The Shapeshifting Demoness Surpanakha Falls For Prince Rama

A scene from the Ramayana, the Indian epic that follows Prince Rama's quest to rescue his beloved wife from the demon King Ravana

Surpanakha - the sister of Lanka king Ravana - comes to Panchvati (1700/1800) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

The painting depicts a pivotal point in the narrative of the epic Ramayana, when Surpanakha, the sister of the mighty demon king of Lanka, Ravana, meets the exiled princes Rama, his brother Lakshmana and wife Sita near their abode at Panchavati.

Surpanakha, a shape shifting demoness sites Rama in the forest and is instantly smitten by his handsome countenance.

Approaching Rama she asked him to marry her.

Rama, kindly but firmly declined her proposal, telling her that he was devoted to his wife Sita and thus would never take another wife.

Rejected, Suparnakha then approached Rama’s younger brother, Lakshmana..

..who cruelly rebuked her harshly telling her that she was not what he desired in a wife.

Eventually realising that the two brothers were making fun of her, the humiliated and envious Surpanakha viciously attacked Sita.

Her attack was thwarted by Lakshmana, who cut off her nose and left ear as a retribution for her attack on Sita.

 The artist depicts Surpankha, intently approaching Rama..

The episode Surpanakha is considered to have haasya rasa, the aesthetic of comic relief. The folio depicting the episode suggests this element of comic lightness..

..gazing at him ardently..

..her hand gesticulating that she is in the act of proposing to Rama.

Rama and Lakshmana seem to be suppressing their smiles..

..while Sita delicately uses her hand to suppress her laughter.

In the background can be seen the small thatched hut that the exiles reside in..

..amidst a vast landscape of undulating pink rimmed hillocks and valleys clothed with tiny rounded shrubs and variegated trees, interspersed with clumps of trees and broken branches.

Half hidden amongst the foliage the artist reveals various animals, suggesting the uninhabited, dangerous part of the forest that the exiles reside in.

The use of certain idioms are particular to Nurpur in the late 18th century, following the growing influence of Kangra style of painting.

Nurpur developed distinguished features of tall elongated figures..

..with a particular facial type with long eyes..

..a long straight nose and a long strand of wispy hair falling across the cheek.

Other features include ribbed folds rucking out at the base of the skirt..

..and a stylisation of the trees characterised by three trunks which branch out into subsidiary trunks or branches before merging with the foliage.

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