While interpreting the theme of the painting, the reasoning mind might find it difficult to conciliate with any of these two contentions in regard to the figure’s identity. A young girl with such rare beauty and high birth playing with a ball in a remote forest with no habitation around, all alone and unattended, appears to be improbable. This improbability further deepens with the style of her ensemble – a rich sari worked heavily with gold and worn so casually, certainly not for sporting, and that too, under a sky covered with heavy clouds and on a marshy land with shrubs overgrown. Alike, texts talk of celestial nymphs, as was Menaka, being sportive, playing various games, also the games played with balls, in the court of Indra, for entertainment as also for displaying their charms and pleasing manners, but in the known body of texts a specific event alluding to a nymph descending on the earth and playing there with a ball or balls does not occur. Thus, interpreted either way, it little satisfies the mind.
‘A lady with a ball’ is anybody’s caption of the painting. However, if the options are two : a high-born young girl playing with a ball all alone in an uninhabited forest with clouds hovering over from all sides, and a celestial nymph descending on the earth and playing with a ball, the latter appears to be more probable. Scriptures abound in tales of superhuman beings, nymphs and others, descending on the earth from time to time and functioning like human beings. Not towns, natural surroundings are invariably such celestial beings’ resorts. Obviously, the painting might be seen as portraying the Menaka-theme, the playful ‘apsara’ of Indra, the king of gods, one of his six principal nymphs, the other five being Urvashi, Purvachitti, Sahajanya, Ghratachi, and Vishvachi. They were Indra’s tool for destroying the penance of his opponents.
A sage, named Vishvamitra, an erstwhile king, who by his fifty thousand years long penance and the spiritual powers acquired thereby was turning into a potent danger for Indra. He hence deployed Menaka, the most seductive nymph of Indra-loka for corrupting his penance. As instructed, Menaka reached where Vishvamitra was performing penance. She is said to have made all seductive efforts to break Vishvamitra’s meditation to include dancing, singing, sporting, and sensually exposing her body, its lustre and youthfulness, while resorting to sports and music, as also otherwise, but the mind of the noble sage remained fixed into him and did not shake. As the tradition has it, it was after years of her sensuous maneuvering that sage Vishvamitra opened his eyes and enchanted by her voluptuous beauty submitted to her desire and united with her, and with this the objective of Menaka’s ascendance on the earth was fulfilled. It is very likely that Menaka, in her many years long maneuvering, which included sporting, she might have resorted to playing with balls for it not only gave her opportunity to let his sari slip sensually exposing her figure, sensuous breasts, recessed belly, and the region below the waist but also revealed a mischievous innocence and adolescence.
The absence of the figure of Vishvamitra alone disturbs this Menaka analogy for in the entire body of Indian art, sculpture or painting, Menaka is hardly ever portrayed without the figure of the noble sage, more so because it also affords the painting illustrative stretch revealing one of the India’s best known myths. However, the modern mind deleted this narrative aspect of the theme and preferred painting her focusing on her person, youthfulness and aura, and all her splendour, independent and all alone, with nothing that distracted the viewing eye from the main figure, except the nature around, as sensuous as she herself – distant hill-range, river with lotuses drowsing on its quiet waters, spiky cypresses, a mist-covered huge tree behind, rocks, and a patch of bluish clouds towards which she has tossed one of her colourful balls, while other two are lying on the ground. While tossing the ball her sari has rolled down on the ground giving her person a magical dimension.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of literature and is the author of numerous books on Indian art and culture. Dr. Daljeet is the curator of the Miniature Painting Gallery, National Museum, New Delhi. They have both collaborated together on a number of books.