Did Ram sport a beard? If an overwhelming number of Hindus believe that he was clean-shaven, is that enough for us to consider it settled that the deity-king was as smooth on the chin as Lord Salman is on the chest?
Since moving on from the fractious, violent, complex-ridden years of the communalised 90s (remember the intra-Parsi community mayhem played out between Russi Mody and Ratan Tata?), this fundamental and unsettled question has replaced the banal, life-destroying ones about ‘Masjid or Mandir?’, ‘Muslim or Hindu?’, ‘Maruti or Contessa?’, ‘Low cut or hip-hugging?’.
The ‘beard’ issue has been festering for quite some time now. The media may not have picked up on it yet, but if it isn’t addressed soon through rational avenues, the matter may spill out in unsavoury ways when the nation — that as a whole doesn’t really care about whether Ram was bearded or not — is least prepared.
All standard depictions of Ram show him without a trace of facial hair. It was in the late 19th-early 20th century that the ‘modern’ depiction of Ram — not podgy, not lanky, but just right and with the air of benevolence that many IIM toppers have — ‘solidified’ with the mass market production of affordable prints rolling out of the Ravi Varma Fine Art Lithographic Press from 1894. For the first time, thanks to master of pop art Raja Ravi Varma, anyone and everyone could afford ‘god’ in his home.
This clean-shaven Ram, ubiquitous in millions of Hindu households by the early-mid 20th century, became the popular choice for Indian idol. But Ram was not always the chikna that you know him so well as today. I’m not much into sculptures, but I would think it to be easier to bang out a stone idol without going through all that extra chiselling to show facial hair. (The early Christians stuck to two-dimensional iconography and the Muslims, well, took the easy way out.)
The ancient and the medieval equivalents of today’s TV producers in the Hindu programming schedule certainly preferred the ‘clean Ram’ look when it came to depictions in stone and other materials. But the painter, coming in later, didn’t have such restrictions. The artists commissioned by Rana Jagat Singh of Mewar in the mid-17th century to create an illustrated Ramayan certainly didn’t mind putting a thick twirl of a moustache on a blue-skinned, Ram. To modern eyes, this ‘version’ of Ram looks more like Indrajit (Ravan’s fine-looking and brilliantly named son) than Ravi Varma’s mama’s boy.
But as some contending akhada or other will point out sooner than later, the Mewar Ramayan isn’t the only one to describe Big Boy Ram with facial hair. The Pothi (sacred text) traditions in Kannada of the 17th century, to give one example, describe a bearded Ram. In her history of the comic book series Amar Chitra Katha, The Classic Popular (Yoda Press) Nandini Chandra writes about how Ram Waeerkar, one of the major illustrators in the Amar Chitra Katha team, had first drawn Ram with a beard based on the Pothi texts. “He was asked to redraw his Ram according to the Ravi Varma style,” writes Chandra, going on to quote art historian Christopher Pinney on how Varma transformed “the Indian imaginary from a realm of fantasy to a historicised realised chronotope” (adult-speak for ‘grounded in time and location’).
Interestingly, because of Amar Chitra Katha artist Waeerkar’s personal fondness for Tarzan comics — especially the artwork in the 60s-70s by Russ Manning, the Ram with the top-knot that we see in the 1970 published comic book (Rama, Amar Chitra Katha Vol. 504), later picked up by those going for a more virile, bow-wielding, sinewy-muscled chap, has become our template for Ram. For those with more pacifist leanings have the option of the closer-to-Ravi Varma version transmitted by Ramanand Sagar, in his 1986 78-episode TV serial with Arun Govil as a podgier, softer-at-the-edges Ram.
But the matter of the beard remains open-ended and needs to be closed. One just hopes that other contentious issue — of where the real Ramgarh is, the place where Gabbar Singh’s khaki-clad bones are buried — doesn’t crop up in between. The Archaeological Survey of India, after all, can’t be trusted to determine whether the two skeletal arms found at a site in a small town near Bangalore are that of Lord Jagannath or that of Thakur Baldev Singh. I sincerely hope, for the sake of national harmony, a court will decide the matter on what countless Sholay fans believe in.