Shakuntala

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Shakuntala comic book [[1]]


Contents

Verses and Translations


Shakutala, Act I, Verse 9 (King)

Translation No. 1

Barbara Stoler Miller, in Longman Anthology of World Literature, Volume A, 2nd Edition, pp. 950

What is small suddenly looms large,
split forms seem to reunite,
bent shapes straighten before my eyes --
from the chariot's speed
nothing ever stays distant or near.


Translation No. 2

C.R. Devadhar and N.G. Suru, in Abhijnanasakuntalam of Kalidasa. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1934. pp. 8

Objects which to my sight appeared minute suddenly become large; what was really divided, seems united; and what was in truth bent appears straight to my eyes. So swift the motion of the chariot, that nothing even for a moment seems either near or distant.

Shakuntala, Act IV, Verse 17 (Kanva)

Translation No. 1

Barbara Stoler Miller, in Longman Anthology of World Literature, Volume A, 2nd Edition, pp. 977

Obey your elders, be a friend to the other wives!
If your husband seems harsh, don't be impatient!
Be fair to your servants, humble in your happiness!
Women who act this way become noble wives;
sullen girls only bring their families disgrace.


Translation No. 2

C.R. Devadhar and N.G. Suru, in Abhijnanasakuntalam of Kalidasa. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1934. pp. 120

Pay respectful attention to thy elders; treat thy rivals as thy dear friends; should thy husband wrong thee, let not thy resentment lead thee to disobedience. Be ever courteous towards thy servants; not puffed with pride in thy fortune. By such behaviour, young women become honoured wives; but perverse wives are the bane of a family.

Shakuntala, Act V, Verse 12 (Sarngarava)

Translation No. 1

Barbara Stoler Miller, in Longman Anthology of World Literature, Volume A, 2nd Edition, pp. 982

Boughs bend, heavy with ripened fruit,
clouds descend with fresh rain,
noble men are gracious with wealth --
this is the nature of bountiful things.


Translation No. 2

C.R. Devadhar and N.G. Suru, in Abhijnanasakuntalam of Kalidasa. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1934. pp. 139

These become bend down by the abundance of their fruit: clouds hang low when they teem with fresh rain; good men are never elated by riches; this is the very nature of the benefactors of others.


Translation No. 3

Guy Leavitt (Preceptor in Sanskrit, Harvard University), Sanskrit Meters and Verses Handout, 2007. pp. 8

With their harvest of fruit, trees bend down.
With fresh rain, clouds hang very low.
With wealth, good people become humble.
[All who] benefit others have the same nature.

Shakuntala, Act VII, Verse 32 (Marica)

Translation No. 1

Barbara Stoler Miller, in Longman Anthology of World Literature, Volume A, 2nd Edition, pp. 1008

You were rejected when the curse
that clouded memory made him cruel,
but now darkness is lifted
and your power is restored --
a shadow has no shape
in a badly tarnished mirror,
but when the surface is clean
it can easily be seen.


Translation No. 2

C.R. Devadhar and N.G. Suru, in Abhijnanasakuntalam of Kalidasa. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1934. pp. 242

Thou wast rejected in consequence of the curse, thy husband being cruel to thee through the obstruction of his memory; but now when his mind is freed from darkness, thou alone wilt rule him. As an image has no effect on a mirror whose surface is sullied with dirt, but on a clean one finds an easy access.

The Gupta Empire


Geography

In the fourth and fifth centuries of the Common Era, a series of rulers with the name “Gupta” governed a large expanse of the north Indian subcontinent. [1]The first Gupta monarch ascended the throne of the capital city of Pataliputra in the year 320 CE, and it was only seventy years later that his successor found himself king of almost the entirety of northern India.[2] Rapid geographical expansion aside, the most significant physical change in the empire was the shift of its capital from Pataliputra to the city of Ujjain – a place well documented in the work of the poet and playwright Kalidasa[3] – during the reign of the third Gupta monarch. [4]


The Gupta Empire dramatically changed the South Asian political landscape. Seemingly overnight, an area that for centuries had been under the “foreign rule” of the Scythians, Persians, and Greco-Bactrians became subject to “native Indian” governance.[5] Locals thought of them as the “lords of [the north-eastern region of] Magadha”[6], but the Guptas reached far beyond that: a pillar inscription in the city of Allahabad reveals that by the time of the reign of the second Gupta monarch, nearly all of the Indian subcontinent was considered to be within the Gupta Empire.[7]

Who Were the Guptas?

It is the second and the third Gupta emperors in particular who may take responsibility for this period of expansion and political unity: Samudragupta (c. 330-380), [8] and Chandragupta II (c. 380-415), his successor. [9]


Samudragupta is perhaps best known for his political accomplishments. Like other rulers, he assumed the title of Chakravartin, or “wheel-turner,” a name that refers to a king’s imperative to circle the earth clockwise until he, like the sun, has enclosed it with his sacred perambulation. [10] In other words, Samudragupta conquered and expanded. To more firmly establish his foothold over the Indian subcontinent, he undertook the first horse sacrifice that had been performed in centuries: this “prestigious” Vedic sacrifice served to “confirm the performer in the high kingship.” [11] The horse sacrifice was not the only example of Samudragupta’s devotion to Vedic culture and ritual: he seems to have strived to reinvigorate Vedic elements of religious culture that he considered to have been forgotten during the preceding period of “foreign” rule and the rise of Buddhism. [12]


Chandragupta II, who also bore the title of Vikramaditya,[13] has come to be known for his establishment of the capital city of Ujjain,[14] and for his patronage of the arts – patronage that was likely to have included a partnership with Kalidasa.[15] Perhaps it was this courtly life to which the Chinese traveler Fa Hsein referred when he called Chandragupta’s kingdom “prosperous and happy.”[16] Chandragupta balanced a “bureaucratic” style of government with a more “familial” style that allowed him to appoint members of the royal family to govern newly-conquered lands while maintaining a central ministerial hub.[17]


Chandragupta II was succeeded by Kumaragupta (c. 415-455) who was, in turn, succeeded by Skandagupta (c. 455-467). After his reign, the Gupta dynasty appears to have disappeared as quickly as it came. [18] It is thus within the context of Samudragupta and Chandragupta II (and, to some extent, Kumaragupta) that we discuss the royal court in which Kalidasa’s work seems to have played so important a role.

India’s “Classical Age"


Arts, Sciences, and Forest Retreats

“King Vikramaditya,” writes Arthur Ryder in reference to Chandragupta II, “was a great patron of learning and poetry. Ujjain during his reign was the most brilliant capital in the world… Among the eminent men gathered there, nine were particularly distinguished, and these nine are known as the ‘nine gems.’ Some of the nine gems were poets, other represented science – astronomy, medicine, lexicography…Ujjain in the days of Vikramaditya stands worthily beside Athens, Rome, Florence, and London in their great centuries.”[19] It’s a romantic image, no doubt, but it seems to contain more than just a kernel of truth: other sources confirm the prominence of Ujjain in this period,[20] noting especially the emergence of artistic forms such as drama[21] and painting.[22]


In fact, much of what we know about courtly life under Samudragupta, Chandragupta II, and Kumaragupta comes from the art – both visual and literary – that was created in those years. Daniel H. H. Ingalls writes that “it is in [Kalidasa’s] words that we first meet with the full luxury and sensuousness of Indian palace life. Doubtless there was a tradition of describing such scenes. But the contrast between the vague descriptions of golden halls and sky-towering palaces that we find in the epic and Kalidasa’s specific detail is marked.” [23] From Kalidasa we learn of courtly politesse[24] and the proliferation of ashrams outside the city to which wealthy brahmans and even the royal court would retreat.[25]


Art was not the only aspect of intellectual life that flowered and circulated during this period: astronomy and logic were two of the sciences that developed under Gupta rule.[26] The science of the Sanskrit language, too, developed and solidified as it was used in Gupta administration, communication, and literary culture. All of the Gupta inscriptions are written in Sanskrit – a remarkable divergence from the preceding custom of penning imperial inscriptions in “one or another of the spoken tongues.”[27] This, along with the prevalence of Sanskrit in literature and “courtly language” added to (what appears to us as) a general cultural alignment, and is “at least partially responsible for the term ‘Classical Age’ that is given to the Gupta period.”[28]

A Single Gupta "Culture"?

But was Gupta culture all that unified? “In studying the historical documents, the literature, and the visual arts of Gupta India, one is repeatedly struck by the heterogeneity of cultural values expressed in these works,” writes Barbara Stoler Miller.[29] These “orthodox traditions,”[30] however, were creative,[31] infused with Buddhism,[32] and marked by individuals who traveled, opening Gupta eyes to different cultures within the subcontinent.[33] At times conservative in its attitude toward women and class structures,[34] the Gupta Empire encompassed “a society in which caste restrictions are rigid, but in which the guilds of merchants and artisans appear still to be important. The same situation is reflected in the Gupta inscriptions…”[35] Gupta rulers exhibited a large degree of religious tolerance, hiring Buddhists and varying sects of Hindus in official positions,[36] and – contrary to Fa Hsein’s account – seem to have been “neither vegetarians nor teetotalers.”[37]

Dating and Locating Kalidasa


We have almost no biographical information about Kalidasa’s life,[38] a void that has led to much speculation and guesswork on the part of modern scholars. Most of the clues we have about Kalidasa’s life are located in his works themselves: frequent descriptions of the city of Ujjain, where we suspect he lived and composed[39]; accurate depictions of different regions in north India, where we suspect he traveled;[40] use of different varieties of Prakrit, which we suspect were the tongue(s) of his birthplace.[41]


The most significant indicators of the state of Kalidasa’s professional life are those which place him in the court of Chandragupta II, and are all found in the work of Kalidasa himself. The title of one of his plays – Vikramorvasiya – may have been intended to honor the "Vikramaditya," Chandragupta II.[42] The “great poem” (mahakavya) Kumarasambhava (“The Birth of Kumara”) may have been intended to honor the young Kumaragupta.[43] Kalidasa's other mahakavya, the Raghuvamsa ("The Lineage of Raghu"), may allude to the first three Gupta monarchs,[44] containing puns about Chandragupta II and Samudragupta[45] – but then again, chandra means “moon” and samudra means “ocean,” both of which were popular poetic standards of comparison.


We can, however, place a fairly strong limit on the date beyond which Kalidasa is likely not to have lived. If indeed Kalidasa had access to a flourishing Ujjain, it is highly improbable that he would have lived after the year 510 CE, when the city was destroyed by the Huns.[46] Kalidasa’s earliest known commentator, Vallabhadeva, notices that Kalidasa in fact mentions the Huns in the fourth book of the Raghuvamsa: it’s an event that would place Kalidasa right around the fifth century CE, when the Huns were stationed around the Oxus (vanksu, in Kalidasa’s work) river.[47] Furthermore, there is an inscription dated 634 CE that honors Kalidasa;[48] this, along with the seventh century poet Banabhatta’s praise of Kalidasa,[49] at least places the poet firmly before the year 600 CE. Ingalls dates Kalidasa to the years 390 – 470 CE.[50]

Kalidasa as a Person and a Poet


Imagining Kalidasa

If we can make these claims about Kalidasa’s life and lifespan, it is worthwhile to consider the kind of individual he must have been. Convention tells us that he was “a court poet and a brahmin”,[51] but other evidence, too, reveals these elements of his identity. His work shows that he was well versed in Vedic ritual, religious symbolism, and mythology[52]; his knowledge of far-off lands as displayed in the Meghaduta and the Raghuvamsa show that he may have had an official court position that allowed him to travel;[53] his particular brand of religious devotion shows that he was Hindu, and likely to have been a devotee of Siva,[54] but also that he was religiously tolerant.[55]


Everyone agrees – and for good reason – that Kalidasa was highly educated. Ryder exclaims: “[Kalidasa] had a minutely accurate knowledge of the Sanskrit language, at a time when Sanskrit was to some extent an artificial tongue…the gap between written language and vernacular was wider in Kalidasa’s day than it has often been. The Hindus themselves regard twelve years’ study as requisite for the mastery of the ‘chief of all sciences, the science of grammar.’ That Kalidasa had mastered this science his works bear abundant witness… He likewise mastered the works on rhetoric and dramatic theory – subjects which Hindu savants have treated with great, if sometimes hair-splitting, ingenuity. The profound and subtle systems of philosophy were also possessed by Kalidasa… Rarely has a man walked our earth who observed the phenomena of living nature as accurately as he, though his accuracy was of course that of the poet, not that of the scientist.”[56] Krishnamoorthy writes that Kalidasa “must have been born and brought up in an atmosphere congenial to the study of both sacred lore and secular sciences like politics, erotics, and ethics. His mastery over the niceties of the Sanskrit language, with its intricate metrical patterns and rhetorical devices, points to an educational career in some learned academy at Ujjain or elsewhere…”[57]


Popular myths about Kalidasa’s life speckle what little biographical information we can claim to have. The meaning of his name, “servant of [the goddess] Kali,” gives rise to a story about Kalidasa receiving a “sudden flow of divine inspiration” from the goddess.[58] One tale features Kalidasa living among courtesans until one day “losing his life in Ceylon through the wickedness of a mistress.”[59] Others still consider the poet to be an incarnation of Sarasvati, the goddess of speech.[60]


“Is Kalidasa a historian’s poet,” asks Simona Sawhney, “providing a faithful representation of [early] India, or is he someone else – an imperial poet, for example, delighting in the flowering of the Gupta empire, or an indulgent aesthete, culling blossoms of poetry for his own pleasure”[61]

Kalidasa himself certainly did not write of his own life or authorship. He “mentions his own name only in the prologues to his three plays, and here with a modesty that is charming indeed, yet tantalising.” What’s more, “He speaks in the first person only once, in the verses introductory to his epic poem [the Raghuvamsa].”[62] This verse is telling:


An idiot aspiring to a poet’s fame
I shall go to ridicule
Like a dwarf with outstretched arms
Greedy for fruit up high.[63]

Inside Kalidasa’s Library

If Kalidasa was as educated as we believe he was, what did he read? His knowledge of the literature and literary theory that existed in his time is obvious from his work: he closely follows the dramaturgical conventions set forth in the Natyasastra of Bharata[4],[64]a text that either precedes him[65] or was contemporaneous with him;[66] he certainly read the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana, as they are the sources of several of his own works;[67] finally, he seems to have had quite some knowledge of his most well-known literary predecessors, the playwright Bhasa[68] and the Buddhist poet and playwright Asvaghosa.[69] Kalidasa mentions Bhasa in the prologue to his play Malavikagnimitra, and also mentions the poets Saumilla and Kaviputra.[70]


Also relevant to Kalidasa’s work is his knowledge (and mastery) of Sanskrit. Because of the primacy and importance of the Vedas, Stoler Miller writes, “linguistic science developed in India in the middle of the first millennium B.C. and received systematic expression in the work of Panini, a grammarian of the 5th century B.C.” Stoler Miller explains that Panini’s Sanskrit became “the classical language of India, and this language itself became the criterion of what is classical in Indian culture.”[71] But while Sanskrit may have been “dominant in the classical tradition,” she writes, “this should not blind us to the dynamism that always characterized Indian culture beneath the surface of seeming linguistic and cultural uniformity. Sanskrit never really supplanted other languages.”[72] In fact, as we see in the Shakuntala, drama was a multilingual art form in Kalidasa’s time.[73]


We can guess from the dates of Kalidasa’s life that his contemporaries must have been poets such as Sudraka – the author of Mrcchakatika (“Little Clay Cart”) – and Visakhadatta, who wrote Mudraraksasa and Devicandragupta.[74] His immediate “successor” was the playwright Bhavabhuti,[75] author of (among other works) the Uttararamacarita, a play that re-examines the events of Valmiki’s Ramayana. Both of the seventh century playwrights Harsa[76] and Bana[77] honored and emulated Kalidasa in their works. “Who will not delight at the sight of Kalidasa’s fine sayings,” wrote Bana, “like honey-laden flower shoots, so fresh and sweet?”[78]

Theater in Kalidasa's Time

A production of Shakuntala in Auroville (India), 2008 [[2]]

There are seven known works of Kalidasa: the plays Malavikagnimitra (“Malavika and Agnimitra”), Vikramorvasiya (“Urvasi Won By Valour”), and Abhijnanasakuntala (“The Recognition of Sakuntala”); the mahakavyas (“epic poems”) Kumarasambhava (“The Birth of Kumara”) and Raghuvamsa (“The Lineage of Raghu”); the poem Meghaduta (“The Cloud Messenger”) and the poem Rtusamhara (“The Gathering of the Seasons”).[79]


By the time of Kalidasa, the drama “had emerged as a sophisticated form of public literature.”[80] There is evidence of plays that employed multiple languages and poetic forms dating to the first century of the Common Era,[81] a form that itself was likely “rooted in religious pageantry” performed at “festivals in the annual cycle."[82] Still before this, the dramatic form is thought to have been a development of the performance of professional bards who sang the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata.[83] The word for “actor” – kusilava – is clearly a reference to the two sons of Rama as set forth in the Ramayana, Kusa and Lava, who are commissioned by the poet Valmiki to perform the Ramayana for their father.[84] There is also a strong connection between drama and dance: the Natyasastra paid a great deal of attention to hand gestures and body positions; the word for “drama” and “dance” is the same.[85] Theater was, in fact, so artistically and socially effective that it retained its form for another thousand years after Kalidasa.[86]


J.A.B. van Buitenen writes of the social element of drama in classical India that “it straddles several language barriers in northern India with a ease which seems to deny that they were barriers, and yet became the most lofty expression of a typically Sanskritic culture. It provided a spectacle for all classes of the population, yet at the same time it was mainly directed to the most highly educated among the audience. It drew on epical and folk lore which was the common heritage of all, yet presented the well-known stories with a subtlety that could be savored only by the connoisseur. At once accessible to all and impervious but to the few, the theater was the image of civilization itself.”[87]

Shakuntala and Literary Theory


Sanskrit and the Prakrits

The most basic theory with which Kalidasa worked was that of the Sanskrit language itself. As mentioned previously, plays were written in both Sanskrit and a mix of Prakrits,[88] which within their regional varieties could be categorized into the “higher” forms used in drama, poetry, and the like, and the “lower” forms used in speaking.[89] Kalidasa’s plays employed Sanskrit and Prakrits in both poetry and prose.[90] The distinctions between Sanskrit and the Prakrits, and also between poetry and prose, were more blurry than they were distinct. Prose, one scholar writes, was just “poetry without the benefit of meter.”[91] Even the Prakrits were transliterated into Sanskrit by commentators[92] for analysis in Sanskrit, effectively joining the Sanskrit medium of scholarship.


Sanskrit

Yet the two (or more) languages served slightly different poetic functions. Most verses – such as the ones spoken by heroes, members of the royal court, sages, or divine figures – were composed in Sanskrit.[93] It was a language, van Buitenen writes, that “was self-conscious to an extreme degree; the speaker was at all time recreating what he firmly believed to be the original language in its purest form as it was spoken by the ancient seers…For being always a second language, an ancestral tongue, its acquisition demanded a formidable education, first in the language itself, then in those provinces of culture of which Sanskrit was accepted as the only proper expression. The whole range of cultural experience was received through Sanskrit and conceptualized through Sanskrit. Those experiences might to some extent be capable of paraphrasis in the vernacular, but their true and precise expression was Sanskrit.” [94]


Indeed, the poetic possibilities of the Sanskrit language were practically endless: in Sanskrit, Krishnamoorthy writes, “Everything can be denoted by scores of words, each with a different affective shade; and a new coinage for a new shade of meaning is quite permissible… In the hands of poets, this possibility has been so exploited that there are hundreds of words for ‘earth’…”[95] Not only that, but “Compounds represent another special feature… That which needs a dozen or more English words can be packed into a single word in Sanskrit. To take a random example, Kalidasa uses [the single word] aphalodakarmanam to mean ‘[of those] kings who did not swerve from their appointed duty until the had attained their object.’”[96] The wide variety of Sanskrit meters used in Kalidasa’s plays lends yet another dimension of emotional meaning to the words within them.[97] Of what Sanskrit theorists called “alamkaras” – literary “ornaments,” such as simile and metaphor – there are truly infinite varieties, the classification of which was the object of many of those theorists.[98] There are more than 34 different kinds of simile alone.[99] (In fact, Kalidasa was known as the “king of similes.”[100])


The sorts of characters who speak in Sanskrit can be indicative of the way that the language was used: it was employed not only poetically but socially, in the sense that it conveyed a dominant royal-brahmanic culture. The Natyasastra directs only the king, his advisors, high political officials, and religious figures to speak in Sanskrit[101] while “the brahmin buffoon (vidusaka), the women of the court, city, and hermitage, as well as various minor characters, spoke different Prakrits…The languages and the value systems encoded in them were woven into the intricate patters of the classical drama.”[102] There are only two types of women who speak Sanskrit: nuns or female ascetics (who are “in principle no longer women”), and courtesans (“who often were better educated than the most regal matron”).[103]


Prakrit

Everyone else – including Shakuntala in Shakuntala – speaks one of a variety of Prakrits. The Prakrits were most often employed in prose, but were also used for songs and verses. An example of this is the actress’s song about summertime in the prologue to Shakuntala: it is no small or unimportant song. [104] There were “literary ornaments” for Prakrit, too, but they tended to be more of the rhyming and alliteration variety.[105] What’s more, Prakrit verses, like Sanskrit ones, were seen in the literary tradition as communicating multiple valences of meaning.[106] Stoler Miller writes that Kalidasa “used various Prakrits in conventional ways as verbal signs of gender and social rank, but he also used them to complicate and enrich the verbal expressions of complex psychological states.”[107]


Stoler Miller also notes that Kalidasa used more than one kind of Prakrit, and dynamically mixed them together in different characters’ lines. He “blended three dramatic Prakrits: Sauraseni, used for prose and spoken mainly by women, Maharastri, the medium of songs, and Magadhi, spoken by untutored characters like the fisherman, the two policemen, and young boys.”[108]


Multilingual Theater

This eclectic form of theater demanded, at the very least, a diverse culture and a multilingual audience.[109] “One suspects that a member of the audience who spoke a Prakrit, but knew barely any Sanskrit, could enjoy the play,” Stoler Miller writes, “But a full appreciation of Kalidasa’s plays demands and understanding of both Sanskrit and Prakrit.”[110] What's certain is that the use of multiple languages reflects how plays reached out to a variety of classes, regional backgrounds, and social groups while remaining artistically directed at the connoisseur.

Making the First Play: Bharata's Natyasastra

The Natyasastra – South Asia’s oldest known dramaturgical text[111] – was “probably compiled during the Gupta period on the basis of older sources.” It is attributed to the god Bharata.[112] “In Bharata’s mythic account," Stoler Miller writes, “drama is a holy presentation that the gods originated to offer ethical instruction through diversion when people were no longer listening to Vedic scriptures.”[113] One of the many purposes of drama, then – like poetry (kavya), scripture (veda), and epic (itihasa) – is to communicate ethical messages.[114] Indeed, Bharata tells us that the very texts of drama is kavya, and it is only when those texts are “arranged for performance” that they become drama (natya).[115] There is a similar connection between drama and epic, too: Bharata prescribes “how to turn [an epic] story (itihasa) in to a vehicle of drama, a plot (itivrtta).”[116] This, as we will see, [5] is exactly what happens in the Shakuntala.


Drama’s raison d’etre was not simply instruction: it was intellectual enjoyment, a kind of aesthetic “relishing” that could only take place on the part of learned audience members. Each play would be dominated by a certain rasa[6], or "taste:" a particular brand of aesthetic emotion that could be portrayed through vehicles such as characters, plot, poetic text, other emotional states, and acting styles.[117] Bharata dictates eight different rasas, while later theorists added a ninth.[118]


The Natyasastra seems more concerned with the means through which to bring about education and enjoyment than with the natures of aesthetic education and enjoyment themselves. Several different regional styles of drama are outlined in the Natyasastra,[119] as are the occasions on which plays were to be performed. (These include “marriage, the birth of a son, the visit of a son-in-law, festivals, and the celebration of one’s prosperity.”[120]) Furthermore, different sorts of plays are to be performed at different times of day: those with an “erotic taste” (srngara-rasa), such as Shakuntala, are played in the evening, while “tragic” (karuna-rasa) and “heroic” (vira-rasa) dramas may be performed in the morning or afternoon.[121] Further details – such as the speed of diction of different types of plays – abound. (Shakuntala, being a srngara-rasa play, used a diction of “medium” speed.)[122]


Bharata dictates in “considerable detail” the physical structure of the theater.[123][7] Playhouses were to be small, seating “no more than 200 spectators sitting on a mat-covered floor.”[124] Van Buitenen adds, “Bharata’s reasons are excellent: from a greater distance the facial expressions, the gestures, and the words become indistanced, and, as he rightly remarks, the success of the play depends on them.”[125] Indeed, there was much to see on stage: according to Bharata, acting consisted of “use of body, voice, costuming, and temperament.”[126] As an example of the “use of body,” Bharata notes that “the lower lip can be moved six ways: curling to indicate jealousy, pain, contempt, or laughter; trembling, from pain, fear, anger, cold, haste, etc.; pouting…”[127]


The finishing touches are equally important. At the end of each play, the hero character will recite a final benediction: called the bharatavakya, or “that which is to be said by Bharata,” the speech “makes the resolution of dramatic conflicts and rehearses the nature of dramatic success.”[128] It is a mirror to the opening benediction, in which the Director calls upon the deity (in Kalidasa’s plays, Shiva) to remove all obstacles to the successful completion of the play. In other words, it may be the gods who govern the progress of the play, but it is the celestial dramaturgist who governs the audience’s reactions afterwards. David Gitomer explains that “in terms of actual theatrical production, it is the spectator’s response to the performance that in the end determines its success; Bharata’s concentration on the characteristics of the ideal spectator makes this clear.”[129]


There is some debate as to what extent Kalidasa followed the conventions of the Natyasastra, and to what extent the Natyasastra followed the conventions of Kalidasa. Ryder is convinced that Kalidasa is completely faithful to the dramaturgical conventions that preceded him;[130] van Buitenen, on the other hand, assures us that “dramatic theory was developed after the flourishing of the theatre itself and is less a theory than an abstraction from available plays.”[131] Edwin Gerow merges the two opinions, writing that there was a “parallel and mutual development” of drama and dramaturgy[132] in the centuries surrounding Kalidasa’s life: it is an idea that would help explain why Kalidasa’s plays are considered in the Indian poetic tradition to be dramaturgically perfect, while still seeming to predate almost all literary theory except the Natyasastra.

Theory After Shakuntala

Whatever the final stance, it is clear that Kalidasa has received a great deal of positive critical attention on the part of his literary successors, and for the Shakuntala in particular. “He enjoyed a great popularity during his life,” claims Ryder. “The Hindus have ever regarded [Kalidasa] as the greatest of Sanskrit poets.”[133] This, too, in a tradition that Ryder calls “critically devoted to its own literature.”[134] Critics gave special care to the fourth act of the Shakuntala, in which the heroine is cursed by the sage, leaves the forest, is famously blessed by her adoptive father, travels to Dusyanta’s palace, suffers rejection, and is subsequently transported to heaven.[135] Theorists and commentators called this act the garbha – “womb” – of the drama.[136]

Centuries later, the Kalidasan tradition spread and grew within South Asian educational systems. “These poems were taught by school teachers verse by verse,” Ingalls writes, “explaining the formation of each word, furnishing the appropriate rule for each construction, and defining each figure of speech. We have in manuscript form the lectures of some fifty of these schoolmasters from the tenth century down to the present… these children grew up to love what they had memorized and to imitate Kalidasa when they came to write poetry of their own.”[137]

What Kind of a Play is Shakuntala?

Bharata describes nine different types of plays in the Natyasastra, only one of which is called nataka – “high drama.”[138] Two of the primary conditions for a nataka are that the hero is a “model of virtue”[139] – a point that could be debated[8] – and that the storyline of the play is adopted from an epic source.[140] The Shakuntala, along with Kalidasa’s Vikramorvasiya, meets these requirements. Kalidasa’s third play, Malavikagnimitra, is sometimes considered to be not a nataka but a prakarana: another sort of “high” drama, but one whose plot is born of the playwright’s own imagination.[141]


There are only two possible rasas for a nataka: the erotic (srngara-rasa) and the heroic (vira-rasa).[142] Shakuntala, it is sometimes said, combines both; this makes for a sort of “heroic romance.”[143] Stoler Miller cites several possible examples of nataka in Western literature, including Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and Euripides’ “Alcestis.”[144] The mixed genre reflects one of the prominent themes in the play: Dusyanta’s struggle between kingly heroism (vira-rasa) and passionate love (srngara-rasa).[9]

Savoring Shakuntala

What is Rasa, and How is it Produced?

Rasa – the overall aesthetic-emotional “taste” of a play – is created by a number of factors. As we have seen previously, first among them is the type of play itself which, for Shakuntala, is the “high drama” nataka, and so must have either an “erotic taste” (srngara-rasa) or a “heroic taste” (vira-rasa).[145] The arc of the storyline and the series of acts and scenes helps to build rasa,[146] as do gestures on stage[147] and, of course, the actual words of the play.[148] To these we may add the characters themselves,[149] the expressions of the actors,[150] and a host of minor rasas – “fleeting sentiments”[151] – which, while subject to the main rasa, lend the play a broader emotional variety.[152] Krishnamoorthy believes that this is especially true of Kalidasa’s treatment of the natural world: “Every detail relating to nature,” he writes, “can be shown to be full of infinite shades of significance.”[153] Indeed, all of the different factors needed to produce rasa account for drama, Gerow writes, as “a complete art form, uniting poetry, dialogue, acting, song, dance, and thus music and sculpture.”[154]


Results of Rasa

Because so many of these rasa-building factors exist on the level of extreme detail, the job of the savvy audience member is to “savor each scene.”[155] The reader (or spectator), G.L. Anderson writes, “must seek out the precise emotional nuance in each passage of the poet’s work to appreciate the variety and depth of Kalidasa’s reading of the human experience. It is not the end, but the moment, that counts.”[156] A true appreciation of drama did not lie in an artfully-constructed plot or even in characters’ psychological development – although of course Kalidasa’s plays have both of those aspects. Rather, one had to appreciate the smallest details of the emotional states that are presented in each gesture, line, or verse.[157] What’s more, the audience must not only take notice of the variety of emotional details in the play, but they must become aware of their own emotional pleasure: “Through the interplay of all these factors [above] the emotion is excited, corroborated, and sustained,” van Buitenen writes, “and when the spectator begins to be more and more aware of his enjoyment of this emotion, he has the rasa, he has the mood.”[158]


When these emotional details are properly relished, a miraculous thing happens: rasa “[abolishes] the mundane distinctions between audience, actor, and author.”[159] Rasa “integrates”[160] the intention of the playwright to produce a particular aestheticized emotion through the details of the play, the proper performance of the play in all its crucial details on the part of the actors, and the audience’s distanced relishing of what the author and actors have set forth before him. All three groups work to achieve rasa.


Srngara-rasa in the Shakuntala

The eight rasas given by Bharata can be described in terms of the overarching emotions of which each is an aestheticized experience. Van Buitenen tells us that these emotions are “love, energy, disgust, fury, merriment, wonderment, fear, and grief.”[161] In other words, love is the prevailing mood of an “erotic rasa” play; energy is the prevailing mood of a “heroic rasa” play; grief is the prevailing mood of a “compassionate rasa” play.


Most critics focus on Kalidasa’s Shakuntala as an “erotic rasa” – srngara-rasa – play. Even so, there is immense emotional variety “from the sensual to the spiritual” in the play’s details.[162] Theorists broke down the erotic rasa into three types: “love forbidden,” “love in separation,” and “love in union.”[163] In van Buitenen’s words: “Love forbidden is the love of a couple that is prevented from being consummated because their guardians will not permit it or because of the interference of fate…Love in separation, perhaps the most popular theme of Sanskrit erotic poetry, may have two main causes: absence abroad or pique; this pique itself might be the pique of a lovers’ quarrel, when two lovers have made up their minds to be angry, or may be occasioned by the lover’s infidelity…Love in union is just that…”[164] So Shakuntala, which portrays “love in union” overall, really features a sort of “love forbidden” in the first two acts and “love in separation” in the fourth, fifth, and sixth acts. In fact, the very theme of memory that runs through the play is often used in Sanskrit poetry to signify both “love in separation” and “love in union.”[165]


See if rasa theory can explain this 5-minute lingering emotion of love displayed in the television version of Shakuntala, above.

Making Sense of the Plot

Rasa and Meta-theatrics

When considering the plots of Sanskrit plays, we must remember the prevalence of rasa. G. L. Anderson writes that “what is imitated or represented in Sanskrit drama is a state of emotion and the action, however complicated or exciting it may be, is subordinated to the creation of this state of emotion…This point may be most positively made with Shakuntala [because] the purpose of the play is to present to us the varieties of flavor in the emotion of love, and the plot is merely the vehicle for this.”[166]


Some note the extreme shifts between different acts as tools that speed up the plot by contrast with the interior of each act, in which “dialogue, poetry and action [slow down] the sense of time. Details of nature and physical signs of emotion are represented in order to arrest the attention of the audience and intensify aesthetic participation in the dramatic process.”[167]


The interludes and preludes that exist between acts serve to heighten the shifts over space and time that take place from one act to another; they also serve to remove the play from reality, reminding the audience that this is art, not reality.[168] In Shakuntala, the most notable of these may well be the prologue, a meta-theatrical moment in which the director and actress of the play “[turn] pretense into reality.”[169]


Before the prologue, however, comes the benediction: spoken by the director of the production, this is usually directed at the god Shiva, who is known as the nataraja (“lord of actors”).[170]

Joints and States

According to the commentator Raghavabhatta, the progression of the plot of the Shakuntala can be analyzed according to dramatic conventions set out in the Natyasastra. Raghavabhatta examines the play on two axes: the “joints” (sandhi) of the action, and the “states” (avastha) of the action. Act I features the “face joint” (mukha-sandhi), in which the King discovers Shakuntala; it also features the “motive state” (arambha-avastha) which is the King’s growing passion for her. Act II and Act III explore the “reflection of the face joint” (pratimukha-sandhi), which is when the King and Shakuntala come together and are wed but must urgently separate; they also show the “objectification of the motive state” (prayatna-avastha) in which the King tells the Buffoon about his intention to stay at the hermitage. Acts IV and V are the “womb joint” (garbha-sandhi): “a period of separation, wherein hope of reunion is affirmed despite absence.”[171] This occurs both when Shakuntala leaves the hermitage and when she and the king are separated after his rejection of her. Critics also call these acts the “hope of attainment state” (praptyasa-avastha) because the King still desires Shakuntala when she arrives in court – even if he does not remember her. Act IV shows another “joint” still: that of “reconsideration” (vimarsa-sandhi), when the King actually does reject Shakuntala. Acts V and VI bring the “eventuation state” (niyatapti-avastha), when Indra calls upon Dusyanta to join him in heaven and the audience knows that the King will reunite with Shakuntala there. Their union in Act VII develops the “denouement joint” (nirvahana-sandhi) and the “attainment-of-the-fruit state” (phalaprapti-avastha)[172].

Characters and Caricatures

Some say that the characters in plays such as Shakuntala are more archetypes, or even stereotypes, than they are individual characters with unique paths.[173] Sages, for instance, are wise (like Kanva) yet they can also be temperamental (like Durvasa). Kings are “lofty spirited, great in stature, and [models] of virtue,”[174] but we know from Shakuntala that kings do not always act in the best manner. Kalidasa’s heroines, writes Stoler Miller, are “goddess-like, but sexually and emotionally vulnerable…In some measure each of the heroines embodies both the goddess of beauty and fortune, Laksmi, and the goddess of speech, Vak.”[175] As for Shakuntala in particular: “The heroine appears as a beautiful nymph whose spontaneous love embraces the hero and leads him beyond the world of everyday experience into the imaginative universe where dichotomies of sensual desire (kama) and sacred duty (dharma) are reintegrated.”[176] Krishnamoorthy notes that within the confines of dramatic theory, Kalidasa brings even the minor characters to life: the fishermen, the policemen, Shakuntala’s girlfriends, and the forest-bred hermit escorts are all vibrant personalities on stage.[177] Stoler Miller uses the Director as an example: “In the prologues and within the plays a director is portrayed as a high-caste brahman who demands strict attention to detail, like a priest supervising a sacred ritual.”[178]

Experiencing Theater


What would it have been like to attend a production of Shakuntala in fifth-century Gupta India?


For one, it may not have been the same play that we have today. “The plays, until recently, did not form part of the school tradition,” writes Ingalls. “No ancient commentaries on them are preserved. They were works that were read for pleasure or which you might see performed at court of in a temple. Their text is less well preserved than that of the poems, and they have been added to or altered to suit successive companies of actors.”[179]


The play may also have taken place as part of a larger annual festival: the celebration of the deity Mahakala.[180] There were a number of occasions upon which it was considered appropriate to perform a play: “a seasonal festival, the birth of a son, a marriage, a royal consecration, a political victory, or any auspicious event.”[181] “It would have been open to the public and not simply performed in court. A patron, a “learned assembly,” or a local guild would have covered the costs of production.[182] The patron might have been a royal figure; the court “supported the training of actors and dancers.”[183] In fact, “permanent troupes of actors were probably associated with major courts.”[184]

Acting and Miming

The discipline (yoga) of acting was a serious one: “actor and acted become one,” Stoler Miller writes.[185] Women were much included in this discipline, for they played the female roles.[186]) There were even all-female troupes of actors.[187] Despite royal patronage and participation in a serious art form, actors were not held in high social esteem; there was a certain association between actors and courtesans that prevailed in the social landscape.[188]


One of the reasons acting must have been such a grave undertaking was the technical ability involved in portraying all of the various gestures and miming that went along with the recitation of textual material.[189] These gestures acted as a “kind of sign language,” Gitomer writes, that ran parallel to spoken verses and lines.[190] According to the director’s (or sometimes the actor’s) choice, any gesture could be acted in a “naturalistic” way or a “stylized” way. [191] Of these, hand gestures were the most numerous and important.[192] Stoler Miller notes that the role of gesture is paramount in the Shakuntala: “Kalidasa’s plays, so rich in verbal images, depend on gesture for the full expression of their texts. In the first meeting of Sakuntala and Dusyanta, the heroine barely speaks…While [the king’s] verbal poetry is being presented, the heroine represents her responses through gesture and dance, visually expressing the text through her movements.”[193]

Costumes and makeup served to mark the different characters in an elaborate code of personality traits. Royal characters wore gold leaf ornaments; brahmans, ministers, and people observing religious rites wore white robes; kings wore multicolored costumes; chamberlains, sages, and Buddhist monks and nuns all wore robes of a ruddy hue; ascetics (such as Shakuntala) wore tree bark, “tattered strips of cloth, and animal skins;” and, finally, drunk characters and lunatics wore visibly dirty costumes.”[194] Costumes, says van Buitenen, were “aimed at recognizability.”[195] Makeup was plentiful, and mostly existed to illuminate the many eye gestures featured in drama.[196]

The Bare and Sacred Stage

All of this gesture, in fact, almost entirely erased the need for props: the average stage would be completely bare.[197] However, the raised platform was divided into imagined zones between which the actors would move in a “stylized gait (parikrama)” to indicate a change of location or scene.[198]


Playhouses were simple – often no more than a covered platform with a split curtain at the back[199] – but intricately designed. Bharata prescribed the exact dimensions of theaters, and their construction was somewhat of a sacred act. One always had to wait for the most auspicious time (in accordance with Vedic astrology) to build a playhouse; the last step of construction merited the smashing of a vessel in order to ensure that, in Gitomer’s words, “the king would smash his enemies and that the dramatic preceptor would smash all obstacles to his performance.”[200] This would be followed by “the illumination of a torch with which the [director] then ran throughout the playhouse to the cacophonous accompaniment of the percussion ensemble.”[201]


Sometimes theaters would be part of palaces or temple complexes;[202] they were usually situated in the open air (M26). Preliminary songs, music, and dance would last for a long time as the audience filed into the theater.[203]

The Compassionate Audience

For the audience was, in many ways, the most important part of the dramatic experience.


The word most often used to mean “connoisseur” in this context is sahrdaya, a compound word that means “with heart.” Van Buitenen, who understands this word to mean “one whose heart is at one with the author’s,”[204] writes that “it is to the cultivated and artistic that a playwright addressed himself[205]…[the spectator] should have a complete facility [in all of the] languages that are being spoken; not only that, he should know the theatrical conventions for the use of certain languages by various characters.”[206] Stoler Miller believes that the “digressive elegance” of Sanskrit poetry was intended for “a select audience of men who could concentrate on the sustained subtleties of a refined literary language.”[207]


Yet at the same time, there seems to have been some diversity of audience. Not all of the spectators could be sahrdayas. Those who were less educated could enjoy “the colorful spectacle mostly based on familiar stories and enacted in mime,”[208] and even the Natyasastra allows for an audience that includes spectators of all backgrounds.[209]


No matter who was in the audience, it was the audience’s reaction that seems to have mattered the most. It was held in such high regard that “When,” as Gitomer writes, “the response is not a tumultuous commotion, when there is in fact not the slightest sound or disturbance among the audience, even in a packed house – that success is regarded as divine.”[210]

Epic Origins


Most date the story of Shakuntala to the epic Mahabharata, but in fact there is mention of Shakuntala in Vedic literature – the Satapatha Brahmana (13.5.4.13), to be exact. There, Shakuntala is “a nymph who [conceived] her superhuman son Bharata at a sacred place called Nadapit.”[211] The Shakuntala story can also be found in another non-Mahabharata text – the Padmapurana[212] – but since the story is only present in a single recension of the text, scholars have found it more likely that the story was added into the text upon the play’s gaining popularity.[213] In general, scholars believe that Kalidasa used the epic text as his base;[214] given the Natyasastra’s instruction to base a nataka on an epic text, it is most likely that this is exactly what Kalidasa did.

Shakuntala in the Mahabharata

In the Mahabharata’s account of Shakuntala, the story is quite different. King Dusyanta and the half-nymph Shakuntala fall in love in the forest, yes, but the king returns to the city without giving her a ring. Before returning, the king agrees that Shakuntala’s offspring will be heir to his throne. Their son, Bharata, is born in Kanva’s hermitage and is practically grown up before Kanva suggests Shakuntala cash in on the king’s promise: it is only appropriate, after all, for the boy to claim his rightful position as crown prince. When Shakuntala shows up in the royal court, the king claims that he doesn’t remember her, prompting Shakuntala to deliver a fine lecture to the king on how to do one’s moral duty. Divine voices intervene, shouting out the legitimacy of Shakuntala’s plea. The king relents, saying that he was only pretending not to remember her so that the gods would affirm for the general public the legitimacy of Bharata’s claim to the throne.[215]

Reinventing the Epic

Kalidasa’s most noted change to the epic version is Durvasa’s curse, a tool that maintains the king’s attitude of moral fortitude – the only attitude, according to Bharata, that is appropriate for a dramatic hero.[216] Yet there has been speculation that Kalidasa is doing more than twisting the epic story to suit prevailing dramaturgical conventions. “Though the curse is obviously a means of absolving the fickle king of blame,” argues Sawhney, “it is not so clear whose fantasy it might fulfill. On the one hand, it acts as the means whereby Dusyanta’s ‘natural’ fickleness (which, in this context, is inseparable form his access to power) may be attributed to Durvasa’s wrath…but on the other, may we not also read the curse as Sakuntala’s fantasy? That is to say, is it not in some way the fantasy of the abandoned lover, the forsaken one…”[217]


“Read in this manner,” Sawhney continues, “the entire text becomes deeply and fundamentally ambivalent. It is both an exoneration of the king, and a most pointed critique of his character and world. But most significantly, it reveals the place of violence in this economy of love, for though the violence must be transformed, it cannot be erased. Its memory sustains the very structure of patriarchal romance.”[218]


It seems clear that Kalidasa is using the curse and the ring to do more psychological work than it might seem at first glance. Historian Romila Thapar adds that “by the time Kalidasa wrote the play, the signet ring had already entered a system of literary conventions. In this text, the ring, initially meant to establish the king’s identity, becomes later the means to establish Sakuntala’s. The implication would be that it is not only Sakuntala, but also a part of his own life and identity that the king first loses and later retrieves.”[219]


Yet there are frequent, often pointedly detailed, similarities between the play and the epic.[220] Of the two possible derivations of the word “Shakuntala,” Kalidasa references the Mahabharata’s derivation – “from the Shakunta bird” – when he includes in Act VII the incident of Shakuntala’s son hearing his mother’s name in a line about the Shakunta bird.[221] There is also a marked connection between when, in the epic, Shakuntala tries to persuade Dusyanta to accept Bharata with the line “when his son covered with the dust of the ground throws himself upon him and clings to his father’s limbs, what is better than that?” (Mahabharata 1.68.52) and the scene in Act VII in which the king, touching his son for the first time, says: “carrying their sons…who love to shelter in their fathers laps, happy they are soiled by the dirt of those children’s bodies.” (VII.19)[222]

Responding to Shakuntala


In times past,
on the occasion of reckoning true poets,
the little finger was the one occupied by Kalidasa.
Since even today no poet is his equal,
the (ring-)finger, (though) nameless,
has become significant.
- Verse in praise of Kalidasa (trans. Guy Leavitt, 2006)

In Early South Asia

Shakuntala has been the subject of many early and medieval South Asian commentaries, and has been quoted as exemplary in works of literary theory and grammar, as well as dictionaries. Stoler Miller tells us that it has been “considered a masterpiece” ever since composed, and that it “has been the subject of commentaries and critical studies in Sanskrit and other Indian languages.”[223] “If poets of a later day begin their works with glowing tributes to Kalidasa,” Krishnamoorthy writes, “literary critics and theorists have subjected his work to close analysis.” [224] A prominent example might be that of the medieval literary theorist Abhinavagupta. He comments on the incident in the fifth act in which the king’s first wife sings of being loved and then forgotten: upon hearing her, Dusyanta has what Abhinava calls “an intuitive insight into the past that transcends personal experience, into the imaginative universe that beauty evokes.”[225]


In Modern South Asia

(Recent television version on StarOne, India)


Modern Indian thinkers have continued to engage with Kalidasa in general and with Shakuntala in particular. Rabindranath Tagore paid special attention to the psychological progression between Shakuntala and Dusyanta’s first union (in the forest) and their second union (in heaven).[226] Later, Kalidasa became “a strong presence… in the work of several Hindi writers of the 1940s and 1950s… the urgency of that particular historical moment [provoked] reflections on tradition, identity, and nationalism [and also] led to a new, and often passionate, interest in Sanskrit literature.”[227] Primary among these was Mohan Rakesh’s Hindi play “A Day in the Month of Rain” (1958) – a work that, in addition to being an “imagined narrative of Kalidasa’s life,”[228] is also seen as the first “modern” play written in Hindi.[229]


Ryder claims that Kalidasa “has been more widely read in India than any other author who wrote in Sanskrit.”[230] If this is the case, Sawhney asks, why is Kalidasa’s work “virtually unread today outside of a small circle of Sanskritists and dramatists, even in India”?[231] While most Indians may know who Kalidasa is [232] – perhaps because most school curricula include one of his works[233] – the “death” of the Sanskrit language itself in modern India might help to explain why so few Indians still closely study Kalidasa.[234]


Has Sanskrit “died”? Perhaps. Sawhney believes that the language has been “dealt a painful blow” by its strong connection, after Independence, with the highly conservative Hindu nationalist movement’s decision to claim (Hindu) Sanskrit as India’s one true cultural heritage. The attempt of the Hindu nationalist Bharata Janata Party (BJP) to revive Sanskrit only, in Sawhney’s words, “[ensured] that it remained safely dead.”[235] Sawhney adds that Sanskrit department faculty in modern Indian universities are “by and large conservative, both in their politics and their approach to literature.”[236] In other words, we might be hard pressed to find a modern Indian Sanskrit scholar who would call King Dusyanta anything less than the perfect, morally virtuous dramatic hero.

In the West

The first Westerner to translate Shakuntala was the Englishman William Jones, who translated the play into Latin before translating it into English in 1789.[237] Of the many Europeans who read that translation,[238] Goethe reacted the most famously:


If you want the bloom of youth and fruit of later years,
If you want what enchants, fulfills, and nourishes,
If you want heaven and earth contained in one name--
I say Shakuntala and all is spoken.[239]


Stoler Miller writes that Goethe’s appreciation for Shakuntala was due to “the beauty of its imagery, the complexity of it structure (he modeled his own prologue to Faust on Kalidasa’s to Shakuntala), and the unity of art and religion on which it was based.”[240]


The play exists in translation in “every European language,”[241] and along with this variety of translations comes a variety of opinions. In the Quarterly Review of 1831, Dean Milman commented that “however encumbered with monstrous and extravagant fiction, and a wild an incoherent mythology, it not only excites our interest, but even to European ears may be found to abound in passages rarely perhaps of striking grandeur or energy, but often of the most exquisite delicacy, of the softest tenderness, of infinite variety and gracefulness of fancy, and what may not least surprise our readers, of the purest simplicity.”[242] Monier Williams is more laudatory in his response to the play: “It combines the majesty of Homer with the tenderness of Vergil, the luxuriance of Ovid and the depth of Shakespeare. And yet it is simple and contains enough to suggest the old Athenian boast of beauty without extravagance.”[243]

Themes in Shakuntala


Love and Duty

A production of Shakuntala in Texas, 2005 [[3]]

Not only the Shakuntala, Barbara Stoler Miller writes, but “all of Kalidasa’s plays focus on the critical tension between desire and duty that is aesthetically manifest in the relation of the erotic sentiment (srngararasa) to the heroic (virarasa).”[244] The tension inherent in Shakuntala, in other words, is between the “four purusarthas” – the “aims of man: duty, desire, wealth, and freedom” – and not necessarily “personal conflict.”[245] In the case of both Dusyanta and Shakuntala, duty and passion collide head-to-head: Dusyanta is pulled between his royal responsibilities (visible in his love of hunting and his eventual return to the kingdom) and his husbandly responsibilities (to receive Shakuntala and accept her son as his heir); Shakuntala finds herself in the middle of her ascetic responsibilities (to receive guests, for example) and her wifely ones (to leave home and pursue Dusyanta).[246] Just as Dusyanta is a symbol of both royalty and passion, so is Shakuntala a symbol of both asceticism and passion.[247] As the sage’s curse makes known, negative consequences can come of subjugating one’s passion to one’s other responsibilities. On the other hand, the ring of recollection points toward a possible integration of both love and duty.


Some claim that Kalidasa integrates these two successfully in the Shakuntala. Krishnamoorthy, for one, insists that Dusyanta is a “paragon of decorum”[248] and that “Kalidasa succeeds [in merging love and duty] because of his discretion in the choice of his royal heroes…All of them are gifted connoisseurs; and they delight in the fine arts of painting, music, dance, and poetry. Much married though they be, they will yet be open to new attractions, and the intensity of their new passion is determined by the degree of difficulty in winning the beloved. In the royal harem, they observe a gentleman’s code of courtesy, and they will go to any extent in appeasing the anger of jealous queens.”[249] In other words, Dusyanta is so morally perfect that his (rather less than kingly) pursuit of Shakuntala could not be anything other than in accordance with his royal obligations. Ingalls adds: “Dusyanta is so sure of his inner equipoise that when he sees a maiden who rouses his desire, he immediately knows that she must be of suitable caste and marriageable. Otherwise his heart would not have responded.”[250] “The pursuit of power and sex” are, at the hands of Kalidasa, “in accordance with dharma.”[251] How – or if – the play ultimately achieves this is at the discretion of the reader.

The Forest and the City

There is little doubt on the part of modern critics that Kalidasa loved nature. As much as nature may have been a common theme in classical Sanskrit poetry, there is something about Kalidasa’s particular use of the natural world that stands out. “In Kalidasa’s treatment of nature there is an emotional suggestiveness that was new to Sanskrit,” Ingalls writes. “[Because of the suggestiveness of nature,] the prospect of the life of contemplation is essentially uncreative. It offers solace rather than a cure.” [252] In Shakuntala, nature has the power to “reintegrate conflicting aspects of life,”[253] becoming a locus of the “harmonies of man and nature.”[254]


Some go so far as to say that Kalidasa’s use of nature in the Shakuntala is “spiritualized” and that an “atmosphere of sanctity…pervades the play.”.[255] Kalidasa’s “Personification of natural objects springs from minute observation, and these combine with fancies and conceits derived from mythology and tradition to produce the unique Kalidasan image.”[256] Ryder writes of this elevated position of nature: “It is hardly true to say that [Kalidasa] personifies rivers and mountains and trees; to him they have a conscious individuality as truly and as certainly as animals or men or gods… Kalidasa’s knowledge of nature is not only sympathetic, it is also minutely accurate.”[257] He adds, “It is delightful to imagine a meeting between Kalidasa and Darwin. They would have understood each other perfectly; for in each the same kind of imagination worked with the same wealth of observed fact.”[258] Indeed, Kalidasa was “the only poet in Sanskrit who conceived of nature, though symbolically, as the central concern of most of his works, poetic as well as dramatic… the cloud becomes the ‘hero’ of his poem Meghaduta…”[259] Of the perfection of nature in the Shakuntala, Ingalls writes that “human love in Kanva’s retreat is expressed entirely in animal and vegetable images… as opposed to the court, there is no luxury in the asrama, no polygamy, no jealousy.”[260]


The consistent equation of Shakuntala with the natural world, however, may lead one to believe otherwise. There are, in fact, struggles inherent in Shakuntala’s character and in her relationship with Dusyanta that are expressed through natural images. To begin with, many agree that Shakuntala’s character and the natural world are deeply intertwined throughout the play: “Kalidasa presents the heroine as Nature’s darling, innocent as a deer and caught up in a love for a highly sophisticated man,”[261] writes Krishnamoorthy, clearly wishing to represent Shakuntala (and Nature itself) as willingly submissive to the desires of men. Indeed, he writes, “Women and nature as so closely identified that it is almost impossible to know which the poet is speaking of.”[262] Stoler Miller adds that “the heroine is characteristically interchangeable with elements of nature, whose procreative energies she personifies. The parts of her body are conventionally equated with natural objects.”[263] Indeed, as Anderson points out, “we must remind ourselves that each phase of the nature imagery has a symbolic value to the Indian audience.”[264] Vidya Niwas Misra believes that of these images, the mango-blossom is of particular importance in connection with Shakuntala’s character: “For Kalidasa the mango-blossom has therefore a treble meaning, as an object of nature, as an emblem of fruitful love and the Spring of youth and lastly as a symbol of womanhood realized in its completeness in motherhood. It also signifies the continuity of human existence and secondarily any offspring.”[265]


Yet if Shakuntala is so deeply associated with the positive creative forces of the mango-blossom, and if there is no jealousy or infidelity in nature as there is in the royal court, we might have to come up with another explanation for the spurned queen Hamsapadika’s song (in Act V) about Dusyanta’s infidelity. For in this song, not only are the images of nature used as a metaphor for the king’s cheating, but Hamsapadika herself takes the place of the mango-blossom, while Shakuntala is the lotus preferred by Dusyanta, the errant bee. Sawhney points out that “the [Shakuntala] who is forgotten is the early Shakuntala, so deer-like as to be almost a doe herself, so akin to the creeper, the leaf, the petal, as to be simply one more instance of the natural world whose submission to the king is eroticized (but also critiqued) by the movement of the drama.”[266] Not all is harmonious in nature.


Still, there is something fantastical about nature that Kalidasa is eager to bring out in Shakuntala. The very prologue shows us, through the actress’s Prakrit song about summer, just how easy (and pleasant) it is to lose oneself in the natural perfection of the forest.[267] Like Kanva’s pupils who accompany Shakuntala to Dusyanta’s court, we too are reluctant to leave the natural comforts of the forest: they, and we, curse the city and its king when nature (symbolized by Shakuntala) is rejected from a place beside urban life (symbolized by the king).[268] The traditional equation of outer beauty with inner virtue comes out in Kalidasa’s use of nature,[269] especially in the way that even the most “simple” of the forest’s characters are highly polite.[270]


While, as in the case of the king’s rejection of Shakuntala, the city is not always a pleasant place to be – we might also take as an example the policemen’s treatment of the fisherman – it can, at times, be as glorious as nature. “It is in [Kalidasa’s] words,” Ingalls reminds us, “that we first meet with the full luxury and sensuousness of Indian palace life. Doubtless there was a tradition of describing such scenes. But the contrast between the vague descriptions of golden halls and sky-towering palaces that we find in the epic and Kalidasa’s specific detail is marked.”[271] Perhaps Kalidasa’s genius was in allowing traditional ideas about both the forest and the urban environments to flourish in a new, creative way, while at the same time subverting and complicating those very images through the psychological action of the play.

Art and the Connoisseur

Shakuntala explores an interesting connection between the pleasure of love and the pleasure of art. “Kalidasa’s heroes are not just kings and lovers,” Stoler Miller notes, “but connoisseurs of natural beauty and art…According to Kalidasa, aesthetic pleasure, like deep love, depends on attention to detail and continual discovery of new associations.”[272] In the Shakuntala, connoisseurship appears with respect to visual art: “Everyone who has read Kalidasa will recall a verse or two on painting and sculpture,” Ingalls comments, “but it is only when these references are collected that one sees how deep an impression these arts made on the poet…One is reminded of the dependence of Virgil’s poetry on art, especially on mural painting.”[273]


An exemplary scene in Shakuntala is the scene in which Dusyanta examines a picture of Shakuntala that he has painted. Here, Sawhney writes, the king has involved himself in the painting so much that he is unable to relish it at a removed distance, as a connoisseur should. “The image is a great likeness, so evocative of Sakuntala that it can even be mistaken for her. But we are also shown that the paining is a reproduction, not only of Sakuntala, but (in a certain way) of Dusyanta as well: drops of perspiration and tears have smudged the painting just enough to make it an image of both the beloved and the lover’s despair. Indeed as the nymph Sanumati notes, the king’s experience now follows the lines of the painting (yathalikhitanubhavesah); meaning that he experiences again his meeting with Sakuntala as he paints her, the act of inscription now governing the movement of memory.”[274] It is as if his inability to act as a proper connoisseur in this scene symbolizes his psychological shift from the classic hero he once was to a different sort of person that he will become: a reflection, perhaps, of the older self that he remembers, yet new in his final union with Shakuntala.

Notes


  1. Ingalls, Daniel H. H. . "Kalidasa and the Attitudes of the Golden Age". Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol. 96, No. 1, 1976: 15-26, pp. 15.
  2. Ingalls, Daniel H. H. . "Kalidasa and the Attitudes of the Golden Age". Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol. 96, No. 1, 1976: 15-26, pp. 15.
  3. Ingalls, Daniel H. H. . "Kalidasa and the Attitudes of the Golden Age". Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol. 96, No. 1, 1976: 15-26, pp. 21.
  4. Ingalls, Daniel H. H. . "Kalidasa and the Attitudes of the Golden Age". Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol. 96, No. 1, 1976: 15-26, pp. 15.; Stoler Miller, Barbara. “Kalidasa’s World and His Plays.” Theater of Memory: The Plays of Kalidasa. Ed. Barbara Stoler Miller. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984. 3-41. pp. 10
  5. Ingalls, Daniel H. H. . "Kalidasa and the Attitudes of the Golden Age". Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol. 96, No. 1, 1976: 15-26, pp. 16.; Stoler Miller, Barbara. “Kalidasa’s World and His Plays.” Theater of Memory: The Plays of Kalidasa. Ed. Barbara Stoler Miller. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984. 3-41. pp. 10
  6. Mazumdar, B. C.. "The Date of Kalidasa". Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland Jul., 1909: 731-739. pp. 732
  7. Ingalls, Daniel H. H. . "Kalidasa and the Attitudes of the Golden Age". Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol. 96, No. 1, 1976: 15-26, pp. 16.
  8. "Chandra Gupta II." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 10 Oct. 2009 <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/92493/Chandra-Gupta-II>.
  9. Ingalls, Daniel H. H. . "Kalidasa and the Attitudes of the Golden Age". Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol. 96, No. 1, 1976: 15-26, pp. 16.
  10. Ingalls, Daniel H. H. . "Kalidasa and the Attitudes of the Golden Age". Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol. 96, No. 1, 1976: 15-26, pp. 16.
  11. Ingalls, Daniel H. H. . "Kalidasa and the Attitudes of the Golden Age". Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol. 96, No. 1, 1976: 15-26, pp. 16.
  12. Ingalls, Daniel H. H. . "Kalidasa and the Attitudes of the Golden Age". Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol. 96, No. 1, 1976: 15-26, pp. 16.
  13. Krishnamoorthy, K.. Kalidasa. New York: Twayne, 1972. pp. 12
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  15. Ryder, Arthur W.. “Kalidasa – His Life and Writings”. Introduction. Shakuntala and Other Writings by Kalidasa. By Arthur W. Ryder. New York: Dutton, 1959. pp. ix)
  16. Ingalls, Daniel H. H. . "Kalidasa and the Attitudes of the Golden Age". Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol. 96, No. 1, 1976: 15-26, pp. 18.
  17. Ingalls, Daniel H. H. . "Kalidasa and the Attitudes of the Golden Age". Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol. 96, No. 1, 1976: 15-26, pp. 17.
  18. Ingalls, Daniel H. H. . "Kalidasa and the Attitudes of the Golden Age". Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol. 96, No. 1, 1976: 15-26, pp. 18.
  19. Ryder, Arthur W.. “Kalidasa – His Life and Writings”. Introduction. Shakuntala and Other Writings by Kalidasa. By Arthur W. Ryder. New York: Dutton, 1959. pp. ix)
  20. Ingalls, Daniel H. H. . "Kalidasa and the Attitudes of the Golden Age". Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol. 96, No. 1, 1976: 15-26, pp. 21; Krishnamoorthy, K.. Kalidasa. New York: Twayne, 1972. pp. 12
  21. Stoler Miller, Barbara. “Kalidasa’s World and His Plays.” Theater of Memory: The Plays of Kalidasa. Ed. Barbara Stoler Miller. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984. 3-41. pp. 13
  22. Ingalls, Daniel H. H.. Rev. of India in Kalidasa by B. S. Upadhyaya (Allahabad, 1947). Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies Vol. 13, No. 3/4 1950: 581-583. pp. 582
  23. Ingalls, Daniel H. H. . "Kalidasa and the Attitudes of the Golden Age". Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol. 96, No. 1, 1976: 15-26, pp. 21.
  24. Ingalls, Daniel H. H. . "Kalidasa and the Attitudes of the Golden Age". Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol. 96, No. 1, 1976: 15-26, pp. 21.
  25. Ingalls, Daniel H. H. . "Kalidasa and the Attitudes of the Golden Age". Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol. 96, No. 1, 1976: 15-26, pp. 23.
  26. Ingalls, Daniel H. H. . "Kalidasa and the Attitudes of the Golden Age". Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol. 96, No. 1, 1976: 15-26, pp. 17.
  27. Ingalls, Daniel H. H. . "Kalidasa and the Attitudes of the Golden Age". Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol. 96, No. 1, 1976: 15-26, pp. 16.
  28. Stoler Miller, Barbara. “Kalidasa’s World and His Plays.” Theater of Memory: The Plays of Kalidasa. Ed. Barbara Stoler Miller. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984. 3-41. pp. 22
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  32. Stoler Miller, Barbara. “Kalidasa’s World and His Plays.” Theater of Memory: The Plays of Kalidasa. Ed. Barbara Stoler Miller. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984. 3-41. pp. 23
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