Raja Ravi Varma’s creations are ubiquitous – in the images of Lakshmi and Saraswati we have grown up worshipping, in recreations of buxom women and children gracing calendars and advertising sundry products like powders, creams and oils, and in the retelling of stories embedded deep in our culture. From Sita to Mandakini, Varma has depicted the love and loss of many heroines.
Shakuntala, one of his most iconic creations, is inspired by a love story in the Mahabharata, but popularised by Kalidasa’s epic of the same name. In Kalidasa’s version, the divine and innocent Shakuntala is seduced by King Dushyant. After consummation, he gives her his ring and returns to his kingdom. One day, Shakuntala, who is lost in thoughts of her lover, neglects her duties towards a sage. The short-tempered sage issues a curse that her lover will forget her. He makes one allowance, however, that on seeing his ring, her lover will finally recognize her.
As fate would have it, Shakuntala loses the ring, and with it, her lover. Finally the ring reaches the King through a dead fish and he remembers his erstwhile lover and their child.
In this painting, Varma shows a distraught Shankuntala writing a love letter to Dushyant on a lotus leaf. He captures her sublime beauty as well as her anguish at separation from her lover.
Completed between 1880 – 1885, this painting was gifted by Sayaji Rao III, Maharaja of Baroda, to the Ashmolean Museum (the University of Oxford’s museum of Art and Archaeology) where it currently resides.
In addition to this painting, Raja Ravi Varma painted several other versions of Shakuntala. In this painting for instance, Shakutala, even in the company of her friends, is shown to be lost in thought about Dushyant. Perhaps, Varma imagined her thus before she was cursed by the sage.
Beyond the confines of Shakuntala’s love story, this painting caught the imagination of the public and became a hugely popular visual to sell women’s products like perfumes and creams.