Vyasa’s Shakuntala is a female hero in Indian mythology
The importance of female heroes in Indian mythology is underrated. Author of Shakuntala Utkarsh Patel explains why in conversation with Jumana Shah & Harita Dave
For last couple years general Indian English readers are celebrating books on Indian mythology and their reinterpretations, here is Utkarsh Patel, teacher of comparative mythology in the University of Mumbai, who has come up with his first book – ‘Shakuntala – The woman wronged’. Of course it is a mythological novel, but unlike others the hero of the book is Shakuntala – a female hero. In conversation with dna’s Jumana Shah and Harita Dave, the writer talks about his novel, his take on female heroes in Indian mythology. Excerpts
There is a perception that Shakuntala is a character written by Kalidasa. Your book claims otherwise.
The story first appears in Mahabharata. In Mahabharata, Shakuntala’s story is different than the Kalidasa’s version. This is one of the first stories of Mahabharata and also the character of Shakuntala is very very different from what we know. She is a very strong, individualistic and fiery woman. We see her in Kalidasa’s version as somebody who is very sad and distressed. She is left behind by her husband but she doesn’t protest. It was not like that.
She was brought up as a strong person. She knows her family background, she knows her father abandoned her and how her mother had to leave her. She was brought up by a foster father sage Kanva. Knowing all this she has sort of grown up ahead of time. And she is never very sad, and stressed in life. She is very strong, and that’s the story I am trying to bring out through this book. Vyasa’s version of Shankutala.
What is the different between Ved Vyasa’s and Kalidasa’s version of Shakuntala?
In Mahabharat, the character of Dushyant is not well written, he is shown as somebody who used Shakuntala, left and forgot her. In Kalidasa’s version he has forgotten her because of rishi Druvasa’s curse. This entire thing is an interpolation. The entire aspect of rishi Durwasa is something that Kalidasa introduced. It was not there in the original story. In the original story Dushayant just had a nice time with her in the jungles and forgets about her. But, she goes back and reminds him about the fact that they were married; reminds him about the fact that he had promised that their son will be the next king.
Their last interaction is very strong. She gives a long speech about what is a woman’s position in a man’s life. What is the position of a wife in a husband’s life and the fact that a husband should never treat his wife the way he has. That is a long speech and Vyasa had brought it out very beautifully in his original. I have only recreated this entire drama as written by Vyasa.
Shakuntala’s character is a very bichari kind of a character in Kalidasa version. If you see Vyasa, he never creates female characters as a bichari. If you look at Satyavati, majority of us see her as the first female character as a very strong lady in terms of her bargaining qualities. So be it Satyavati, be it Draupadi, be it Kunti, these are very strong female characters in Mahabharat. Shakuntala belongs to that genre.
What do you seek to achieve by writing this novel?
I teach comparative mythology at the University of Mumbai. While teaching I come across lots of female students in my class and one question keeps coming across is how come there are no female heroes in our mythology. We have Hercules in Greek, we have Perseus in Greek, we have Rama, Krishna in the Indian mythology, we have spiritual section, we have Jesus, and we have Gautam Buddha. How come all the heroes are men and why there are no female heroes. So, that set me to research and I realised there really weren’t any female heroes.
What is happening in the mythological space today is a lot of people write a lot of things which is not necessarily mythology. I am only trying to tell people that this is a mythological novel. Not many knew the original story of Shakuntala. All of us are being brought up reading Kalidasa’s version of Shakuntala, which by itself is a literary masterpiece. I am only trying to tell people that here is the original version. It’s good to have a different version.
There are already so many versions of Mahabharata and Ramayana. Do you feel mythology needs to be re invented with every generation?
Every generation needs to know about mythology because it is your past. Would you like to reinterpret it in a different way? Probably at times to make it more relevant, you need to. If I can contemporize it, then probably it goes home better, I sort of relate to it better, but can you change it? Drastically? I have my opinion against it. I would not want to look at you tampering it to such an extent that I forget what is original. That should not happen, in the name of mythology, in the name of reinterpreting it. There are many versions of Mahabharat to be seen from various perspectives so I might write a story, which sees Mahabharata from Draupadi’s perspective. We must accept the fact that it is a perspective; it is not the original. You can’t reinvent something which still exists and let the new generation think this is it. I think that’s not correct.
But do you think in past it would not have been done? May not be the right one.
Possible, as I said, Valmiki’s version did not have the most famous version of Agnee Pariksha of Sita, he didn’t find it necessary, Sita just goes home. Tulsidas was probably the first one who brought it in Ramacharit Manas. It stuck on. Why? Because it’s a patriarchal society we want to look at it that way, I don’t want to trust a woman. At least when you give a version let people know what the original is. I don’t want the original to be forgotten. Today I know the fact that agnee pariksha does not exist in Valmiki’s version; somebody introduced it. I am ok with that but have I forgotten Valmiki’s version? I don’t want his version to be forgotten. Good, bad, ugly, whatever it is. In my book, I have let the original version be known, I have also spoken about the version that Kalidasa created and why and we mustn’t overlook the fact that Kalidasa’s version is a master piece in literature.
Who do you think is the audience of your work?
Younger generation, especially young females. As I have many reviews from females, who found a new perspective to it and one of the readers wrote back to me I loved the book so much that I want to read the entire Mahabharata now.
Why is a female hero in Mythology important?
There is a paucity of role models in the world. Today, if girls talk of heroes, who do they emulate? If I ask you who is your hero as a lady? You might not have any, but if you ask young men, they will talk of Chhota Bheem, Hercules, Thor, Odin, Perseus, Persy Jackson; kids are reading Harry Potter. What are the girls relating to?
So where are heroes for females and why not? If everybody is talking of writing about Rama, Krishna, Hanuman, Bheem, nobody is writing on the females and I think it is important that the females also figure out that there is so much to look upto.
I do agree as a teacher of mythology that mythology was written by men for the men. But, somewhere people like Vyasa have created very strong female characters. Why are we overlooking them?
That’s the whole objective.
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