Consider the Deer, and Other Explorations Nature in Kalidasa’s Sakuntala

Susan Haris

Independent Researcher

Volume 2, Number 2, 2017 I Full Text PDF

Article DOI:  10.21659/bp.v2n2.11

We can only describe, only remain within the work, if we also decide to go beyond it; to bring out, for example, what the work is compelled to say [… W]e must show a sort of splitting within the work; this division in its unconscious, is so far as it possesses one – the unconscious which is history beyond its edges, encroaching on those edges: this is why it is possible to trace the path which leads from the haunted work to that which haunts it. (p.94) Pierre Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production (1978)

Raja Ravi Varma’s famous painting Shakuntala Looking for Dushyanta (1870) features Shakuntala and her two friends dressed in orange robes- shapely sensual figures foregrounded against a mesh of green. Critical discussions show how she is pinned to a position of erotic desire by the male gaze, causing the active female gaze of Shakuntala to be under-read because she is foregrounded against a green nature. Traditionally Shakuntala is interpreted as the passive female who suffers for the king’s amorous pursuit, and must depend on her male child with imperial birth marks to be ultimately recognized. This paper attempts to analyse categories of nature and culture by charting the slippages, the aporia of the site occupied by the animals, and re-imagine the relationship between Shakuntala and nature.

Shakuntala is referred to as the ‘deer’ who ‘enticed the hero of our play’ signalling an elision of categories. Through the play we encounter nature and the heroine exchanging places, standing in for each other and avoiding easy symbolisms. Thus if we both can exist in the same time-space continuum then we have to attribute more qualities to the deer other than the ‘animal’ or a ‘thingness’ (Chakrabarty, 2000, p.77). The deer is not a symbol for Shakuntala; it exists in itself.

The first Act is formulated in the mode of a hunt, with a literal hunt paralleling the figurative pursuit of Shakuntala by Dushyanta. The charioteer sees the King as God who can ‘hunt the spotted deer with shafts to end his race’. In the framework of a hunt, the moral responsibility falls on the deer which leads the king on ‘a long chase’ as if the pursuer is pursuing only because of the pursued. While the deer cannot speak, the narrative suggests that the deer is pursued because it makes the king chase it. This causal relationship is always inverted in the hunt: the hunt derives its meaning from the intended prey, and is a kind of destructive agency- a posthumous agency; an agency granted to foreclose it in the event of its death. Further, to extract rights and responsibilities, the hunted has to be objectified to draw them in relation to the object of the hunt. The narrative thus privileges the rights and duties of the king and the charioteer in styling the hunt as a social custom…Full Text PDF>>