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Sakuntala: Texts, Readings, Histories

Romila Thapar
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    The figure of Sakuntala appears in many forms throughout South Asian literature, most famously in the Mahabharata and in Kalidisa's fourth-century Sanskrit play, Sakuntala and the Ring of Recollection. In these two texts, Sakuntala undergoes a critical transformation, relinquishing her assertiveness and autonomy to become the quintessentially submissive woman, revealing much about the performance of Hindu femininity that would come to dominate South Asian culture. Through a careful analysis of sections from Sakuntala and their various iterations in different contexts, Romila Thapar explores the interactions between literature and history, culture and gender, that frame the development of this canonical figure, as well as a distinct conception of female identity.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-52702-6
    Subjects: Religion, Language & Literature, History, Sociology
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. v-vii)
  3. Preface (pp. ix-xiv)
    Romila Thapar
  4. 1. Preliminaries (pp. 1-9)

    This essay is primarily concerned with the interface between literature and history. Historians comb literature for historical facts, references to events or descriptions of a particular historical time: all of which continues to be a legitimate historical enterprise. My intention here is to change the focus somewhat. I would like to take a literary item—such as a narrative—retold a few times and treat this repetition as a prism through which to view points of historical change. These are provided by the same story being retold in variant ways. At a later stage, translations of one of these variants...

  5. 2. The Narrative from the Mahābhārata (pp. 10-43)

    What appear to be the mythical pre-epic origins of the narrative of Śakuntalā occur in some parts of the Vedic corpus. An early but passing reference to her is made in the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa,⁵ where she is linked to the preeminent clan of the Bharatas, whose greatness could not be superceded by any. It is said that the apsarā Śakuntalā conceived Bharata at Nāḍapit (which a later text glosses as the location of the āṡrama of the ṛṣi Kaṇva). Bharata, the son of Duḥṣanta, performed a gigantic aśvamedha sacrifice, where seventy-eight horses were bound near the Yamunā river and fifty-five...

  6. [Illustrations] (pp. None)
  7. 3. The Abhijñāna-śākuntalam of Kālidāsa (pp. 44-169)

    When we turn to the play by Kālidāsa, the Abhijñāna-śākuntalam, not only have the context and the story changed but, more pertinently, the character of Śakuntalā is a contrast to the woman in the epic. There is almost a contestation with the epic version which, in the presentations of modern times, has been marginalised. In Kālidāsa’s version we are in the realm of delicacy and romance, of anguish and imminent tragedy, of pathos and finally, of happiness. The emotional range is infinite when compared to the epic narrative, but in the intermeshing of the emotions, the image of Śakuntalā undergoes...

  8. [Illustrations] (pp. None)
  9. 4. Popular and high culture as historical parallels (pp. 170-188)

    It is sometimes said that one of the reasons for the invention or evolution of a high culture is that, when foreign conventions are introduced into an existing society, it has to create a high culture to either defend itself from, or determine the method of assimilating, the intrusions. Such an argument is also made to explain why the Sanskrit literary culture became so dominant in the early centuries a.d. The first use of Sanskrit for inscriptions is the innovation of rulers who had familial connections with the Iranian and Hellenistic world. Coincidentally, the language comes to be more extensively...

  10. 5. Adaptations: another popular tradition and its role in another court (pp. 189-196)

    Up till now, the main theoretical analyses of the play consisted of commentaries. Subsequently, the major new forms were adaptations and translations into a variety of languages. These insert yet another dimension—other than historical change—into the narrative since the rendering of the text now takes on the characteristics of, both, the language of the adaptation and translation, and of its literary forms. This is even more evident when the adaptation is from a literary form to a visual image, although it is also present within languages. The reader and the original text were in communication, but the adaptation...

  11. 6. Translations: Orientalism, German romanticism and the image of Śakuntalā (pp. 197-217)

    Popular culture has a continuing tension with dominant culture; this tension is suggested within Sanskrit literature through the variant forms of the narrative of Śakuntalā as well as in adaptations in related languages. This takes on another dimension when one form is singled out as representative, translated into languages not directly related to the original, and interpreted in idioms distant from it. Frequently the new idiom carries the endorsement of those who give shape to the dominant culture and whose power is accepted by the dominated in order to be seen as legitimate.

    Upto this point the various versions of...

  12. 7. Translation: colonial views (pp. 218-237)

    To return to the British, and India. Jones’ enthusiasm was of course not shared by the English Utilitarians who had always found him too sympathetic to Indian culture. James Mill, whose endorsement of Utilitarian philosophy led him to being extremely critical of the Indian past, was one of those for whom Sanskrit literature was the literature of a self-indulgent society.135 It is only nations in their infancy that produce literature in praise of the pastoral, for such societies are fettered by despots; they can only indulge in light romances, rather than analyse their condition. The gāndharva marriage, the curse of...

  13. [Illustrations] (pp. None)
  14. 8. Śakuntalā from the perspective of middle-class nationalism (pp. 238-256)

    Initially, the prominence of the Kālidāsa play coincided with the period when some change was sought in the more oppressive customs required to be observed by women in what is called the period of social reform. Rammohun Roy was vocal in demanding the abolition of satī; for some Indians, the insistence on widow immolation was outrageous, for others it was embarrassing, but for many more it was acceptable as part of “tradition”. The gradual emergence of nationalism inevitably brought with it a selection from the past of what was regarded as the traditional role of women. This was sieved through...

  15. 9. Conclusion (pp. 257-262)

    Śakuntalā had by now changed many roles. The mother of a hero in an ākhyāna and the self-reliant woman of the Mahābhārata had been transmuted into the romantic ideal of upper caste high culture in the play by Kālidāsa, then cast as the child of nature in German Romanticism, and ended up as the ideal Hindu wife from the perspective of Indian nationalism and its perceptions of Hindu tradition. Such transmutations are closely linked to historical change which influenced the widely different forms and readings to which she had been subjected. The more recent projections of Śakuntalā proceeded essentially from...

  16. Endnotes (pp. 263-272)