One of the artworks from “The Rama Epic: Hero, Heroine, Ally, Foe” exhibition showing Sita in captivity in the Ashoka grove, approx. 1725. India; Himachal Pradesh state, former kingdom of Guler. Colors and gold on paper. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of George P. Bickford, 1966.143. (The Cleveland Museum of Art photo)

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. – A new exhibition of artwork based on the “Ramayana,” entitled, “The Rama Epic: Hero, Heroine, Ally, Foe,” will open at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco in October, which will showcase objects and artworks originating from India, Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia, starting from 1,500 years ago to today.

Works not-to-be missed include rarities borrowed from museums across the U.S., the U.K. and Europe. Many of these unique art pieces have never travelled before to the U.S., and the Asian Art Museum will be the only venue for visitors to experience them together.

Forrest McGill, curator of South Asian art at the museum explained that each gallery in the exhibition will focus on one of the four main characters of the Rama epic and will explore their journey through the storyline.

Highlights include eight examples of the remarkably large and detailed paintings from the “Mewar Ramayana” as well as two of its Sanskrit text pages on loan from the British Library. From the golden age of Indian court painting, this could be the most illustrated version of the epic ever, with as many as 450 paintings originally made by teams of artists over the course of the mid-seventeenth century.

A masterpiece from the Chola dynasty is Hanuman conversing, a large bronze dated to 1000-1100, and borrowed from the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Holes in the base for dowels state that the statue would have once graced a temple in southern India where on festival occasions it would have been carried through the streets in religious processions, festooned with flowers and decked in jewels and rich textiles.

Equally glorious is a lushly painted accordion manuscript from around 1870, depicting scenes of “The Rama Epic,” which come from the final years before the British conquest of Myanmar. Most likely made specially for the royal library in Mandalay and featuring detailed illustrations of Sita attired as a Burmese princess in glittering gold, the images appear without text, demonstrating that even in Buddhist countries the Ramayana permeated cultural contexts.

Another unique object is the three-tiered theatrical mask of Ravana from the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., where it is the crowning glory of a set of royal gifts bestowed in honor of America’s 1876 centennial by the King of Siam (Thailand), whose father was so memorably depicted in “The King and I.” With nine heads (the tenth being the live dancer’s) stacked on top of one another, the work is a rare example of a gilded theatrical mask surviving for almost 150 years, having escaped the wear-and-tear of the stage.

“Our exhibition, ‘The Rama Epic,’ really connects you to these characters no matter who you are or what kind of art you enjoy,” said museum director Jay Xu. “It’s why we also include artworks like the pastel portrait of Sita from 1893 by French symbolist Odilon Redon. Although from Europe, this work shows the creative resonance of the story among artists of the avant-garde no matter the time or place, highlighting it as an important cultural reference point not only in Asia, but around the world today.”

Along with these highlights, the wide array of artworks showcased in “The Rama Epic”appear in the lavishly illustrated exhibition catalogue published by the museum, which includes lively original essays from scholars esteemed around the world (available for $35 softcover, $50 hardcover).

(The Rama Epic: Hero, Heroine, Ally, Foe – On view at the Asian Art Museum Oct. 21, 2016 – Jan. 15, 2017.)

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