A Scene from a Sanskrit Drama: Mary Symonds’s painting of the Śakuntalā

On February 7th, 1803, Mary wrote to her sister, Hetty, about a recent artistic project:

I have been very busy drawing some more such fine figures as I sent you by [William] Templer, but this set is for Sir T[homas] Strange, and he has requested me make him some little sketches from a book which was translated by Sir William Jones. He is going to send it home as a present to his sister in law, and this I have had the presumption to undertake.

“He has requested me make him some little sketches from a book which was translated by Sir William Jones”:
From Mary Symonds to her sister, Henrietta “Hetty” Symonds James, February 7, 1803.

Sir Thomas Andrew Lumisden Strange (1756–1841) served as Chief Justice of the Madras supreme court from 1800 to 1817 and was, thus, Henry Gwillim’s superior for the duration of the Gwillims’ time in India. It must have been through this connection that Strange encountered Mary Symonds’s paintings and, per Symonds’s letter, “admired [her work] so much that he begged” her to produce a series of illustrations to accompany a book that he intended to gift to his sister-in-law. 

But which book was Symonds asked to illustrate? On this point, translator Sir William Jones’s publications and Symonds’s extant watercolours appear to coincide. William Jones (1746–1794) was a philologist, a judge at Calcutta’s court from 1783, and the founder of the Bengal Asiatic Society in 1784. At Oxford, he had learned Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, and Persian, and, when in India, he learned Sanskrit; writing to Lord Teignmouth in 1787, he stated: “You would be astonished at the resemblance between that language [Sanskrit] and both Greek and Latin.” Endeavouring to introduce the British to India’s literature, he translated various Sanskrit texts into English. The most well-known and influential of these is likely Jones’s translation of the Abhijñānaśākuntalam, the celebrated fifth-century drama by Indian playwright Kālidāsa. Jones’s translation, entitled Śakuntalā; or, The Fatal Ring and published in 1799, was so popular among Western scholars that, in the next seven years, it was reprinted three times in Britain and retranslated into French, German, and Italian. Goethe famously praised the play and adopted its opening conceit for his own Faust, while Jones––and many since––deemed Kālidāsa the “Indian Shakespeare.”

The title page of an 1870 reprint of Jones’s translation, London: Walter Scott Publishing, 1870.

Symonds’s letter divulges nothing beyond the fact that William Jones was the translator of the book in question, but one watercolour painting in the Madras Album (The South Asia Collection, Norwich) offers a clue. Depicting three Indian women and two Brahmin priests gathered together in a wooded area, the image is inscribed “Scene from a Sanskrit Drama.” The arrangement of characters can be identified with scenes from the Śakuntalā––a Sanskrit drama. It’s likely, thus, that Sir Thomas Strange asked Symonds to illustrate a copy of Jones’s Śakuntalā and this image is one extant example of her work. 

Scene from a Sanskrit Drama, Madras Album, The South Asia Collection, PIC106.39.

The tale of the Śakuntalā charts the relationship between the titular character, Śakuntalā, the adopted daughter of a Brahmin sage, and Dushyanta, the emperor of India. After the latter comes across Śakuntalā in her sacred grove, where she is accompanied by her two female attendants (Anusuya and Priyamvada), Śakuntalā and Dushyanta fall in love, are married, and intend for Śakuntalā to move into the emperor’s palace. The conflict arises, however, when Śakuntalā is cursed by an old sage: angered that Śakuntalā, distracted by infatuation, has ignored him, the sage declares that Śakuntalā’s new husband will not recognize her unless she presents him with the ring that he gave her prior to his return to the palace. Matters are further complicated when this ring––Jones’s titular Fatal Ring––is lost in a river and swallowed by a fish.  

The scene depicted in Scene from a Sanskrit Drama can be correlated with the events of Act IV in the Śakuntalā. In this act, Śakuntalā’s two female attendants dress Śakuntalā in her bridal clothes; Śakuntalā has married and is about to relocate to Dushyanta’s palace in Hastinapura. In Symonds’s watercolour, the central, seated woman must be Śakuntalā, and the standing and kneeling women must be her attendants, Anusuya and Priyamvada. This scene occurs after the sage has cursed Śakuntalā but before Śakuntalā loses the ring, and we can see that Symonds has depicted a gold ring on the woman’s left hand––this is almost certainly intended to represent the “fatal ring,” given to Śakuntalā by Dushyanta and by which, per the curse, he will be able to recognize her. Other elements of the illustration also draw upon the text. In the drama, Anusuya says to Śakuntalā, “Now you must be patient, whilst I bind on a charm to secure your happiness”; Symonds may have represented this through depicting Anusuya fixing Śakuntalā’s hair––she may be ‘binding on’ the hair ornament. The action in the drama, as in the illustration, takes place outdoors, by the hermitage of Śakuntalā’s adoptive father, Kanva (referred to in Jones’s translation as Canna). Per the drama, the attendants have collected flowers with which to adorn Śakuntalā, and Symonds has painted several lotus flowers, a species often mentioned in the drama, on the ground. As reflected in the standing figure, possibly Priyamvada, the attendants are also said to be carrying baskets, and they cry while dressing Śakuntalā (“Both damsels burst into tears as they dress her”––Symonds has depicted a single tear dangling from the kneeling attendant’s eye). The water pot in the lower left may be a reference to Act I; spying Śakuntalā and her attendants, Dushyanta says: “There are some damsels, I see, belonging to the hermit’s family, who carry water–pots of different sizes proportioned to their strength, and are going to water the delicate plants.” 

The two men may be Śakuntalā’s adoptive father, Kanva, and his Pupil, or they may be the two Brahmin men, Sárngarava and Sáradwata, asked to accompany Śakuntalā to Dushyanta’s palace. In Act IV, it is noted that “Canna’s Pupil enters with rich clothes,” woven by wood nymphs for Śakuntalā (whose mother is a nymph). The Pupil says, “Be attentive. The venerable sage gave this order: ‘Bring fresh flowers for Sakuntala from the most beautiful trees;’ and suddenly the wood nymphs appeared, raising their hands, which rivalled new leaves in beauty and softness. Some of them wove a lower mantle bright as the moon, the presage of her felicity; another pressed the juice of Lácshà to stain her feet exquisitely red; the rest were busied in forming the gayest ornaments; and they eagerly showered their gifts on us.” The standing Brahmin man may be the Pupil, holding the new mantle, while the seated man may represent Kanva. In this scene in the Śakuntalā, the Pupil exits after he gifts the nymphs’ dress to Śakuntalā for the express purpose of calling over Kanva, such that the sage might see the evidence of the wood nymphs’ good will. As such, the Pupil and Kanva wouldn’t appear on stage simultaneously in this scene. It’s possible, though, that Symonds took an artistic liberty, presenting something like a synoptic representation of the narrative in order to include more information than would be possible in an image conforming to standard temporality.

Notably, Symonds’s watercolour occupies a singular locus in the art history of the Śakuntalā. This painting is likely one of the earliest illustrations, if not the earliest, of Jones’s translation of the Śakuntalā, and, consequently, it may be the earliest non-Indian illustration of the drama. That Strange asked Symonds to paint scenes from the drama implies that Jones’s translation, four years after its publication, remained bereft of illustrations. Not until 1817 did Thomas Daniell (1749–1840), prominent illustrator of Indian landscapes, depict “The Hermit Kanwa discovering the sleeping Shakuntala on the banks of the River Malanee,” but, even so, Daniell’s scene wasn’t taken from the Kālidāsa drama––instead, it was drawn from from Sir Charles Wilkins’s translation of part of the Mahabharata, an ancient epic Sanskrit poem. 

Given that Symonds’s painting may be the first of its kind, it’s worthwhile to consider its potential reference points. We know from her correspondence, and can guess from inscriptions on the Madras Album, that Symonds made certain paintings by copying prints: in 1806, she wrote to Hetty, “I have been trying to work in body colours a little lately, and I send you a specimen of my performance in a copy I have made of a holy family from a print.” What sorts of images might she have referenced when painting the Śakuntalā

Several ancient illustrations of the Śakuntalā, if tentative in their identification, have been located. Sir John Marshall’s 1909–10 excavations at Bhita uncovered a round terracotta plaque, dated to the Śunga period (c. 2nd to 1st century BCE), depicting a four-horse chariot, a shrine, a tank with lotuses and a figure drawing water, and two deer. Some scholars believe that this scene represents the story of Śakuntalā, which would indicate that the plaque’s artist as well as Kālidāsa drew on a common, well-known narrative. Marshall’s 1911–12 excavation in Bhita additionally uncovered a fragment of a slate plaque proposed to depict a scene from the Śakuntalā, and a portion of the frieze in the upper verandah of the Ranigumpha cave (a two-storey monastery) in Orissa (now Odisha) also might depict a hunting scene from (what would later become) Act I. The Bhita reliefs were excavated after Symonds’s time, of course, and we have no reason to believe that she visited Odisha––and, more to the point, her illustration doesn’t resemble any of the ancient images––but these early artefacts evidence the longevity of the visual tradition into which Symonds’s illustration enters. 

Early modern miniatures depicting the Śakuntalā appear to be few, but the National Museum, New Delhi, holds some examples from the eighteenth century. An illustrated Hindu manuscript, dated to 1788–9, features texts by the poet Niwaza and was possibly designed in Pune for the Bhonsle court in Nagpur. Its imagery is frieze-like.

Another series of mid-eighteenth-century illustrations held at the National Museum depicts numerous scenes from the Śakuntalā. In the image below, painted in the Pahari style in Nalagarh, Priyamvada brings a tray of cosmetics to adorn Shakuntala

Priyamvada brings a tray of cosmetics to adorn Shakuntala, mid-18th century, National Museum, New Delhi, via Google Arts & Culture.

Although the style and composition of the scene both differ from those of Symonds’s painting, the depiction of Śakuntalā as seated and surrounded by other seated attendants, while a standing attendant brings adornments, may have influenced Symonds’s image. Even if Symonds had not seen this particular image, she may have come across examples of the broader pictorial tradition in which this image fits: that of the toilette scene. Toilette images, popular across many cultures and eras, depict women applying makeup, tending to their hair, and getting dressed––generally, readying their appearance. Artists in seventeenth- through nineteenth-century India produced no shortage of toilette images: 

The genre is noteworthy for its exemplars’ fairly strong adherence to convention. In many of these images, women are seen either tending to their hair or having their hair arranged by an attendant. These attendants, always other women, are also often shown bringing cosmetic items, wielding fans or fly whisks, or holding up a mirror in which the central woman observes her reflection. This latter convention, pictorially intriguing in its creation of a picture-within-a-picture (not quite a mise-en-abyme, but a doubling nonetheless), serves to accentuate a toilette scene’s emphasis on the construction and appraisal of the central woman’s appearance. The effect also adds an element of introspection, insofar as we view not simply the woman but the woman viewing, and contemplating, herself. 

Symonds’s Scene from a Sanskrit Drama may have taken inspiration from the tradition of the toilette scene in India. Jones’s translation of the play does not state that one of Śakuntalā’s attendants arranges her hair; instead, we learn that Anusuya “bind[s] on a charm to secure [her] happiness” and that both women dress Śakuntalā and adorn her garments with flowers. Symonds may have interpreted the former action as one of affixing a charm to Śakuntalā’s hair, and she may have thought to do so in order to format her illustration according to the conventions of an Indian toilette scene. The decision to show a group of characters composed around the central figure may also draw on the toilette tradition in India, but that arrangement featured frequently in Western toilette paintings, too––depictions of Bathsheba at her bath or Venus, for instance, often feature the central figure accompanied by her retinue of female attendants. Although it is entirely possible that Symonds was not familiar with the conceit of the painted mirror (a common feature across Western toilette scenes, too), it is also possible that she chose to eschew this convention to avoid suggesting Śakuntalā’s vanity. 

Symonds’s image evidently draws on non-Indian antecedents, too, which is perhaps especially visible in the variegated colouring and dimensional modelling of her figures. Where India’s Mughal miniatures, perhaps especially those in the Pahari style, often deploy planes of bright, minimally differentiated colour, Symonds both attempts naturalistic colouring (depicting leaves, for instance, with various shades of green, brown, and beige) and uses highlights and shading to communicate how three-dimensional forms appear when interacting with light. In the nineteenth century, artists in India produce new illustrations of the Śakuntalā, often exhibiting the influence of Western aesthetic conventions in oil painting: 

Shakuntala Removing Thorn From Foot, 1898, Raja Ravi Varma, Sri Chitra Art Gallery, via Wikipedia Commons.

These paintings, however, postdate Symonds’s watercolour; while Symonds may have produced an image anticipating this trend, her points of reference must be earlier. Perhaps the most significant store of British or European-style paintings of Indian women, if not shown exclusively at their toilette, arose from the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century trend of painting the women referred to as bibis, the ‘wives’ or companions of British men in India. Mildred Archer stated in her 1979 India and British Portraiture, 1770–1825 that, towards the end of the late eighteenth century, “many of the older Company servants still lived settled lives with unofficial Indian wives or bibis,” following the reasoning that the number of English women in India was ‘insufficient’ and that it was too expensive to marry and “maintain in India in relative comfort” an English woman. Bibis thus entered into the artistic record. In Picturing Imperial Power, Beth Fowkes Tobin states that “some of the paintings of bibis as the common-law wives of British men belong to the genre of portraits of favorite mistresses; other paintings of bibis, husbands, their children, and extended families are family conversation pieces, much like [Johan] Zoffany’s The Family of Sir William Young” (23). Hermionede de Almeida and George H. Gilpin, in Indian Renaissance: British Romantic Art and the Prospect of India, emphasize the difference between the genre conventions of the bibi portrait and the portrait of the English noble: while the latter genre portrayed its subjects as “stiff” and “upright,” portraits of bibis were, conversely, “sensual,” with sitters often shown wearing jewelry, with a hookah, reclining, and barefoot. Tobin, however, argues these paintings presented an appealing alternative to “British bourgeois notions of domesticity… [and] femininity” (117).

The character of Śakuntalā is not, of course, a bibi, but, if seeking depictions of Indian women in the British or European style, Symonds may have had to turn to bibi portraits. Perhaps the most likely candidate for a painting to which Symonds may have directly referred is a work by Francesco Renaldi, an English-born artist of Italian parentage. The painting in question is currently known as Muslim Lady Reclining, dated to 1789, and held at the Yale Center for British Art (New Haven).

Muslim Lady Reclining by Francesco Renaldi, 1789, Yale Center for British Art.

This painting has had different titles in the past––An Indian Girl with a Hookah, signed and dated 1789 and An Indian lady reclining on a rug and a cushion, presumably the bibi of an Englishman living in Dacca––and, importantly, it may be a painting that Renaldi exhibited at the Royal Academy in London. In 1791, Renaldi showed a painting at the RA entitled Portrait of a Mogul lady, and in 1797 he showed another Portrait of a Mogul lady (or the first again, if he had significantly altered it) as well as a work titled Portrait of an Industany lady. Muslim Lady Reclining could be any of these works; if it is, it is likely that Symonds encountered it. But while the seated pose of the woman in Muslim Lady Reclining may have loosely inspired the posture of Symonds’s Śakuntalā––in the sense that a robust visual memory could, possibly, have allowed for the influence––Renaldi’s woman’s face appears to be quite similar to that of Symonds’s standing attendant (perhaps the character of Priyamvada). The high forehead, parting and arrangement of the hair, and small features of Symonds’s woman seem to significantly recall those of Renaldi’s painting. Although Renaldi had left India by the time the Gwillims arrived (he relocated in 1796), it is not impossible that Symonds referred directly to a copy of Renaldi’s Muslim Lady Reclining while in Madras. Mildred Archer notes in India and British portraiture, 1770-1825 that the Lucknow Museum holds a signed copy by an Indian artist––Wazir Khân, according to Selvam Thorez––of another of Renaldi’s paintings of a woman with a hookah, and there exists yet another copy of it, too, in a private collection. Perhaps a copy had been made of Renaldi’s Muslim Lady Reclining, too, and perhaps, by 1803, it had made its way to Madras, such that Symonds could have referred to it. (This is a speculative proposal, but it is possible––many paintings, from both England and India, remain unknown or do not survive.)

Portrait of a bibi, after Francesco Renaldi, Lucknow, c. 1792–1795. London, Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, mss. 808. © Khalili Family Trust, London. Shared with permission.

Symonds’s Scene from a Sanskrit Drama is just one extant illustration from what was once, surely, a series. Did the rest of Symonds’s paintings of the Śakuntalā pass into the possession of Sir Thomas Strange, as intended? Did they make their way to his sister-in-law, becoming part of a much-admired gift and bringing to life, for at least one audience, the world of the Śakuntalā? One day, we may come across the remainder of Symonds’s illustrations and so raise the curtain on one long-forgotten iteration of a Sanskrit drama.


By Hana Nikčević