Emotions in Indian Art and Poetry

Rama and Sita – Victoria & Albert Museum

A verse and a painting on Rama’s love for Sita

The painting above is connected with a collection of Sanskrit poetry, the Rasamanjari of Bhanudatta, a Sanskrit work from the 15th century.  The different verses depict different experiences of love and romance felt by different types of men and women.  It could be seen as a sort of catalogue of types of character that could appear in a larger literary work.  Many artists in later centuries chose these verses as subject matter to illustrate.

This painting illustrates one particular verse from the Rasamanjari where the poet takes up the voice of the figure of Rama to give an illustration of a husband who is lovingly devoted to his wife.  The verse is as follows –

Earth, be soft!  Sun, make your rays cool!

Path, become short!  Wind, drive away tiredness!

Dandaka forest, be close!  Mountain, move out of the way!

Because this delicate Sita desires to set out with me

[Rasamanjari verse; my own translation]

The context of this verse seems to be the beginning of the long journey into exile that Rama will make and that his wife Sita has volunteered to join him in.  The poet is imagining the feelings of Rama about making the journey together with Sita.  Although wishing for a smooth and easy journey in every way possible, the unstated fear is that the journey will be unbearably long, the sun will be overpoweringly hot, the forest will not be close and the mountain will not remove itself from the route.

Indeed, if we have read the Ramayana, we know that the journey will be filled with all kinds of hardship and misery.  So, reading this verse, we feel a poignancy about the situation.  But it is precisely this contrast between the actual fact of the journey and the naïve hopes expressed by Rama that create the emotional power of the verse and enables the depth of Rama’s love for Sita to be beautifully expressed.

If we turn now to the painting, we can see how skilfully the artist has picked up on the emotional and psychological resonances inherent in this verse.  The vivid use of colour contributes to an emotional intensity of the viewer’s experience of the artwork.  The intensity of the colour scheme is balanced by the sparsity of figures in the painting, with the whole right side of the painting just empty.  On the left side, we see Sita and Rama together, about to move forward from under a tree.

Sita and Rama will have to move beyond the life they know, into the unknown, which seems to be very astutely represented by the artist by a vast expanse of emptiness on the right side of the canvas.  Sita is still under the cooling shade of a tree, as if she is about to step out into what looks like blazing sunlight for perhaps her very first experience of discomfort.  Rama grasps her wrist protectively and also holds up his bow against any unknown danger that may be lurking beyond the range of our view.  The artist has thus captured the sense of setting off from the known world into the unknown, and the vulnerability in the face of the unknown that is also expressed by the verse. 

Yet at the same time, this is balanced by the mental resolve and commitment that we know both Rama and Sita feel to actually do this.  The artist seems to depict this through the determined and upright stance of both characters.  Rather than gazing lovingly at each other, they both face into the far distance, mentally readying themselves for whatever they will have to face, and knowing that they will need to work together as a team to face the challenges ahead.

I think in a way it’s like what all of us feel when we set out on a new endeavour, especially one that is somehow pressed onto us by force of circumstance.  On one hand, we feel a naïve wish for ease, but at the same time perhaps a psychological commitment to move forward with a wholehearted effort and a positive attitude.  Indeed, a healthy relationship sometimes means gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes, but at other times means fixing your gaze boldly together in the same direction.

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