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Where Greek and Indian myths collide

The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is one that has inspired artists across the centuries, but there are many similar love stories in Indian mythology which continue to ignite imaginations today.

As we prepare for the opening of Orpheus: Monteverdi reimagined, we chatted to South Asian Arts-uk about the similarities between the Orpheus myth and many of India’s best-loved tales.

Keranjeet Kaur Virdee, Chief Executive and Artistic Director, SAA-uk, says:

“While some people will be well versed in the Greek myths, there will be others who have been brought up listening to great love stories with a different cultural heritage. British Asian audience members will definitely be able to spot similarities to the tales they know as they watch the plot of Orpheus unfold on stage.”

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Ashnaa Sasikaran as Eurydice and Nicholas Watts as Orpheus. Photo credit: Tom Arber

Priyamvada and Ruru

Connections are easier to find than you might think. In Hindu mythology, Priyamvada falls victim to a snake bite just like Eurydice and, like Orpheus, her husband Ruru cannot bear to live without her. The loss is too great. He invokes Yama, the god of death, and begs for her to be released.

Eventually, Yama says that he will consider letting her go, but only if Ruru gives him something in exchange. Ruru immediately offers to give up half his life span to his wife. Yama reluctantly agrees and Priymavada returns to the land of the living where the couple are able to enjoy a future together – something denied to Orpheus and Eurydice following their ill-fated attempt at escaping the underworld.

Yama, the Hindu god of death

Savitri and Satyavan

Rather than singing and playing like Orpheus, the princess Savitri uses her wits to save her beloved. Having been granted permission by her father to choose her own suitor, she selects the woodcutter Satyavan whose father has lost both his sight and his kingdom.

Tragically, Satyavan dies on their first wedding anniversary but, undeterred, Savitri follows Yama when he takes her husband away and counters all the arguments he employs to persuade her to turn back. Yama is so impressed by her persistence and intellect that he offers to grant her anything other than Satyavan’s life. She requests the return of everything her father-in-law has lost and to be the mother of a hundred sons. Yama agrees, only to realise he’s been outwitted as he will need to restore Satyavan to life to meet the final part of Savitri’s request.

Pakistani artist Abdur Rahman Chughtai’s portrayal of Waris Shah’s Heer and Ranjha - Chughtai Museum, Lahore

Waris Shah

Both Ruru and Savitri are more successful than Orpheus in defeating death and having their true love restored to them. The tragic love tales written by Waris Shah, eighteenth century Punjabi Sufi poet, offer no such reassurance.

As in the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, Sohni Mahiwal, Sassi Punnun, Mirza Sahiba and Heer Ranjha all end without the consolation of a happy ever after. Sohni Mahiwal sees the couple perish by drowning, in Sassi Punnun the two lovers are buried under rockfall and in Mirza Sahiban, they are killed with arrows. In Heer Ranjha, it is Ranjha’s flute playing which initially attracts Heer in an echo of Orpheus’s musical skills, but they are ultimately poisoned by Heer’s uncle.

Shahbaz Hussain, Kaviraj Singh and Nicholas Watts in workshop for Orpheus © Justin Slee

Keranjeet Kaur Virdee continues:

“Looking at the links between the tales and myths in this way reveals that, whether we consider music or storytelling, there is more that unites than divides us. This holds particular significance when we consider the increasing discussions had in the media, workplaces, and schools on the importance of inclusivity.

“Despite these conversations, it may be difficult for some to envision how this could be achieved in the UK and worldwide. That’s why Orpheus could be an eye-opening moment for so many audience members, not only because it introduces the public to a rich history of cultural and artistic traditions they may have previously felt disconnected from, but also because it marks a pivotal moment in which these concepts of inclusivity, diversity, similarity, uniqueness and connection materialize effortlessly before their eyes.”

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