17 December 2013
Lakshman cuts off the nose of Shurpanakha
The Visual Arts department has recently added to its collection a folio from the dispersed ‘Impey’ Ramayana. The Ramayana manuscript is named for its patron Sir Elijah Impey, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in Calcutta in the late 18th century. Sir Elijah and Lady Mary Impey were well-established patrons of art and often commissioned illustrations to manuscripts or sets of paintings by local artists in Bengal. The provenance of this folio, as well as the rest of the series, is authenticated by the seal of Sir Elijah Impey stamped on the verso. Impey's manuscript (or possibly even a portfolio), which consisted of 44 single sided folios with no text pages, was later acquired by Sir Thomas Phillipps Bt (1792-1872). In 1968, the 44 folios were dispersed at auction.
The British Library is currently the only national collection to have in its collection a folio from this dispersed series. The only other folio, showing Rama kills Vali, in a public collection is at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Lakshman cuts of the nose of Shurpanakha by a Murshidabad artist, c. 1780. Opaque watercolour on paper. British Library, Add.Or.5725
The Ramayana is one of the great Sanskrit epics narrating the story of Rama, prince of Ayodhya, who lived in exile for 14 years. The story is attributed to the sage Valmiki, a contemporary of Rama. Accompanied by his wife Sita and brother Lakshman, the Ramayama recounts their adventures and misfortunes including the kidnapping of Sita by the demon Ravana. The epic tale is composed of 24,000 verses that were divided into seven books. The episode depicted here, featuring Lakshman cutting off the nose of Shurpanakha, is reported in the Aranyakanda (‘Book of the Forest’).
Shurpanakha, the sister of Ravana (the 10-headed demon king of Lanka) encountered the handsome Rama at his hermitage. Awestruck by his beauty, she instantly transformed herself from a hideous demon with matted red hair into a vision of beauty. Initally rebuffed by Rama, she approached Lakshman and proclaimed: ‘My beauty renders me a worthy wife for thee; therefore come and we will range the Dandaka Forest and mountains happily together’ (Shastri 1952-59). Lakshman replied in jest: ‘how canst thou wish to become the wife of a slave, such as I? I am wholly dependent on my noble brother. Thou whose complexion resembles the lotus, who art pleasing to look upon and chaste? Lady of large eyes, though art a paragon, do thou become the consort of that matchless hero. Renouncing that ugly, evil and peevish old woman, whose limbs are deformed, he will certainly devote himself to thee! Lady of ravishing complexion and lovely limbs, what sensible man would sacrifice that unrivalled beauty of thine for an ordinary woman?’ (Shastri 1952-59).
Grasping the reality of his prose, Shurapanka unfurled her wrath on Rama’s beautiful wife Sita. Lakshman immediately pulled his sword and cut off the nose and ears of Shurpanakha!
Detail showing Lakshman mutilating Shurpanakha
Shrieking in pain and her face streaming with blood, she fled to her brother Ravana. The 10-headed demon sent his army to retaliate. In the lower half of the page, Rama and Lakshman are featured in combat with the demon army.
Detail showing Rama fighting the demons
This folio from the Impey Ramayana provides art historians the opportunity to further explore the regional style of painting at Murshidabad in Bengal in the 18th century. Impey’s commissions, including a set of ragamala paintings (British Library, Add.Or.4-8 and Add.Or.27-31) and the illustrations to a Razmnama manuscript (British Library, Add.5638-5640), are typically painted in a more refined and imperial style of painting. The artist who depicted Lakshman brutally mutilating the demon appears to have rapidly executed his paintings with the figures modeled with thick outlines and stylised features. There is little attention to the fine details. With further research on the illustrations to the Impey Ramayana and other commissions, it might be possible to ascertain the extent of Sir Elijah’s personal influence on the artistic style of this manuscript and regional artists. Through additional research on the illustrations to this series, it might be possible to create a detailed timeline of the artistic practices in Murshidabad.
Material held in the Visual Arts department can be viewed by appointment in the Print Room. The Print Room located in the Asian & African Studies Reading Room and is open Monday-Friday afternoons. Please email [email protected] for an appointment.
T. Falk and M. Archer, Indian Miniatures in the India Office Library, Sotheby Parke Barnet, 1981
J.P. Losty, The Art of the Book in India, British Library, 1982
J.P. Losty, The Ramayana: Love and Valour in India's great epic, British Library, 2008
H.P. Shastri (trans.), The Ramayana of Valmiki, Shanti Shadan, 1952-59
Malini Roy, Visual Arts Curator