|Shakuntala stops to look back at Dushyanta, Painting by Raja Ravi Varma|
And these are water, first created thing;
And fire, which speeds the sacrifice begun;
The priest; and time's dividers, moon and sun;
The all-embracing ether, path of sound;
The earth, wherein all seeds of life are found;
And air, the breath of life: may he draw near,
Revealed in these, and bless those gathered here.
Even though Kalidasa is regarded as great poet and dramatist in the Sanskrit language, very little is known about his personal life. We don’t even have clarity about the century in which he was born. Some scholars believe that he lived in the 4th or the 5th century AD, but there are those who suggest that he could have been an even more ancient figure. There is similar confusion about the place of his birth. Though he was a prolific writer, in his works, he hardly mentions himself, so in reconstructing his life we have no other recourse except depending on the tantalising legends, which often deliver conflicting accounts. He was definitely close to the ruling class, because his plays carry the feeling of a lofty language that would certainly be more appealing to a refined court audience. These plays have stood the test of time, and they continue to be an intellectual treat for the erudite class as well as for the common readers of modern India. Today it is difficult for us to imagine Sanskrit literature without taking into account the distinct and glorious contributions that Kalidasa made many centuries ago.
None of the legends about Kalidasa contain even a grain of historical truth. According to one of the most popular ones, he was born in Benares, to a Brahmin family. He was six months old when he became an orphan and was adopted by an ox-driver. Even though he didn’t have any formal education, he grew up into a remarkably handsome and well-mannered man. It could have been his fate to eke a living as a humble ox-driver, but it was his good looks that changed the course of his life. The Princess of Benares had already rejected many suitors, among them a senior member of her father’s court, because she was filled with the desire of marrying a scholar and poet of high calibre. The rejected member of the court developed a plan to extract cruel revenge. He picked up Kalidasa from the street and gave him the garments of a learned person, and also a retinue of eminent thinkers. Thereafter, he brought him in presence of the princess. Kalidasa had already been coached that he was not supposed to open his mouth in front of the princess; in response to anything she said, he was only supposed to make random gestures, which would be interpreted by the thinkers accompanying him.
According to the legend, the princess was impressed by Kalidasa’s beauty and by his obstinate silence, which she thought was a sign of profound wisdom. She expressed the desire of marrying him, and so they departed for the temple. But while the marriage ceremony was still on, Kalidasa perceived the image of a bull, and he could hardly stop himself from behaving like an ox-driver. The bride was furious, but now it was too late for her to back out. They had already been married. The realisation dawned on Kalidasa that he had made a grave mistake by tricking her into marrying him. He entreated her to forgive him. She advised him to pray to goddess Kali for the boon of learning and poetry. The prayer was granted, and eruditeness and poetical power descended miraculously on the young ox-driver, who in gratitude towards the goddess assumed the name of Kalidasa, which means servant of Kali. According to another twist in the same legend, Kalidasa is said to have invoked goddess Kali for solace when he was going to the pond to commit suicide because he had been humiliated by his wife, the princess, for his ignorance and coarseness. The goddess came to his rescue and he was rewarded with the sudden and extraordinary gift of literature and wit.
There is another interesting legend that depicts Kalidasa engaging in a pilgrimage to a shrine of Vishnu in Southern India in the company of two other famous writers, Bhavabhuti and Dandin. But this legend is certainly false, as the three writers were not contemporaries. The mystery surrounding Kalidasa’s birth and life has created the leeway for some scholars to opine that he might have been of foreign origin. To prove their theory, these scholars suggest that Kalidasa’s name was almost certainly an adopted one, as it has been suggested by many different legends. Also during this period there was a strong stigma associated with the suffix ‘dasa’ in anyone’s name, and orthodox Hindus tended to avoid its use. It is also felt that Kalidasa’s resolute devotion to Brahminical creed might be indicative of the zeal of a convert. But the idea of Kalidasa being of foreign origin is simply too farfetched to be true, and so it has to be rejected immediately. There is no historical evidence to suggest that he could have immigrated to India from some foreign land. He is the foremost cultural and literally icon for most Indians, and so it is difficult for us to even consider the theory that he could have been foreigner.
Many legends suggest that there was a strong connection between Kalidasa and the court of the King Vikramaditya, who ruled from the city of Ujjain, located in west-central India. Vikramaditya was a noble and powerful ruler; the citizens of his country liked him, as he was kind ruler, who showed concern for the welfare of his people, and was a great patron of all kinds of arts and sciences. He had won glory in war by engineering a decisive victory over barbarians who were pressing into India through the northern passes. In his court, King Vikramaditya is said to have ‘nine gems,’ which included leading intellectuals from the fields of literature, science and religious discourse. Kalidasa was one of the nine gems. It is generally believed that the Vikramaditya, meaning ‘son of valour’ is not a proper name; it is a title, like Pharaoh or Tsar. Kalidasa’s writings indicate that he had spent a major part of his life in Ujjain, so a case can certainly be made that he had an important role to play in the court of King Vikramaditya. Perhaps, the plays he wrote were meant for the entertainment of the king. There are some instances in his plays where he seems to be directly or indirectly paying a tribute to the king.
The affection that Kalidasa had for city of Ujjain shows in his literature. This is especially obvious from the lines in his lyrical poem Meghaduta (Cloud Messenger), where he has focussed mainly on the city’s charms. He goes to the extent of bidding the cloud to make a detour in its long journey, so that it would not miss the opportunity of witnessing the beauty of the city. His works also indicate that he must have travelled through many different parts of the country. For instance, in the fourth canto of Raghuvamsa (The Dynasty of Raghu), he has described an engrossing tour of many far off lands. It is unlikely that Kalidasa could have given such realistic description without personally experiencing the scenery of those places. There could also be an element of truth in the legend that has him going to the southern parts of India on a pilgrimage. For that matter even Meghaduta carries extensive passages describing long journeys over India, through regions that are located far from Ujjain, where Kalidasa was based. The natural landscape that impressed him most was the mountains. Almost all of his works are full of highly descriptive passages on the Himalayas or other picturesque mountain ranges. He is thought to be the only Sanskrit poet of antiquity who has described a flower that grows only in Kashmir.
According to some legends Kalidasa was a devotee of the goddess Kali, by whose boon his poetic talents seemed to have developed. However, in his poetry, he shows same amount of empathy to the different sects of Hinduism that had evolved during his time. The dedicatory poems that form the prelude to his dramas are always addressed to Lord Shiva. But this might be merely a case of his keeping up with the convention, as Shiva is traditionally considered to be the patron of literature. From the readings of Kalidasa’s works, one can also draw the conclusion that he was a man of considerable learning. A very able master must have tutored him, and Kalidasa himself must also have done lot of self-study. During his time, the usage of Sanskrit had become restricted to the elite circles of society and still he was able to have a great mastery over Sanskrit language. He had also developed an acute sense of observation, which is very essential for a man of literature. He describes the various phenomenon of nature with the accuracy of a proficient poet.
It is so easy for the modern reader to empathise with words that Kalidasa has used to describe a water lily at sunset:
The water lily closes, but
With wonderful reluctance;
As if it troubled her to shut
Her door of welcome to the bee.
Kalidasa’s works lead us to the conclusion that he was handsome, and he possessed a fascination for women. He had an optimistic or a positive view of the world, and that is perhaps the reason why his stories always have a positive ending. Such personality traits have also been accorded to Kalidasa by a number of scholars whose accounts appear in ancient works.
The three dramas that are generally attributed to Kalidasa are, Mālavikāgnimitram ((Malavika and Agnimitra), Abhijñānaśākuntalam (Shakuntala) and Vikramōrvaśīyam (Urvashi won by Valour). All three are written in prose, which is generously intermingled with lyrics and descriptive stanzas. The playwrights in Sanskrit, who followed Kalidasa, seem to have been highly inspired by his style. That is why most Sanskrit plays consist of an intermingling of prose with lyrics and descriptive stanzas. It is not quite clear to what extent Kalidasa was inspired by the literary traditions that existed in his own era, but it is generally believed that he was remarkably faithful to traditional ideas. Most scholars are of the opinion that Malavika and Agnimitra was the first play that he wrote. Urvashi won by Valour was his last work. The famous play called Shakuntala was written in the middle of his career, when his prowess as a writer was at its peak. Till this day Shakuntala is considered to be a masterpiece, it was the first to be translated into English and since then it has been translated into many other languages.
The play titled Malavika and Agnimitra narrates the story of King Agnimitra who becomes infatuated with the image of Malavika, a servant girl who has been exiled. Unfortunately, the queen learns about the king’s infatuation with the servant girl. In a fit of fury and jealousy, she has Malavika incarcerated. But it soon comes to light that the servant girl was a trueborn princess, so the affair between her and the king was a legitimate one. Urvashi won by Valour is the story of eternal love affair that gets kindled between the mortal king Pururavas and the celestial nymph Urvashi, when he rescues her from demons. Their only wish is to live together, but Lord Indra of heavens forces Pururavas to part from Urvashi. She goes back to the heavens, where an unfortunate accident transpires, and she is forced to return to earth, with a curse that she will die and return to heaven the moment her lover sets his eyes on the child that she bears for him. Pururavas and Urvashi start living together, and series of mishaps ensue. At one point of time, Urvashi gets transformed into a vine, but play ends on a happy note, with the curse being lifted and the two lovers being allowed to live together on earth.
The theme in Shakuntala, Kalidasa’s most popular play, is borrowed from Mahabharata. This is a play in seven acts, each one of which revolves around the vagaries in the life of the eponymous heroine. The drama begins with King Dushyanta, who enters the stage in a chariot with a bow and arrow in his hand. He is perusing a deer, when he meets Shakuntala, who is the beautiful adopted daughter of a sage. It is love at first sight. They get married, but before the marriage can be announced to the world, a mishap happens and the king is summoned back to the court. While the king is away, the sage returns to find Shakuntala pregnant. He is furious and he curses her that her husband, King Dushyanta, will forget her completely until he sees the ring he has left with her. After that even more misfortunes strike her. In an advanced state of pregnancy, while she is on her way to King Dushyanta’s court, she loses the ring, and the king fails to recognize her. But the ring is found by a fisherman, who notices the royal seal, and returns it to King Dushyanta. The moment the King sets his eyes on the ring, he remembers Shakuntala and he immediately sets out to find her. Soon they are reunited.
These are the lyrical words that Kashyapa, the father of the Gods, uses to declare that the curse had been lifted and Shakuntala was free to live happily with King Dushyanta:
The curse it was that brought defeat and pain;
The darkness flies; you are his queen again.
Reflections are not seen in dusty glass,
Which, cleaned, will mirror all the things that pass.
Kalidasa has developed Shakuntala’s character with such mastery that every other character in the play pales into insignificance beside her. She dominates the play. She is on the stage in five of the seven acts; in the other two, in which she does not participate directly, her spirit drives the drama forward. When we encounter her for the first time, she is a simple maiden, whose entire life has been spent in the secluded confines of a hermit’s cottage. Yet she proves capable of meeting with courage all the travails with which life tests her. For more than 1500 years this play has captivated the hearts and minds of the Indian audience.