Savitri, painted in 1999, offers Ganesh Pyne’s interpretation of the legendary story of Satyavan and Savitri, and is one of several works created by the artist over the five decades of his career that engage with characters and episodes from the Hindu epic Mahabharata. Using the mythical tale of Savitri’s devotion as a foundation, the artist gives expression to personal experiences of love and loss, and the meditations on life and death they elicited.
Savitri, the princess of Madra, was born following her childless father’s ascetic devotion to the god Savitr, who she was named after. In addition to her father’s love and devotion that she is said to have emulated throughout her life, Savitri was also blessed with inimitable beauty and a sharp wit. Unfortunately, these traits intimidated potential suitors, and Savitri decided to set out on a pilgrimage to find her own husband. In the forest, she met and fell in love with Satyavan, the son of a blind, exiled king. When her father and the sage Narada learned of her choice, the latter revealed that despite his many virtues, Satyavan was destined to die one year from that day. Savitri, however, insisted on going ahead with the wedding. On the day of Satyavan’s prophesied demise, Yama, the god of death arrived to claim his soul. Not accepting this fate, Savitri followed Yama into the realm of the dead. Impressed with her devotion, Yama offered Savitri any two wishes apart from the return of her husband’s life. Cleverly, one of the things she asked for was that she bear a hundred children with Satyavan. Realizing that this would indirectly mean returning her husband from the dead, Yama is moved by her intellect and admits defeat, allowing Satyavan to live.
Exquisitely intertwining melancholia and beauty, Pyne portrays Savitri as a widow, dressed in her wedding finery. Wearing a red and gold sari, she is bedecked with gold necklaces, cuffs and a large nose ring, likely her trousseau, in the tradition of many Hindu widows. With her long tresses falling around her shoulders, Savitri uses one hand to steady the kalash or pot that rests on her head, while the other rests on the skeletal hand of her dead husband, whose corpse has been laid out on a funerary pyre made of branches in front of her. Conflating several Indian traditions of marriage and widowhood, including the controversial ritual of sati (whose etymology is sometimes linked to Savitri’s fabled commitment), the artist prompts us to question the ability to overcome grief and loss through devotion, and the existence of relationships that transcend time and the physical body.
Although paintings like this one draw from one of India’s greatest literary narratives, there is no “attempt to emulate or reproduce the dynamism of narrated action. There is, by contrast, a pure modernist emphasis upon the nature itself of still media, an absorption in the introspective, reflective property of the moment of viewing, a property transferred to the figures themselves, each caught up in a private act of meditation.” (S. Chaudhuri, ‘Epic of Unhappiness’, The Telegraph, 18 December 2010)
In the moment Pyne portrays in this painting, it is hard to avoid Savitri’s heavy-lidded but direct gaze. Her determination not to accept her fate and to reclaim Satyavan from the dead led Pyne not only to hope about eternal relationships, but also to contemplate the wisdom, strength and selflessness of all the women who have made sacrifices for their families through the ages. On a page of preparatory jottings for this painting Pyne quotes from the play A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney, scribbling, “Women never have young minds. They are born three thousand years old.”