The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Jun 1, 2013


Sakuntala Tapestry, by Sándor Nagy.
Part of the rising nationalism in Europe comprised in the insistence on a glorious past, often identified with great historical civilisations. The Aryans, of course, were a prime candidate for any people seeking an illustrious antecedence. The Hungarians had several models, chief among them Attila the Hun; among the others were the ancient Hindus. And so we have the 1909 tapestry by Sándor Nagy titled Sakuntala, which symbolically combines the Magyar notion of the deer as a holy symbol with that of King Dushyant's chase of the animal that led him to Sakuntala. [1]
Hunting Gentry: Stained glass window - Veszprém Theatre. (1907).

Nagy was quite fixated on deer - he also depicted the beast in a frieze and on stained glass in the Veszprém Theatre, as well as a tapestry of the goddess Ildikó (1908).

Others have been fascinated with Kalidasa' tale of the unfortunate Sakuntala. Nikolai Karamzin, the great Russian historian, translated the tale into his language, claiming that it was a literature for the world. Here he was joining the likes of Goethe, Schelling, Herder, William Jones and de Chézy, in celebrating the great poem. Indeed, Abhijñānaśākuntalam was incredibly popular - nearly 10% of all works translated from Indian literature into Russian between 1792-1965 were of it! [2]

It's not just the Hungarians who were inspired by Sakuntala.  Camille Claudel sculpted the remarkable 'Çacountala' or 'L'Abandon ou Vertumne et Pomone' between 1886 and 1905. It received much attention, and was kept in storage for several years. Claudel, of course, was channelling her own passion for Auguste Rodin. From Çacountala, she made subsequent variations, one of which is this lovely Vertumnus and Pomona:

L'Abandon ou Vertumne et Pomone, by Camille Claudel.

Closer to India, a Nepali artist delicately painted scenes from the play onto a wooden manuscript cover. Below is a small scene from it. This appears to be the only surviving manuscript cover for a purely secular work, and although there were some reservations over the identification of this work with Kalidasa's Sakuntala, a discovery in the 1980s of a mate to this cover completed the identification. [3]

Ink and colour on wood, manuscript cover from Nepal.
In India, Raja Ravi Varma's Sakuntala cycle is well-known. Here is the lady with her friends:

Shakuntala looking back to glimpse Dushyanta, by Raja Ravi Varma.

Meanwhile, music and dance saw their own manifestations of the gorgeous Sakuntala. Below is an example of Indonesian wayang (shadow-theatre) which is usually set to music. While there is evidence of indigenous story-telling predating the arrival of Hindu traders in the first century AD, much of the wayang oeuvre consists of tales from the great Hindu epics. Kisah Sakuntala, Ibu Kandung Bharata (or, The Tale of Sakuntala, the mother of Bharata) is one in the repertoire.
Sakuntala (Indonesian wayang)

One of Franz Schubert's operas is Sakontala (1820), an unfinished sketch with libretto by his friend J. P. Neumann. As late as 2000, one writer had written, "[Sakuntala] remains to this day the one and only Schubert stage work of which not one note has been performed for the public, anywhere, ever."[4] (This is not quite correct: a German television programme featuring Mallika Sarabhai's dance company had this music, and there have been some productions as well in the 1970s.)

Between 1913 and 1914, the sufi Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927) visited Russia. He was received with much warmth in artistic circles, and he produced a ballet there titled 'Sakuntala'. The director Alexander Tairov had set up a new theatre; it was his hope to synthesise a multi genre spectacle. Inayat Khan's idea of a mystic balletic performance of Sakuntala appealed to Tairov. The music for the spectacle was arranged by Vladimir Pol. The New Theatre opened the production on 25 December 1914, with the title role played by Alisa Koonen. This wasn't a classical ballet but rather a dance interspersed with dramatic movements. Tairov wanted to present the production to the Czar, which sadly never happened. For a long time the music was thought to have been lost, but in 1991, it was found among various other documents at the Glinka Museum of Musical Culture. Three years later, a quartet of the Russian academy of music performed the piece. [5]

In 1889, Frederick Delius (1862-1935) set poetry by a Dane called Holger Henrik Herholdt Drachmann to music. A Dane! Who would have thunk it? Here's the first stanza of the poem:

Jeg kunde for Længsel ej sove,
En Blomstervind
Slog mig imod,
Strømmed herind ad mit Vindu
Som en vellugtaandende Flod;
Jeg hørte de høje Palmer
Suse svagt
Med sød Musik;
Det hvisked ihvor jeg stod og gik:
  Sakuntala, Sakuntala.

(I could not sleep for longing, a flower wind struck me ... )

It seems Drachmann had seen a staging of Kalidasa's play in Munich, and was struck by the parallels between his own ruined marriage and that of Sakuntala. [6]

Not to be left behind, the Italians got into the act as well. Here's Franco Alfano's 'La leggenda di Sakùntala', first act. He wrote it in 1921.

And that's it for now!


1. Jeremy Howard, Art Nouveau: International and National Styles in Europe, Manchester University Press, 1996.
2. Susmita Sundaram, 'Translating India, constructing self' in (ed.) Brian James, Contexts, Subtexts and Pretexts: Literary Translations in Eastern Europe and Russia, John Benjamins Publishing, 2011.
3. (ed.) Martin Lerner, The Flame and the Lotus: Indian and Southeast Asian Art from the Kronos Collections (p. 90), Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1984.
4. Uncle Dave Lewis, 'Franz Schubert: Sakontala',
5. Cyclowiki, Shakuntala ballets (in Russian).
6. Hattie Anderson, 'Vilhelmine, the Muse of Sakuntala', The Delius Society Journal, Spring 2000, Number 127. (See here for PDF.)


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