The Recognition of Kalidasa

May 19, 2012 § 1 Comment

Kalidasa: The Loom of Time (Rajan, Chandra)

In the 18th Century, as Edward Said notes in Orientalism, Western scholars began their first hesitant attempts to ‘invade the Orient by stripping off its veils’, which is to say that they tried to understand the inscrutable people who had fallen into their custody, not by talking to them, but by reading the books they revered. So it was that the eccentric Abraham-Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron translated the Zend Avesta and the Upanishads into French, and Charles Wilkins, an employee of the East India Company, translated the Institutes of Manu and the Bhagwad Gita into English. But it was Wilkins’ assistant, the extraordinary William Jones, who stumbled upon Kalidasa’s  Abhijnana Sakuntalam (the Recognition of Sakuntala), and brought it to Europe. It was the first piece of secular literature in Sanskrit that had been translated into a European language, and it was an instant hit. Herder and Goethe swooned over it. Franz Schubert named a two-act opera, and Ernest Reyer a ballet, after the eponymous heroine. Novalis and Schlegel exhorted their countrymen to study India and to apply the principles of Indian culture and religion to revitalize their own civilization, and the British hailed Kalidasa as the Indian Shakespeare.

What condescending colonialist nonsense, my sister told me long ago, when I was barely ten and would hang on to her every word. Kalidasa came first; it is Shakespeare who should be called the English Kalidasa. Yes, I said dutifully. The logic was flawless. Besides, the cheek of the Brits to claim to have discovered Our Kalidasa – as though we had temporarily misplaced him, or that he had been lying unnoticed, covered in goat droppings, in some jungle ruins. Wasn’t there an unbroken tradition among Sanskrit writers from the 7th century Bana Bhatta to the 19th century Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar  of invoking Kalidasa as their master in a preamble to their own writings? The man needed discovery no more than the nose on my face.

In my mind, therefore, Kalidasa and Shakespeare were purely political symbols, until decades later, I finally read both (embarrassingly, Shakespeare in original and now, Kalidasa as translated by Chandra Rajan) and so could actually form an opinion.

Sakuntala day-dreams about her absent lover. She doesn’t notice the entry, left centre, of the Sage Durvasa. Gripping drama by Kalidasa, picture by Raja Ravi Verma, courtesy

Chandra’s book features two long poems (Rtusamhara, the Collection of Seasons, and Meghadutam, the Cloud Messenger) as well as the play in question, Abhijnana Sakuntalam (The Recognition of Sakuntala, referred to in the rest of the article as Sakuntala). About the poems, I will be brief. There is not a lot that can be said about poetry read in translation. The yawning abyss that the translator has to bridge involves not merely language, but geographical, historical, and socio-cultural context; for me, it was a bridge too far. Idioms and imagery that are stunning in one context can seem convoluted and contrived in a different one; the lyricism is easily lost; and it is only the meaning of the lines, not that of the poem, that can be conveyed faithfully with ease. Even so, Meghadutam is impressive – its premise is audacious, and it makes a critical and deliberate poetic choice in its impatience with non-essential plotlines and characterization while lingering lovingly on emotion and imagery. Reading Meghadutam, I was suddenly aware that I was dealing with an intelligent poet, not merely an inspired one, and this prepared me for Sakuntala.

Sakuntala is a play, and so, unlike in the Meghadutam, Kalidasa is hugely concerned with the unfolding of the plot and the evolution of characters. The manner in which he does so resembles Shakespeare’s techniques immediately. Rajan points out in her introduction that the finding of the lost son in Sakuntala precedes and leads to the recognition of the mother’s chastity, a plotline with an exact parallel in The Winter’s Tale – but the similarities run deeper than that.

Sakuntala was not an original tale but an adaptation of an episode from an existing legend: much of Shakespeare is just the same. Kalidasa sticks to an overall plot and embellishes it with detail to make it gripping theater (like the bit about the ring, which is not there in the original Mahabharata tale); Shakespeare does little else. But it is in the characters they created that Kalidasa and Shakespeare are most alike.

Sakuntala’s character blossoms gradually through the play, eeriely anticipating Juliet’s. They both begin as shy and painfully innocent girls (Juliet is only 14 years old, Sakuntala 16), but by the end of the play, they are both self-possessed young ladies, with a mind of their own, a fierce streak of independence, and a regal dignity. But Sakuntala isn’t even the most Shakespearean of Kalidasa’s characters: it is Madhavya the court jester, the King’s constant companion in merry-making and part-time advisor in times of angst.

Shakespeare loved madness and foolery. As Marjorie Garber points out in Shakespeare after All (reviewed here), he uses madmen and jesters very deliberately to increase the tension in the play. They proclaim in jest what the audience realizes is the truth, but they are disregarded by the other characters. This is part of the central fiction of the art of drama, the pretense that every play-goer must accept unquestioningly when he steps into a theater – that the playwright can share with his audience things that he has kept secret from his own characters on stage. Kalidasa is not only aware of the theory, he has perfected it: he uses Madhavya in the same deliberate way that Shakespeare does with his motley collection of fools, madmen and friends of the hero.

In Madhavya, I saw Benvolio mocking the infatuated Romeo; I saw Hamlet, with a sharp tongue and unsentimental brain; I saw the Fool knocking sense into his tragic master Lear. Above all, from the very first line he hobbles on to stage to speak, I saw Sir John Falstaff in Madhavya.

 MADHAVYA: O, this cruel play of Fate: I am reduced to a state of such misery; and why? Because I am the constant companion of the King – he is obsessed with the chase. We rattle along forest trails to the cries of ‘here’s a deer’, and ‘there’s a boar’; even in the intense heat of the noonday sun in summer, when there is scarcely any shade to be seen. When we are thirsty what do we drink – phew – the putrid water of mountain streams, tepid, bitter and with rotting leaves floating in them. As for food, we eat at all odd hours – meat most of the time, roasted on spits – wolfing it down flaming hot. O misery upon misery! The bones in my body are all out of joint, galloping without a break on horseback. How can a man sleep well in this state? …but is that the end of the story? No, sir – no indeed. …

Is this not a gloriously Falstaffian monologue? And then, a little later, I saw something of the cruel Prince Hal in the young King Duhsanta, when, after exchanging repartee after repartee with Madhavya, he turns to the audience and sotto voces:

 KING (To Himself): This fellow tends to prattle. He may blurt out something…

 Like Shakespeare, Kalidasa knows when the Jester is important, and where he has no place. As Rajan mentions, it is no accident that Madhavya is absent in the climactic court scene where Sakuntala is rejected by Duhsanta. Madhavya is far too intelligent not to have prematurely deduced the truth, announced it to the world, destroyed the tension, stolen the scene and ruined the play. Exactly as in Shakespeare, Kalidasa’s characters are fully-formed and alive, and the playwright can only dictate whether or not they should be on the stage, not how they would behave when there.

Like Prince Hal, Duhsanta romps around with Madhavya at the beginning of the play, but when war and tragedy mould his character into that of a serious, responsible grown up, neither he nor Kalidasa has any further use for Madhavya, who is dismissed from the play, politely but summarily, at the end of Act 6. I was actually relieved: Falstaff’s fate, when he tried to force a return, was far worse. But once again, just like Shakespeare, Kalidasa knew exactly what he was doing at every point.

 Shakespeare and Kalidasa have one more thing in common: they have sketched immortal characters and shaped language and legend, but they have not left us with much detail about themselves. So anonymous is Kalidasa that scholars are still arguing about when he lived, and the dates being discussed are half a millennium apart.

 Tragically, the lack of biographical information extends to his translator, Professor Chandra Rajan, on whom, too, there is next to nothing on the Internet. This is a shame, because it is due to her that I rediscovered the story of Sakuntala, and in the process, finally recognized Kalidasa and Shakespeare for what they were: two men linked by utter goddishness, one of them accidentally born in Stratford, and the other, equally accidentally, in Ujjain, but both belonging to the entire world.


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