Forrest McGill, curator of South and Southeast Asian Art at the Asian Art Museum, asked people to imagine a time when the world seemed full of disorder, with things we thought we could always count on falling apart, and international alliances that once seemed unbreakable fraying. In addition, it seems like what is foremost in the culture are self-centeredness and the hunger for power, violence and a lack of self-control, and disregard for women. People are looking for the reinforcement of decency and good values: of loyalty, unselfishness, compassion, and duty.
If that far-off time in history seems disturbingly familiar and you wouldn’t mind a little shot of decency, come down to the Asian Art Museum for The Rama Epic: Hero, Heroine, Ally, Foe, which McGill lovingly curated. (Director Jay Xu calls it his dream show.)
The more-than-2,000-year-old epic, The Ramayana, tells the story of Rama, an avatar of Vishnu; his loving wife Sita; his ally Hanuman, the monkey god; and Ravana, the 10-headed demon. The seven volumes of the sacred story by Valmiki is longer than The Odyssey and as old as the Bible. Plus there are flying monkeys!
The tale includes Rama being banished to the forest with Sita and Ravana kidnapping her. Hanuman, undaunted by the lack of a bridge, makes a great leap to Sri Lanka to find Sita, and then Rama and his forces free her. There’s a lot more to it (as you probably guessed). So how to tell this story? McGill decided to focus on the four main characters, telling the story from each of their perspectives.
To tell the story, the museum is displaying 135 artworks from all across Asia, including India, Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar, and Cambodia that they’ve borrowed from museums across the United States and Europe. The Asian will also host dance performances and continuously show Benoy Behl’s film The Rama Epic Live. The exhibition’s audio tour is done like a radio play, with all four of the main characters’ voices. Xu calls it one of the most extensive shows they’ve ever done, fitting for the last show celebrating the museum’s 50th anniversary.
The Asian also invited five local illustrators to reinterpret scenes from the epic in their own styles creating a printed booklet of cartoons. Wesley Allsbrook moved here from New York to work for a tech company and in her scene of Ravana abducting Sita, you can see the recognizable outline of the Transamerica Pyramid in the background. Allsbrook sees Ravana as impulsive and violent and she envisioned him as sort of a tech prince.
Artist Zejian Shen, who works at the Asian, asked Allsbrook to get involved — along with Sanaa Khan, who designed a poster that summarizes the story showing a blue Rama aiming an arrow at Ravanna with Hanuman in the air and Sita standing by. Khan, who helps run Max’s Garage Press in Berkeley, says she struggled to not make Sita, held up as the model of the obedient wife, seem too passive in her drawing. She enjoyed drawing Ravanna with different expressions on all 10 of his heads.
“I wanted it to be really dramatic,” she said. “Like an old movie poster: lush and colorful and almost superhero-like.”
There’s plenty of drama in the Ramayana, which McGill calls one of the greatest adventure stories of all time.
“Human beings think abut the world in terms of stories,” he said. “That’s just what we do. These are fantastic stories with absorbing complicated characters and it’s a way to discuss our own situations.”
The Rama Epic: Hero, Heroine, Ally, Foe, through Jan. 15, 2017, at the Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin Street, 415-581-3500 or asianart.org.