'Sakuntala: Texts, Readings, Histories' review: Heroine of myth

There is an elegant circularity in the re-telling of the Sakuntala narrative in Romila Thapar’s examination of the well-known character that has been handed down to us through the centuries.

Since this is a second foray by a well-known imprint on women’s issues on the same subject, we may be forgiven for imagining that in the slightly amended words of Alfred J. Prufrock, the scholarly Romila Thapar is urging us: “Let us go then, you and I/ Where the nymph Sakuntala/ Or is she an apsara? / Is spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherized upon a table.”

One of the charms of engaging with Sakuntala lying etherised by our collective imagination is that she remains as seductive as when she was first conceived. As Thapar notes, she is the heroine of myth, drama, story, miniature paintings, Raja Ravi Varma prints, film adaptations, or what you will. Though Thapar does not use the term “Rorschach test” as a short hand for analysing the different responses, Sakuntala’s case history has intrigued scholars through a long stretch of time. From before the Mahabharata epic where the story appears, through Kalidasa’s evergreen poetic drama, through the lens of colonial activists, no less than the Romantic epoch of European poets and writers seeking inspiration from Eastern sources; and equally, the need of Indian nationalists seeking a mandate for the future, Sakuntala appears as a woman for all seasons.

A quick recap will reveal the bare bones of the story. Sakuntala is born of a brief dalliance between a sky-born apsara and an ascetic. She is raised in a hermitage surrounded by loving friends, birds and animals. When Dusyanta a warrior king appears on the scene after a hunt, he finds himself attracted to the young woman. After a rapturous time spent together as a married couple, Dusyanta departs leaving his signet ring as a token of his pledge. In the fullness of time, Sakuntala finds herself in the royal court with her infant son. Instead of the anticipated reunion, Sakuntala finds herself rejected. She has lost the ring. The ring appears in the belly of a fish trapped in a fisherman’s net. Dusyanta recovers his memory and finds Sakuntala in yet another hermitage where she and her son have been given refuge. The boy grows up to become the first in a lineage of powerful kings.

In the epic form, Thapar shows Sakuntala as fiercely proud woman when she is spurned by the King in his court. Later she is portrayed as the hapless girl who has to be rescued by divine intervention. Goethe decided that she was an embodiment of Nature, an interpretation that Tagore apparently endorsed. Thomas Hardy, (not mentioned here), would have seen her as an Indian Tess, a role that the Romantic painters excelled in portraying. It’s curious to note that the Cover design in this edition by Sunandini Banerjee based on an earlier engraving by the Austrian artist A. Riedel (1841) uses a wispily-clad figure of a European nymphet superimposed with a swirl of leaves, swimming fish and lurking in the undergrowth, a deer. The original was supposed to be of Judith, the temptress who is best known for the brutal decapitation of the Assyrian general Holofernes. The ambiguity of the virgin who can also be a temptress is underlined.

Or as Thapar puts it. “There is a therefore a constant dialogue between the past and the present. Because of this, the same theme often undergoes a change, such change acting as an indicator of the dialogue, and of different reasons and histories. A popular theme becomes multi-layered because of its varying forms: perhaps some of the many pasts which contributed to the present form can be pried apart. The present selects items from the past which are used to invent or refashion what comes to be called a ‘tradition’.”

Part of the charm of Thapar’s study is that she includes selected texts and earlier commentaries by scholars. They function as alternate voices. In the earlier sources, Sakuntala is seen as a ‘bag” or “pouch” in some cases a receptacle for banana seeds from which will emerge the world conqueror. The Kalidas play by Barbara Stoler Miller (1940-1993), the American Scholar of Sanskrit poetry and drama who translated it as “Sakuntala and the Ring of Recollection” from “Theater of Memory” forms the key central section of the study.

Romila Thapar’s delicate unravelling of the Sakuntala saga, reminds us that those who engage with the past, are akin to the bee entering a flower in that garden of myth and memory. While seeking the honey of knowledge they should not destroy the flower.

Sakuntala: Texts, Readings, Histories; Romila Thapar, Women Unlimited, ₹450.

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2022 11:40:18 PM |

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