective is to present the paintings as illustrations to works of literature, attempting to recapture something of their original intent. The paintings are organized according to the stories they illustrate, and newcomers to the world of Indian painting will be able to trace the entire narrative arc of such classics as the Ramayana, following the hero Rama from the divine conference that prefaced his birth, through to the moment when he and his wife, Sita, return from exile, triumphant, to claim the throne to the kingdom of Ayodhya.

For those interested in taking a deeper dive into the world of illustrated manuscripts, the exhibition also offers the opportunity to think critically about how narrative is conveyed in visual form. As the variety of paintings on view demonstrates, the artist had many options even within the confines of a static image—he could focus on a single moment to stand in for the longer narrative, or he could choose to combine several moments in the same image. He could devote several images to a single story, to emphasize its importance while drawing out the action, or he could choose to skip or elide a certain episode. As we learned in the course of preparing for the exhibition, there are many ways that text, image, captions, and numerical notations play into the reading of a manuscript; there is no standard format for an Indian manuscript, and even canonical texts could be presented in a multiplicity of ways.

Vishnu Comes to Shiva’s Aid, India, Datia, ca. 1800. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, folio: 32 × 43.8 cm; painting: 25.2 × 39.1 cm. The San Diego Museum of Art, Edwin Binney 3rd CollectionThree examples of the Bhagavata Purana provide just a hint of the variety in Indian manuscript form. The first was made about 1800 in a manner typical of traditional Sanskrit manuscripts—its folios have a horizontal format with painting on one side and writing on the other. An example from this manuscript is Vishnu Comes to Shiva’s Aid, which works in a complicated manner requiring detective work on the part of the viewer. The narrative commences on the bottom left, and the key figure, a demon named Vrikasura, appears repeatedly as he makes sacrifices to Shiva but is ultimately bested by Vishnu. The narrator of the scene and his listener also appear at the top of the painting. This story is told in chapter eighty-eight of the tenth book of the Bhagavata, which is transcribed on the reverse of the painting in its original Sanskrit. In this case, the text and the image are clearly linked and help elucidate each other.

Interestingly, an additional page attached to the painting contains a retelling of the action in a northern Indian vernacular language. Study in preparation for this exhibition revealed that the use of vernacular synopses was a routine and widespread practice. And while here the vernacular text is lengthy and closely follows the Sanskrit original, there are many instances in which the vernacular version differs from or offers details not in the standard text.

Aniruddha Is Abducted by Usha’s Handmaiden, Nepal, ca. 1800. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, folio: 37.6 × 55 cm; painting: 33 × 50 cm. The San Diego Museum of Art, Edwin Binney 3rd CollectionSuch an example is a copy of the Bhagavata made in Nepal, illustrated to the left. The action-packed painting again includes several chronologically distinct moments within a unified composition. The story is about a princess named Usha who dreams of a young man with whom she falls in love. Awakening to find him gone, Usha asks her attendant Chitralekha to sketch portraits so that she might identify him. Through this process, Usha recognizes her nighttime visitor as a prince named Aniruddha, and Chitralekha flies to his palace to abduct the sleeping prince and bring him back to Usha. The lovers delight in each other’s company until their discovery by Usha’s enraged father. In the painting, Usha and Chitralekha appear first on the right; we then see Chitralekha at Aniruddha’s palace, carrying his bed into the night; and at left, Usha and Aniruddha are pictured together in a palace pavilion. At the bottom, a caption in a Nepali vernacular can be roughly translated as “Here Chitralekha comes to Dwarka and from his chamber, together with his bed, picks up the sleeping Aniruddha, and brings him to Shonitapura near Usha.” The back of the folio is blank—the Sanskrit text of the Bhagavata does not appear at all in this manuscript—and much interpolation is required by the viewer to connect the action represented to the original Bhagavata text. The folio is numbered 128 on the top left, indicating its sequence in the series; this is a helpful inclusion given that the manuscript to which this folio belongs was never meant to be bound.

Recto and verso of Six Demons and Nine Gods Approach a House Where a Man Sleeps, India, possibly  Deccan, ca. 1675–1700. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, folio: 36.2 × 27.9 cm; painting: 22.7 × 22.9 cm. The San Diego Museum of Art, Edwin Binney 3rd CollectionYet another type of manuscript is represented by the third example, a rare, illustrated copy of a Persian-language Bhagavata. As is typical for Persian-language manuscripts, a reader would open the book and be able to read the text on one page and examine the picture on the facing page; however, when unbound, the illustrations were separated from their texts. This differs from the first example discussed here, in which inscriptions were written on back of the illustrations, and the experiences of reading and viewing are therefore separated. In the painting seen above, a single moment is captured, and although the book workshop director allocated a small text box for the calligrapher to inscribe, the short passage is insufficient to identify the scene. The text on the verso describes another scene.

Surely the colorful and vivid paintings themselves will be the highlight of the exhibition, but the question of how each type of manuscript functioned was a delightful puzzle for those of us working behind the scenes. Visitors to the exhibition will be able to enjoy the fruits of this research and admire these different illustration techniques, which attest to the great ingenuity Indian painters brought to their craft.


Marika Sardar

Associate Curator for Southern Asian and Islamic Art

The San Diego Museum of Art


Epic Tales from India: Paintings from the San Diego Museum of Art has been organized by the San Diego Museum of Art. The exhibition at Princeton has been made possible by generous support from the National Endowment for the Arts; the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation; Susan and John Diekman, Class of 1965; Padmaja Kumari and Kush M. Parmar, Class of 2002; and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, with additional support from the Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Exhibitions Fund; Amy and Robert Poster, Class of 1962; the Chopra Family Youth and Community Program Fund; and the Friends of the Princeton University Art Museum. Further support has been provided by the Program in South Asian Studies, the Center for the Study of Religion, the Department of Comparative Literature, and the Office of Religious Life, Princeton University.