By Margherita Stancati
If a new edition of a book that’s been around for centuries is creating a buzz, there must be something pretty special about it.
An upcoming version of the ancient Hindu epic “Ramayan,” put together by French publisher Diane de Selliers, seems to be doing just that. In Delhi, academics have been talking about it for months.
Courtesy photo An early 17th century miniature painting depicting Lord Ram, his wife Sita and his brother Lakshman, the protagonists of the epic.
Its secret? Great pictures and lots of them.
Ms. de Sellier’s edition of the ancient Hindu epic is illustrated with Indian miniature paintings dating from the 16th to the 19th century.
The idea behind it is both to display this unparalleled collection of miniature paintings—each of which comes with a small commentary—as well as to makes a dense literary work easier to look at. “A text like that for 900 pages can be boring, with pictures it’s more fun,” said Ms. de Sellier on the fringes of the Jaipur Literature Festival on Saturday.
She says it took her 10 years of research to select the pictures she needed. She gathered 5,000 and then settled for 700 for publication. The miniature paintings were gathered from private collections and museums around the world, mostly from India in cities that include Kolkata, Chandigarh, Delhi and Shimla. But some came from over the border in Pakistan, across Europe and as far as California.
Courtesy photo An 18th century miniature painting depicting Lord Ram and Sita.
This is not the first time Ms. de Selliers pulls this trick: She has actually set up a publishing house dedicated entirely to publishing many of literature’s seminal texts accompanied by the paintings and drawings they inspired. Other titles include Virgil’s “Aeneid,” illustrated with frescoes, mosaics and miniatures; Charles Baudelaire’s “Les Fleurs du Mal” (The Flowers of Evil), accompanied with the works of 19th century French Symbolist and Decadent painters, and “The Decameron,” Boccaccio’s sexually-explicit 14th century novellas.
When asked why the “Ramayan,” Ms. de Sellier said her love for India came first. She wanted to put together something on India and looked into the fundamental texts of Indian literature. She said it “soon seemed obvious that it would be the ‘Ramayan’.” For some time a possible contender was the “Mahabharat,” India’s other seminal ancient epic.
But the edition is something that will appeal only to the biggest enthusiasts of the “Ramayan”or miniature paintings: It will come with a $800 price tag. The six-volume edition is due to come out in a French translation in September and in a new English one in early 2012.