Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Shadows of Homer

I've been thinking about the Ramayana shadow-puppet show we saw on the first day of our trip at Dakshina Chitra, the crafts museum of Tamil Nadu. The stage consisted of a large piece of white fabric, behind which were several people who manipulated colorfully-painted, translucent cut-out figures made out of goat-skin leather up against the backside of the screen.

Chris Henke's photo of the show
A bright light was positioned behind them, illuminating the forms and colors of the puppets. The people working the puppets also sang, and a third person played various instruments (a drum, tamborine and a small stringed piece I couldn't quite make out). In this way, they depicted an episode of the enormous ancient Sanskrit epic of the Ramayana, in which the helpful monkey god Hanuman delivers Rama's ring to Rama's beloved wife, Sita, who has been captured by the evil god Ravana. Hanuman then defeats several monsters and assorted bad guys.

It was exciting to see this performance of the Ramayana as part of a living tradition. This troop travels all around the region performing at religious festivals. The expectation is that the audience already knows the basic outline of the Ramayana story, as they will have heard about it and seen performances of it on many occasions; this enables them to enjoy this particular snippet, to appreciate the artfulness of the telling and to fill in the gaps of what has been left out.

I suspect that this is very similar to the way the Homeric epics circulated in antiquity. We teachers of Core 151, Legacies of the Ancient World (formerly Western Traditions), might sometimes feel, or might convey to our students, a sense that Homer's epics are Great Canonical Literature, to be admired and revered and pored over word by sacred word.

This is true in a way, but it is also true that in antiquity, these stories were deeply embedded in the culture. In addition to the recitations of the canonical text at religious festivals, there were all sorts of other performances and retellings and spoofs of the stories as well. The tales would also have circulated visually, as do the stories of the Ramayana.

I have made it something of a mission on this trip to acquire as much Ramayana imagery as I can; so far my collection includes a delicate miniature painting showing Rama romancing Sita in a garden setting, and a series of drawings of various episodes on palm leaves stitched together to form a fan-like object. I also bought two goat-skin puppets made by the troop we saw perform.

I look forward to sharing these materials with my Core 151 students this semester, as a parallel to the way the Homeric stories would have suffused the life and visual culture of the ancient Mediterranean.

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