Modernity at the crossroads: Ravi Varma's "Shakuntala Looks Back in Love".
A large number of portraits dwell on the story of Shakuntala, a narrative that had received much exposure in the late 18th and 19th centuries through Orientalist translations. This story from the Mahabharata told of the lineage of Bharat whose descendants composed the Indian nation (Bharatvarsha), and the narrative served as a foundational myth. It came into prominence with the Orientalist interest in the story--Kalidasa's version was translated by William Jones in 1789 and later into the German in 1791 by Georg Foster, announcing a sudden burst of interest in Sanskrit drama among the followers of German Romanticism. Monier Williams, who later occupied the Boden Chair at Oxford, published his translation in 1855 and Ravi Varma's illustration Shakuntala Patralekhan, "Shakuntala Writing a Letter" (figure 1) was used as the frontispiece for the second edition. The play was received as an expression of the ancient Oriental affinity with nature, given the beautiful passages of poetry that evoked the life within the hermitage where much of the drama takes place. The story, however, had other resonances in the Indian imagination, serving as a genealogical account of the Indian race, and Shakuntala as the mother of Bharat was the very figure upon which prototypes of Bharat Mata, Mother India, were modelled.
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Ravi Varma's numerous images of Shakuntala paint her as a lovelorn nayika (heroine) gazing into the distance and wistfully longing for her lover. The painting "Shakuntala Looks Back in Love" (figure 2) belongs to this series and expresses the unique manner in which Ravi Varma's Puranic images mediated contemporary ideas on femininity and virtue. The scene portrays the lovers parting after their first meeting. Here, Shakuntala, depicted as a maiden in the woods and accompanied by her companions, Anasuya and Priyamvada, turns around to take a last look at Dushyanta, who lies beyond the right frame of the painting. The scene confirms for Dushyanta that his feelings of love for Shakuntala are reciprocated, even though in his presence "her eyes were cast downwards". As Dushyanta describes it:
A blade of kusa grass pricked my foot," the girl said for no reason after walking a few steps away; then she pretended to free her bark dress from branches where it was not caught and shyly glanced at me. (1)
[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]
The painting may be read as an evocative expression of desire and feminine modesty and how they are accommodated in the idealized female portraiture that Ravi Varma specialized in. Shakuntala's desire is disguised through an "innocent" action, that of removing a thorn from her foot. The viewer is complicit in this pretence, acknowledging her desire, and perhaps her companion's knowing smile best embodies Varma's ideal viewer. However, Shakuntala herself does not face the viewer, so there is no direct acknowledgement of her sexuality, except through the frontal display of her body. Shakuntala appears caught between her companions and Dushyanta, her arm reaching for their support even as her gaze is held by her lover.
The far-left side of the painting is occupied by the figure of an old woman, Gautami, a senior female ascetic who also lived in sage Kanva's hermitage. She leans on a stick and appears to lead along the path that Shakuntala and her companions are following. Dressed in white and bent with age, she represents in some ways the older order, one which the maidens must follow. Shakuntala's turning backwards, then, her gaze traversing the opposite direction to which her body must follow, signifies the break she feels forced to make. Her twisted body stands at the crossroads, between a "tradition" that is interestingly configured in celibate terms and a "modernity" where sexual presence appears to be overpowering. Even as the moment is isolated, it is framed within two spatial particulars signified by the old woman and the unseen Dushyanta at either end, each corresponding to the temporal coordinates implied in the debate between tradition and modernity.
In this representation of Shakuntala, Ravi Varma appears to intervene in concurrent debates on the recasting of modern female identity, based on his experiences in Kerala. As R. Nandakumar has pointed out, the late 19th century was a tumultuous period in Malabar social history with the breakdown of the matrilineal family structure centred around taravads, or large joint-family holdings. (2) Ravi Varma's opposition to the old order reflects the desires of the new educated middle class and its dissatisfaction with the taravad as a repressive structure that did not allow the woman to develop stable, lasting relationships with men of her own choice. With the advent of the colonial economy and the emergence of a professional class who chose to move away from the taravad, nuclear family structures came into play, an event Ravi Varma celebrates in his painting "Here Comes Papa". Accordingly, the yearning Shakuntala represents both the fantasies of men with their ideals of self-chosen partnerships and the new patterns of emotionality invested in conjugal relationships. The contemporary Malayalam novel, Indulekha (1889) by O.C. Menon is structured around exactly such an alliance, extolling the virtues of self-chosen partnership for modern, educated women.
R. Nandakumar also points to the missing male in Ravi Varma's female portraits, and "Shakuntala Looks Back in Love" is a typical example that avoids representing Dushyanta, keeping him outside the frame. On the one hand, the singular focus on the female body emphasizes what may be called the "pin-up" quality of his art that figures women as objects of male desire. (3) Nandakumar suggests the deliberate exclusion of the man may lie in Ravi Varma's background in a feudal matrilineal society where male presence was often disregarded. This argument is all the more persuasive if we consider another image of the same scene from the Pune Chitrashala Press, where Dushyanta's presence is almost central to the narrative (figure 3). Three women, Shakuntala and her companions, are pictured along an axial line, and Dushyanta occupies a substantial presence along the left side of the painting, with no reference to Gautami. The figures are cruder and although there is some attempt at modelling indicated in the folds of the drapery and a few small shadows at the women's feet, the image does not aspire to the illusionist presence characterizing Ravi Varma's version.
However, there is perhaps another explanation to be offered here, one that accounts for Ravi Varma's predicament as a modern painter faced with the fundamental ambivalences of modernity. Unlike the glorious harmonies offered in the pre-modern mythological narratives, modernity necessitated a break with the past with only promises of reconciliation. Therefore, in Ravi Varma's version, instead of the clear patch of sunlight into which Gautami treads--marking the path well trodden--Shakuntala and her companions linger on in the shade, in an immutable grey that confronts the viewer with its indecision. Shakuntala's backward glance, then, interrupts the unrelenting march of time-worn tradition, pausing and facing the unknown. Ravi Varma infuses the contemporary debates regarding the role of the woman in social life into the puranic myth, destabilizing the familiar assurances of the narrative with Shakuntala's unstable posture--she is literally standing on one leg here.
Lest this paints Ravi Varma as an unrecognizable postmodern artist, an acknowledgement of his debt to Victorian melodrama and its portrayals of yearning women and their desires for reconciliation might explain his position better. Ravi Varma's art is clearly a product of the popularity of Western prints amidst the urban, Western-educated population in 19th-century India and their appreciation of the romanticized allegorical academic outpourings of Victorian artists. The preferred genre was melodrama and Ravi Varma confessed to emulating some of these artists, often attaching verse to his prints after their manner. In its affinities with pre-modern mythological narratives, melodrama allowed for a convenient translation of terms between the moral order of the past and the virtues and evils of the present. The themes of separation and longing that are so prominent in paintings like "Shakuntala Looks Back in Love" and a host of other paintings like "Damayanti and the Swan" or "Shakuntala Writing a Letter" allow Ravi Varma to bridge the distance between the harmonious resolution of mythological narratives and melodrama's appeal for closure. And it is from this ambivalent in-between space that Ravi Varma's portraits evolve a new visual language, which speaks to the urban educated elite male subject, grappling with the uncertainties of modernity and woman's place within it.
(1) Kalidasa, Shakuntala and the Ring of Recollection, trans. Barbara Stoller Miller, in Theater of Memory, Columbia University Press, New York, 1984, p. 107.
(2) R. Nandakumar, "The Missing Male: The Female Figures of Ravi Varma and the Concepts of Family, Marriage and Fatherhood in Nineteenth Century Kerala", South Indian Studies (January-June 1996).
(3) Tapati Guha-Thakurta, "Women as Calendar Art Icons", Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 26, No. 43 (October 29, 1991), WS 91-WS 99.