Shakuntala writing a love letter on a lotus leaf

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    After the dissolution of the East India Company and the establishment of direct British rule in 1858, an accelerating process of Westernisation took place in urban culture. Following the earlier recommendations of Macaulay higher education was modelled on English lines and in many of the major cities Schools of Art were founded to inculcate European academic standards. Even in the nominally independent princely states the traditional arts suffered a final decline as their royal patrons emulated the tastes of the British. Among the new admirers of Western painting was the Maharaja of the southern state of Travancore (now Kerala), who patronized both European artists and Indians trained in the new techniques. His most famous and influential protégé was Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906), who himself came from a princely family and married one of the Maharaja’s sisters. In his youth he had been schooled by his uncle in the Company-influenced Tanjore style, but he quickly changed to oil painting after receiving some instruction from other artists at the court. For the most part he was self-taught, developing his style from the study of reproductions of works by European paintings, including those of Bouguereau. His fame began to spread in the 1870s, when he twice won the Governor’s gold medal at the Madras Exhibition. His second prize-winning picture, in 1878, was a more elaborate treatment of the present theme, depicting Śakuntalā, the heroine of Kālidāsa’s classical drama, as a buxom maiden reclining on the ground as she writes her letter to her neglectful royal lover. It was purchased by the Governor, the Duke of Buckingham, who also commissioned a portrait of himself from the artist. Thereafter Ravi Varma became best known for his treatments of classical and epic subjects, which were generally rendered in a sentimental and theatrical manner and often executed with the assistance of members of his family. Later these heavy-handed Victorian visions of Indian mythology became ubiquitous in the form of mass-produced oleographs, of which the Museum has a substantial collection.

    The present painting is an early and restrained example of Ravi Varma’s mythological style, one of several treatments which he made of the Śakuntalā theme. It is believed to have been given to the Indian Institute in the 1880s by the Maharaja of Baroda, one of the artist’s most important patrons. Monier-Williams published a colour reproduction of it by W. Griggs as the frontispiece to the fifth edition of his translation of Śakuntalā in 1887. Śakuntalā, the beautiful foster daughter of a forest hermit, who has met the king on a hunting expedition and fallen in love with him, is here shown, in the third Act of the play, pining for him and, at the instigation of her two companions, writing a love-letter to him on a lotus leaf. (The King, who has been eavesdropping, thereupon reveals himself and the couple declare their love; afterwards, following a long separation caused by an ascetic’s curse, they are in the end united.)

    Śakuntalā, who is the most strongly painted of the three figures, gazes demurely in thought as she composes the letter, exhibiting the little of the consuming passion evoked in Kālidāsa’s verses. This decorous creature most of all suggests the banality of Ravi Varma’s conception. Nevertheless, while today it is perhaps his portrait paintings that we can most admire, Ravi Varma’s whole oeuvre has to be taken into account in any study of the development of modern painting in India.

    In: Harle, J. C., and Andrew Topsfield, Indian Art in the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1987)

Further reading

Harle, J. C., and Andrew Topsfield, Indian Art in the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1987), no. 96 on pp. 85-86, p. 86, pl. 21 (colour) & p. 86

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