Indian Classical Literature Unit 1 Classical Sanskrit Drama

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Indian Classical Literature Unit 1 Classical Sanskrit Drama

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Classical Sanskrit Drama


  • Kalidasa
  • Abhijnana Shakuntalam 

Kalidasa enjoys an unparalleled reputation as a poet, not only in India, but also the world over. Bound as they were in the very ancient language of Sanskrit and the old dialects of Prakrits, his works were nearly unknown beyond the peaks of the Himalayas and the seashores of India, till in 1789 A.D. Sir William Jones broke the barriers of language, by translating Kalidasa’s Abhijnana into English. He was aware that the barrier was not limited to the language. The vistas opened up by the play were different, new, and yet intriguing in their universal pull. That was the beginning of globalisation in this century. Sir William Jones rightly remarked “The tastes of men differ as much as their sentiments and passions and in feeling the beauties of art as in smelling flowers, tasting fruits, viewing prospects and hearing a melody. Every individual must be guided by his own sensations and the incommunicable association of his own ideas.” The charm of a great classic as a work of art,.in common with all great works of art, lies in its eternal freshness and novelty; and to each and every mind, a great work will reveal a new meaning and a new charm, which alone is the source of the joy one derives from reading it. 

This enjoyment is termed as Rasa, the soul of poetry. Though basically a subjective experience, it depends to some extent on the props provided by the poet in his works; the plot, the characters, and the descriptions of the environment, which are helpful in arousing the emotions and sentiments of the readers/spectators. Hence the poets are termed as Rasasiddah (adept in arousing conditions). Kalidasa’s fame as a poet and dramatist rests on his ability and skill to take his spectators to the peaks of enjoyment and poetic relish. This has resulted in the universal appeal of his play and eulogies from great scholars like Goethe and Rabindranath Tagore. M.R. Kale, a great scholar, in his introduction to the play Abhijnana Shakuntalam, succinctly describes his poetic merits. He asks, “What is that in Kalidasa which establishes his un-disputed claim to the highest honour which is thus bestowed upon him?” And answers “His poetic genius has brought Sanskrit poetry to the highest elegance and refinement. His style is peculiarly pure and chaste.

It is inartificial and is characterised by brevity.”An unaffected simplicity of expression and an easy-flowing language mark his writings, which are embellished with smiles, unparalleled for their beauty and appropriateness, and pithy general sayings. His diction is marked by the absence of long compounds, involved constructions, overwrought rheto-ric and artificial puns; Kalidasa excels other poets in his description of the sublime and the beautiful. It is a principle recognized by all modern critics that Nature must be the life and essence of poetry and in this respect; Kalidasa is essentially a poet of Nature (of course in the limited sense of the term which it is possible to attach to it, in those times of gay luxury and general prosperity). He describes with most effective touches the gorgeous scenery of the Himalayas’ it’ snowclad and mineral covered summits, the peaks where sunshine ever reigns, the fragrant and cool breezes blowing there; the wilds with the hunt-ers, the musk deer, the potent herbs shedding lustre at night, the chamara deer, and the Mahasa lake. His description of the Ganges and the peaceful hermitage life is very striking and life-like. His descriptive powers are great, and some of the scenes in the Shakuntalam, the Meghaduta and the Raghuvamsa are so enchanting as to hold his readers spell-bound. And as regards the Suggestive poetry (dhvani-kavya)-the kind of poetry which suggests even more than what it expresses, he is a master of acknowledged skill. 

We have very little knowledge about his personal life. and that is not authenticated. The poet has studiously observed complete silence about himself in his works. In the words of Hazlitt.” He was the least of an egotist that it was possible to be.” His poetic productions alone stand as an immortal monument to his poetic excellence. We can gather very little information about Kalidasa from external sources: but a few incidents related here and there in his works do have a distant bearing upon the history of his life. A time-honoured tradition, supported by internal and external evidence. associates the name of Kalidasa with that of the epoch-making King Vikramaditya of Ujjayini. The keen interest and admiration with which the poet describes the Mahakala temple, the Shipra River and other beauties of Ujjayini, unmistakably point to the conclusion that he must have been a native of that city. Kalidasa also demonstrates considerable acquaintance with court life in his works. This circumstance, coupled with the fact that there is no allusion in his writings to the goddess of wealth having ever frowned upon him, shows that he was in affluent circumstances.

He was a Brahmana by caste and was a devout worshipper of Siva, though by no means a sectarian. He seems to have travelled a good deal, at least in Northern India. For, as Dr. Bhau Daji remarks, he is the only poet who describes a living saf-fron flower, a plant that grows in Kashmir. His graphic description of the Himalayan scenes looks very much like that of one who was an eyewitness. He admired field-sports, and described their beneficial effects with the exactness of a true sportsman. Though fond of pleasures, he was not the unscrupulous voluptuary. He appears to have been against love marriages, though always actuated with the most generous sentiments towards the fair sex. His works bear further testimony to his considerable acquaintance with the Vedas, the philosophy taught by the Upanishads, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Puranas, and the systems of the Samkhya, Yoga and Vedantic Medicine and the rudiments of Astronomy. 

The poet’s excellent reputation inspired other unscrupulous poets to adopt his name as “author’ for their works. Thus, in Sanskrit literary history, there are many poets who bear the name Kalidasa. Generally, seven works are accepted as his: three plays, two epic poems and two lyrical poems. Abhijnana Shakuntalam, Vilcramorvashiyva, Malavikagnimitram, Raghuvamsam, Kumara Sambhavam, Meghadutam and Ritusamhara. The most convenient and reliable method of studying the development of a poet’s mind and its relation to his productions would be to read his works in their chronological order. But we have no external evidence to ascertain the chronology. A safe guess is to place the least refined, Ritusamhara as the first and the most sophisticated, Abhijnana Shakuntalam as the last.

The play dealing with the recognition (Abhijnana) of Shakuntala is aptly called Shakunt lam or Abhijnana Shakuntalam. It is a play in seven Acts, based on the well-known love-story of King Dushyanta and the maiden Shakuntala, as given in the ancient Indian epic, the Mahabharata. The scene of the first four acts is laid at sage Canvas hermitage at the foot of the Himalayas, and later it shifts to the capital Hastinapura in Acts V and VI. The final act depicts Marica’s hermitage on the Hemakuta Mountain. The story of the play, act wise, Will serve as a base for a critical analysis of the play. 


After the Benedictory stanza invoking Lord Shiva, the Manager of the play has a dialogue with his consort. In the course of that the play is introduced, and then king Dushyanta in full hunting garb followed by his charioteer. While the king is about to shoot his arrow at an antelope pursued by him. he is interrupted by an ascetic, who informs him that the animal belongs to the hermitage of sage Kanva (Kashyapa), and the sanctity of the place must not be violated by its slaughter. The king refrains from killing and is then invited to receive such hospitalities as the hermitage could offer. Sage Kanva is away, but his daughter Shakuntala is there, who will certainly look after the guest’s comfort.

The king accepts the invitation, and asking his charioteer to wait outside, enters the hermitage. There he finds three girls of exquisite loveliness, watering the flowering plants and shrubs. He at once falls in love with Shakuntala, who is one of them. The other two are her companions Anasuya and Priyamvada. The king, who was hitherto concealed in the background. goes forth at a suitable point in their talk, and addresses them. In the course of the general conversation that ensues, he learns that Shakuntala is Canvas adopted daughter, being born of the celestial nymph Menaka by the sage Visvamitra, and deserted by her natural parents. He thus discovers that she is of Kshatriya parentage, and therefore a suit-able bride for him. He. however. does not reveal his true identity to them, intending to remain incognito for the present. In the meanwhile news comes of an elephant running amok and causing damage, and at that the girls depart. Shakuntala too has fallen in love with the king and directs longing glances at him while leaving. The king departs with a heart overpowered by love. 


The second act introduces the king in a lovesick condition. His companion, the court jester, is trying in his own way to soothe and divert his royal master’s mind. The king first of all directs his General (of the army) to stop the chase (hunting) and to order his followers not to disturb the hermitage. Then he tells the jester about his having fallen in love with Shakuntala. The king asks his companion to find out some means by which he can manage to stay in the vicinity, without arousing comment or suspicion. His problem is solved, quite unexpectedly, when some ascetics come and request the king to stay and look after the safety of their sacrificial rites, which are being disturbed by evil spirits. The king readily accepts the invi-tation. At the same time, he sends off the Jester to the capital (I hastinapur) to be near his royal mother; and lest he might talk and make his forest-love known to others. he tells him, with all appearance of sincerity, that the affair of Shakuntala was a joke, and signified nothing. 


In the interlude it is stated that Shakuntala is now af-fected by the malady of love, and is lying on a bed of flowers, with her two friends ministering to her. Then the king is introduced in a lovesick condition. He proceeds to the bower where Shakuntala and her friends are s :atcd. Shakuntala confesses her passion for Dushyanta to them. The king takes advantage of this opportunity to enter and make a formal declaration of his suit. At this union of the lovers, the friends discreetly withdraw. The lovers are alerted about the arrival of the elderly lady-ascetic, Gautami and bid adieu. The disconsolate king finds active work in his accepted occupation of keeping the evil spirits away from the sacrificial altars. 


In the interlude, the conversation between the two friends reveals that Dushyanta has married Shakuntala by the gandharva form of marriage, and then leaves for his capital, after promising to send a suitable guard to bring his bride to his palace. When Shakuntala is alone in the hermitage. Her thoughts being away with her absent husband, she fails to offer proper hospitality to the choleric sage Durvasas when he visits the hermitage. The hot tempered sage curses her, saying “He, of whom thou art thinking, even while neglecting to receive me properly as a guest, will not remember you even when reminded (by you)”. Fortunately, her friends hear him, one of whom pleads with him, and obtains a concession insofar that the curse would cease to have effect, on the production of some token of recognition. Since the friends know that Shakuntala and Dushyanta ring as a token, they are relieved. And so they decide not to say anything about the curse, even to Shakuntala. 

After the Interlude, there is a passage of a few days before the next act begins. Priyamvada informs Anasuya that sage Kanva has returned to the hermitage. He has come to know through a spiritual voice about Shakuntala’s marriage and pregnancy, and has approved of it. The sage arranges to send her to her husband’s place. The whole scene, depicting Shakuntala’s departure from the penance grove, where she has resided so long, and where ties of affection bind every plant, creeper and animal to her, is very touchingly portrayed. It also contains Kanvas well-known advice to Shakuntala on the duties of a wife and a mother. 


The scene shifts to Dushyanta’s capital. The ascetics escorting Shakuntala arrive at the royal palace. After an exchange of greetings, the escorting sage, Sarngarava, conveys Canvas message. requesting him to accept his wife Shakuntala. The king, under the influence of the curse, denies the whole affair, and even Shakuntala fails to rouse his curse-swept memory. As a last resort, she wants to show a humilis ring as a means of recognition; but as ill luck would have it, it has slipped off her fingers, into the river-waters. Mutual recriminations lead to nothing. Her es-corts leave her to her fate and leave. The Royal priest takes the responsibility of her custody. But meanwhile a celestial lady descends and carries Shakuntala away. The king is left musing in a gloom of vexatious uncertainty. 


A fisherman, whom the police accused of theft, discovers the ring inside a fish. The king, whose curse is removed at the sight of the ring, of course, lets him off. He remembers his marriage with Shakuntala, whom he has repudiated. He is now deeply grieved, but is helpless. In the course of his sorrow Sanumati, a friend of Menaka, closely watches him. The king seeks to divert his mind, but at every moment he finds his grief harrowing deep down into his soul. And to aggravate the situation, he receives a letter from his minister, announcing the death of a merchant named Dhanamitra, who dies sonless and whose property goes to the royal treasury. This leads the king to reflect pensively on his own sonless state, until his grief makes him unconscious. Matali, the chari-oteer of Lord Indra, the king of the gods, creates a welcome diversion at this time. He arrives with a message from his master to Dushyanta: to proceed forthwith to battle with certain troublesome demons, the enemies of Indra. Dushyanta ascends and leaves in Indra’s chariot. 


The king is successful in his expedition and Indra showers him with extraordinary honour. While returning through the sky, in the chariot driven by Matali, Dushyanta alights on mountain Hemakuta, where the holy sage Maricha (Kashyapa) resides, and to whom the king wanted to offer his salutations. At that hermitage, while Matali goes to seek Marica, the king comes across a young boy. the very image of himself, playing with a lion’s cub. He feels a strange attachment to the child. In the course of a talk with the boy’s attendant women, it comes out that he belongs to the Puru race (Dushyanta’s race was Puru), and that his mother’s name is Shakuntala. The king starts wondering whether the boy is his son. He picks up the boy’s magical amulet that only the parents could touch, and to the surprise of the ascetics there it doesn’t turn into a snake. In the meantime Shakuntala enters. Mutual explanations follow and the pair is reconciled. Matali comes and takes them to meet Marica. The sage explains about the curse and the king is exonerated. A messenger is sent to Kanva and the sage comes and blesses the couple and child. The main incidents in the development of the plot of the play are the entry of the king into Kanva’s hermitage; the mutual love at first sight of Dushyanta and Shakuntala; their gandharva marriage; the curse of Durvasas Muni; Shakuntala’s departure for hastinapura; the loss of the ring; the repudiation of Shakuntala in the court; her being carried away by a celestial nymph; the discovery of the ring; the king’s agony; Dushyanta’s help to Indra; his visit to Marica’s hermitage; and the reunion of Dushyanta and Shakuntala. 

Dushyanta And Sakuntala

Kalidasa’s Abhijnanashakuntalam is considered a masterpiece of classical literature in India. It has been admired greatly in the west too. Having been the subject of numerous commentaries and critical studies in many Indian languages including Sanskrit, it has generated a vast body of artistic responses from early mediaeval to contemporary India. However, precious little is known about the actual conditions of production or performance of Abhijnanashakuntalam or its author Kalidas.Kalidas has been widely acknowledged as a master poet of Sanskrit. The richness of his poetry has attracted many legends to his name across centuries. One of these is Taranatha’s recounting of a tale about Kalidasa’s transformation from a fool to a great poet, who gains unlimited knowledge through the divine grace of Goddess Kali whence he came to be known as Kalidasa. 

Kalidasa’s great reputation in literature has been consolidated through a coherence of style, technique, language and sentiment found in six works, which have been generally attributed to him. Of these, there are three plays or dramas in which Kalidasa has been referred to as the author of the plays, found at the very beginning of the prologue to these plays. The plays are Malvikagnimitra, Vikramovarsiya and Abhijnanashakuntalam. The title of each play is either a combination of the names of the hero and the heroine of the play as is the case in Malavikagnimitra (Malvika and Agnimitra), or the central idea in the play such as the Vilcramovarsia translated as Urvasi, who was won by valour. The three poems include two long lyric narratives-Kumarasambhava and Raghuvamsa, and Meghaduta which is a monologue of nature in the lyric mode. 

There is a lack of certainty regarding Kalidasa’s exact dates. However, an upper limit of AD 634 has been provided through external historical sources in which Kalidasa has been praised as a great poet of classical literature. Many literary accounts relate stories. about Kalidasa serving as Chandragupta II’s envoy or ambassador to other kingdoms. Scholars have pointed out that the poet’s knowledge of the geography of cities and vil-lages of north India may be a case in point. In Meghaduta for instance, Kalidasa’s beautiful description of hills, rivers and city life of Malwa and Ujjayini shows his attachment to, and his experience of court and administrative life in this region.” 

The many references in Kalidasa’s works to court life and culture, structures and processes of administration, thus point to his intimate knowledge of Gupta dynasty’s rule under Chandragupta II, who ascended the throne around AD 375. For example, various references to the word `vikrama’ as in the title of his drama, Vikramovarsiya may refer to Chandragupta ll,who had explicitly fashioned himself and was known widely as `Vikrama’ and Vikramaditya’ His capital was Pataliputra, one of the earliest capitals in ancient Ganga valley civilization. 

Due to such views about Kalidasa being a court poet during the reign of Chandragupta II, it has also been argued by many literary scholars that Kalidasa enjoyed royal patronage. His audiences included people belonging to the court. This is suggested strongly by the fact that the figure of the King plays a central role in the three plays and his long poems too. And this is also borne out in the sense that one gets of the geographical, historical and linguistic conditions of life in his plays. Therefore Kalidasa’s life is shrouded in mystery which scholars have tried to reconstruct through various textual and historical evidences, but the fact remains is that he has acquired a great name for himself amongst spectators and audiences across centuries. 

Abhijnanashakuntalam and Classical theatre and Culture 

The Prologue to the play Abhijnanashakuntalam, states that it is a `navena natakam’. `Nataka’ or drama was said to be different from epic poetry, narrative poetry or fic-tion in that it was styled as a spectacle with emphases on both aural and visual means of communication of meaning of the play. In fact, the audience of a play was referred to as `preksaka'(spectator) and not a stotra’ (audience).

Here, one must understand that the origin of Sanskrit drama is shrouded in mystery. Yet it is an important field of literature in India which has had a full, varied and rich development and reception history across time. In fact, many historians argue that it throws light on the life, culture and the customs of Hindu society, in particular, during the five or six centuries that preceded the conquest of the region by Muslims. 

According to Bharata’s principles of dramaturgy, drama is a vehicle of education presented in the form of a delightful spectacle combining aural and visual elements. “It teaches duty to those who violate duty, desire to those addicted to love; it reprimands those who behave rudely, promotes restraint in those who are disciplined.. It gives courage to cowards. It enlightens fools and gives learning to learned men.” ¥ Kalidasa’s literary compositions too are complex and multilayered works which dramatise conflicting philosophies of art and life and are an important site for exploring issues of caste, class, gender, kingship, motherhood and romance. 

Kalidasa’s plays accord well with the principles of drama enshrined in Bharata’s `Natyashastra,” which is the earliest work on dramaturgy in India. His plays present a tension between desire on the one hand and duty, on the other. This tension is explored in the play through the presentation of how the hero and the heroine conduct themselves in relation to prescribed norms of behaviour in society. For instance, King Dusyanta is seen as forgetting his duties as a King when he falls in love with Sakuntala in the forest. Also Sakuntala is punished by Durvasa when she forgets the codes of behaviour in the asrama and does not greet him in the appropriate manner as is the norm in the asrama. This conflict is presented in the play through the aesthetic representation ofthis conflicting relationship between heroic sentiment(vira rasa) and the erotic(smgararasa). 

It is crucial to understand that the production and presentation of ‘rasa’ is central to classical theatre in India. The ‘rasa’ or the ‘mood’ is essentially the distilled sentiment or the dominant mood in a particular situation, that the poet presents to provide the audience with insight into the situation. The experience of rasa thus heightens the pleasure of the experience of drama. The eight ‘rasas’ are the heroic, the erotic, the comic, the furious, the pathetic, the disgusting, the horrible and the marvellous.

The heroic and the erotic are central to Kalidasa’s drama and Sanskrit drama in general. In the play ‘Malvikagniinitra’ for instance, Kalidasa presents the view that drama’s representation of the balance between duty or the gentle mode and desire or the wild mode of human action is derived from Siva’s androgynous body and Nature.” This invocation of the benediction of both Gods and Kings in his drama further points towards the idea that Kalidasa was a court poet and that drama in his time was dominated by kings and Brahmanas in royal courts. Yet it has been suggested that a medley of spectators enjoyed the performance which can be discerned from Kalidasa’s use of various dialects of Prakrit in the play which was the language of the common people.

Most scholars agree on the view that Kalidasa’s play Abhijnanashakuntalam is largely based on the Sakuntala narrative of the epic The Mahabharata. Yet this appropriation includes significant modifications to the original narrative in the epic. The differences between the epic version of the Sakuntala story and Kalidasa’s modified one in his play helps to illuminate and throw light on various questions of kingship, caste, class and gender that made up the social fabric of life and existence in the Gupta period.” Traditionally, the conflict between the ‘asrama’ and court life of the king and also the conflict between vira rasa’ and `smgara rasa’, is embodied in the figures of the hero and heroine of the play.

It has been considered as an important theme of Abhijnanasakuntalam. King Dusyanta embodies the virtues of vira rasa’. The hunting episode at the very beginning of the play shows Dusyanta engaged in a royal pastime for his pleasure. The deer raised by the asrama, has been reared and sanctioned for predatory sport of the royal family, who wielded power in civilised society.of the city or court. He is promptly stopped by a Brahmana of Kanva’s ashram, who tells him that the deer has been raised by Sakuntala and is therefore part of the asrama. This signals a conflicting relationship between the asrama, ensconced within the ambit of wild nature and the court, which is the civilised, but violent space.

Romila Thapar argues that this duality of home and exile in the forest, or `grama’ and `aranya’, are important features of the epic genre and, which might have been the crucial structural, social and spatial dichotomy on which Kalidasa has modelled his drama. This can be seen in the characterisation of King Dusyanta representing culture, as the man of the court while Sakuntala who belongs to the asrama is the embodiment of nature. Possibly this duality then symbolises the opposition between forces of nature and culture. Sakuntala has been portrayed in the play as a child of nature. From her clothes and duties in the asrama to the natural gifts and adornments that she receives when she departs for Dusyanta’s court, Sakuntala is seen as close to the natural environment of the asrama. 

The play is structured or built around a range of such dualities of location as in the opposition between asrama and the court, of the characters themselves and even the events. These oppositions are woven into the opposition between sambhoga sringara’ or union in love and “vipralambha sringara’ or separation in love. In the play, the dramatic tension is produced by such dualities and also the division of the action between Canvas asrama and King Dusyanta’s court. In fact, this dramatic tension is only resolved in the more distant duality of location in the play which is the asrama of America and the court of Indra. 

This dichotomy between the asrama and the court is symbolised in the ‘hunt’. The grama and the court are that which are disciplined and ordered settlements. The creation of such a dichotomy between the court and the forest could possibly be a result of the changing forms of social organisation based on clearing away forested lands for agricultural cultivation which required more complex and settled forms of living. So, grama or court was a more complex and settled, ordered way of living than ashrams in the forest. 

However, it is significant to note that Kalidasa has created an interesting play of these dichotomies. There is a deliberate inversion of the functions of asrama and the royal court. The court should have been the location of blossoming of romantic love since it witnesses a more domestic and settled way of life, which is not the case in Kalidasa’s play. In the play, it has become the location for separation in love. On the other hand, it is the asrama which has become the location for romantic love despite the fact that it is the site for the performance of rituals and austerities. Moreover, a similar duality is evident in the figures of the raja, the King and the rsi or the ascetic figure. The rsi moves out of a complex system of social du-ties and obligations of the grama to establish alternative forms of living in the liminal space of the asrama, which will help him perform rituals and accumulate his power. On the other hand, the raja is the protector of his realms and varnasrama dharma’ and therefore, is also the upholder of social structures and obligations. The hunt actually symbolises a way of extending the dominion of the King over his realms. 

In the play, one can see that the grama or the court is the place where there is a hierarchical social order. It is a place where the officers are corrupt and tend to be vio-lent as opposed to the asrama. The guards accuse the fisherman in the grama of stealing the ring and also make fun of his lower stature in society. Such kinds of vignettes about routine, social life in the grama do not coincide well with a picture of the Gupta period as the Golden Age in which all people prospered.

This duality is also seen at the level of a tussle between ascetics and the King to gain greater power in society. The power of the si is also conceded in the play just as that of the King. It controlled human life and destiny and this is made apparent in rsi Durvasa’s curse which results in the separation of the King and Sakuntala. Yet the King is seen as the protector of ashrams and ascetics from evil forces. in fact, the King’s acquisition of ritualistic merit can be seen as the Kshatriyas desire to maintain his control over his realms and challenge the greater power that ascetics were gradually acquiring in society. Dushyanta is called upon to protect the asrama, whether it is Canvas asrama or the distant one of Marica’s asrama, from the wild animals and rakshasas in the play which suggests that he played an important role in the performance of rituals and religious austerities. 

Moreover, The King’s ‘desire’ to kill the deer instead of performing his ‘duty’ of protecting it as he should protect all his subjects, draws out the conflict between pleasure(kama) and duty(dharma). This conflict between ‘kama’ and ‘dharma’ is transformed into the aesthetic conflict between two major `rasas’ the heroic and the erotic. The association of Sakuntala with the deer that she has reared herself, suggests another predatory conquest or pastime of the King. 

According to this aesthetic interpretation of the play, the ‘hunt’ pursued by the King is therefore seen as a war against the innocent people of the asrama including the heroine Sakuntala, who are the keepers of Nature. Natural space of the asrama is seen as being corrupted and harmed by this royal pastime. Madhavya, the King’s companion, accuses him of turning the ‘penance grove’ into a ‘pleasure garden’. 

Indeed, the King’s own transformation from the protector of his realms to a `rasika’ in hot pursuit of Sakuntala is seen as a threat to the King’s martial prowess-his `dharma’ and `purusartha’. It is notable that the role of the Hero and the Heroine in Kalidasa’s plays are crucial to exploring both the poet’s and his audiences’ emotional responses to different situations.“ 

Sakuntala or the nayika’ ofAbhijnanashakuntalam, who is the embodiment of erotic desire, is central to the representation of srngara rasa in the play. She is the desiring subject in accordance with the ‘rasa’ theory, and also the object of male desire. Her actions and emotions are mapped by the gaze of the upper caste and upper class male rasika of royal lineage Dusyanta. It is Dusyanta, who is constantly commenting on the gap between Sakuntala’s inner erotic desires and her ostensible, con-fused ‘demeanour’. For instance, “Sakuntala (pretending anger): Anusaya I am leaving.” And it is this so-called unbridled impulse of Sakuntala that has been implicitly chastised in the play through the device of Durvasa’s curse and also in the court by the King. And though Gandharva marriage is recognized as a legitimate form of marital union, Sakuntala’s negotiation of her own marriage in the space of the green forest is criticised by men in the court, which is the space of power and patriarchal authority. Her conduct goes against what is prescribed to a good upper caste woman in a feudal patriarchal order.

In fact, it is the device of the royal signet ring, a symbol of royal authority that helps sanctify the King’s desire for and his marriage with Sakuntala, and as well as his bereavement upon her loss. Sakuntala has to undergo strict ritualistic penance in Marica’s asrama, and through it she is made to conform to the ideal of `pativrata’; thereby bringing about a balance between ‘vim rasa’ and `srngara rasa’. of the play. According to the tenth century Kashmiri philosopherAbhinavagupta, Kalidasa’s conception of memory and its role in drama is linked to his view that memory is not merely the recollection of past events, but provides an alternative insight or a fresh perspective into the past events that help one to recreate and thus, transcend personal experience to enter into the realms of beauty and imagination and see one’s action from a dif-ferent perspective.

For example, Abhinavagupta notes that in the fifth act of the play. When the King encounters Sakuntala he is forced into confronting his inner clouded, rather muddied memory and tries to understand why he felt the pain of ‘separation’ from Sakuntala. “At another level, his inner struggle upon his meeting with Sakuntala reminds the audience of the first meeting of the King and Sakuntala and heightens the celebratory pleasure that they get from the reunion of the hero and heroine of the play. 

Ideologies of Kingship, Love  and Marriage in Abhijnanashakuntalam 

However, it must be noted that this aesthetic appreciation of the play based on ‘rasa’ theory of dramaturgy leaves many questions unanswered in the play regarding the historical conditions of its production. Romila Thapar in her path breaking work, Sakuntala Texts, Reading, Histories’ argues that Kalidasa’s adaptation of the original Sakuntala narrative from the epic introduces many changes in the play which not only reflect changes in the story but also in the historical context of the play. She notes that the character of Sakuntala too underwent a remarkable change in the play in contrast to the Sakuntala of the epic. Kalidasa’s reworking of the theme from the epic version includes romance, anguish of separation, tragedy and happiness at the end in the reunion of the lovers.

This presentation of a wide range of emotions is a crucial aspect of the experience of the play and is different from the epic version of the narrative. Her treatment of the Sakuntala narrative involves studying the play as a work of literature in relation to its historical context. She points out that, “an item of literature, as a narrative, relates to history, not for what it says which is anyway fictional, but for what it might indicate for being historically significant.” She therefore looks at the many changes in the representation of the central figure of Sakuntala across time and space to study not just the historical context of the narrative and its many versions but also to highlight the varied gender relations through time. 

Abhijnanashakuntalam can be located within the context of material reality of concretization of patriarchy and monarchy in the Gupta period, in which it is believed to have been produced and performed. The Gupta period is generally thought of as the ‘Golden period’ in the history of India, Yet, it was also a period in which due to a shift from pastoralism to a more stable agriculture-based economy, communal property was converted to private property that was now largely owned by the King. This was done in a big way through granting of common lands to Brahmanas, who supervised these lands or `agraharas’ under the control of the King. This, in turn, led to hardening of caste and patriarchal structures under royal patronage.” 

It is notable that the court and life, in general, in the Gupta period was exceedingly dominated by a nexus of power in Kshtriya king and the Brahmanas who wrote long genealogies, praising the King and thereby, legitimiz-ing his rule. In return, they enjoyed royal favours and pa-tronage. For instance, the benediction to Siva at the beginning of the play not only helps in putting the play in a religious context and thereby, granting it religious sanctity but also points to a view of kingship according to which the King, like Siva, occupied a central position in relation to divine, natural and social worlds. 

Romila Thapar argues in her incisive analysis of the many adaptations of the Sakuntala narrative across time that the Sakuntala narrative having undergone various modifications in its biography, signals or reflects different social and cultural perceptions that can only be understood by studying the various versions of this narrative at different points in history. Moreover, she points out that the Sakuntala narrative for instance, when adapted from the epic story in the Mahabharata into a play by Kalidasa reflects a completely different historical scenario which can be seen in the many transformations in the play like the introduction of the devices of the curse and the ring.

For instance, the asrama of Kanva is not the pure, secluded space in the forest untouched by the corruption prevailing in the Court and the city. The asrama was in fact an incipient form of the institution of agraharas’ or tax free lands that had been granted by the King to the Brahmanas for cultivation. Hence, the asrama added to the revenue and wealth of the King. This is reflective of the change in perception in the Gupta period towards forested lands. These forests were now being seen not as completely wild spaces in relation to the ordered world of the court and city, but as potential sources of agriculture and revenue. The Brahmans who were part of Kanva’s ashram, were attuned well to nature but had not been entirely unaware of the mores and values of city life.”

In the epic version of the Sakuntala narrative, the role of Brahamanas in moving the action forward is limited. The play, however, is peopled by Brahmanas who have a major role in moving the plot forward to its conclusion. This reflects the material basis of the King’s legitimacy to rule over the `kshetra’ and expand his territories in collusion with the Brahmanas. For instance, Canvas asrama is not the complete opposite of the court of the King. Rather it is located at the interstices of the Court and the forest and occupies a liminal space. Probably, the native inhabitants of the forests who were largely known as kimpurusha’ had to be subdued and brought under the control of the Brahmanas like Kanva, who supervised and developed these forests into agricultural fields.” This would have augmented the King’s property and wealth, and therefore increased his dominion over new lands. In turn, the king performed his spiritual duty of protecting the rituals and the ashrams of Brahmanas like Marica’s from threat of wild animals and `rakshasas’ who lived in these forested lands and could actually be the original native inhabitants driven away from their habitat by the King and his men. Dusyanta’s `purushartha’ and his spirituality were in reality the multifarious ways of controlling his kingdom which was based on feudal and monarchical. social structures. 

Even the conceptualization of the figure of the woman, as Romila Thapar has rightfully pointed has undergone a transformation. The free-spirited, forthright Sakuntala of the epic who bargains with Duhasanta has undergone tremendous change in the play. She is shown as a sweet, innocent and submissive child of the forest and asrama who grapples with emotions of love and sexual desire and knows no deceit. Sakuntala in the epic was empowered to the extent that she was the carrier of the son and heir of Duhsanta. In the play, however, due to the foregrounding of romantic love, Sakuntala who is completely controlled by the gaze of patriarchal society is made to conform to the ideal of `pativrata’ wife so as to be accepted by the King and people of Court and city, which in itself show a hardening of patriarchal structures in society. In the final act too, Sakuntala forgets all the ill treatment that she met at the hands of the King Dusyanata and consoles herself by telling herself that he had not spurned her and it was not his fault that he lost his memory. She tries to exonerate her husband. Furthermore, his way of articulating his love for Sakuntala also has a very worldly, material basis to it despite the fact that it has been presented as a much ideal-ized love.

Sakuntala’s beauty in the play has been described in terms of her fertility. For instance, she is described in beautiful poetic terms as sea-girdled earth.” This . is part of the evocation of srngara rasa, which gives erotic power and sexual agency to the heroine Sakuntala. Clearly then this poetic description of Sakuntala as central to smgara rasa only obfuscates or mystifies the King’s interest in controlling her sexuality for obtaining further control over lineage and property rights through the begetting of a legitimate heir (Bharata) for his successor. This heir will turn the wheels’ of his kingdom. In fact when he is shown the ring, Dusyanta regrets Sakuntala’s departure and also the loss of a son and an heir. He harbours numerous fears such as the idea that his Puru lineage might terminate with him if he does not beget a son. Control of the womb is inextricably linked to control over land and property. 

Therefore, both land and love were associated with concerns over property rights and marital laws which represented the King’s power to rule the land in the Gupta period. 

In fact, the epic version of the story presents Sakuntala as assertive and a free spirited woman who not only negotiates the terms of her marriage but also accuses Dushyanta for his unrighteous conduct when he rejects both Sakuntala and her son. She was the very opposite of the ideal pativrata’ wife. The woman was a crucial link to various clan-based alliances in society at the time when Adiparavan. of the Mahabharata, which contains the Sakuntala story, must have been compiled. TM” However, in Kalidasa’s play the heroine Sakuntala is denied her role as a wife and mother of the King’s successor through clouding of the King’s memory due to the curse.

It is because of the sub plot of the curse that the text remains silent on the question that the King’s rejection of Sakuntala could also be due to the fact that he is trying to seek a legitimization of this relationship with a woman who, according to the customs and traditions of patriarchal society in the Gupta period, should not have expressed her physical or emotional desires. The strategies of controlling sexuality and particularly, female sexuality, apart from a recuperation of alternative forms of family and marriages has been hidden by the discourse of romantic love and the play of memory and desire in Kalidasa’s drama. As mentioned earlier, Sakuntala in the play is therefore made to undergo strict ritualistic penance to make her conform to the ideal of chaste, `pativrata’ woman. 

The subplots of the curse and the ring fill out the play but also bring out the tension between Dusyanta and Sakuntala over the issue of paternity of the child. Dushyanta cannot be blamed for rejecting Sakuntala and her son. These subplots therefore help to avoid commentary on the Dusyanata’s ill treatment of Sakuntala. On the other hand, Sakuntala of the play, unlike her counterpart in the epic, does not defend the rights of her son as Dusyanta’s heir. 

Further, Abhijnanashakuntalam has been canonised and is widely known as a Sanskrit play. But it is a lesser known fact that it uses many different forms of Prakrit. Lyric poetry was entirely composed in courtly Sanskrit while drama, having connection with popular tradition rather than belonging to purely academic culture, was multilingual. “In fact, Sanskrit in the play Sakuntala is largely used by the King and the Brahmanas, while different dialects of Prakrit are used by various female characters, fishermen, rakshasas and others of lower ranks in society. Even the use of languages in the play reflects an inequitable distribution of power, cultural artefacts and knowledge in society and therefore, brings out the hierarchies of caste, class and gender in Gupta period. And although, according to popular perception, Sakuntala is the heroine and lead character of the play, in accordance with the norms of a feudal and rigid patriarchal order, it is King Dusyanta, who wields power in the world of the play. Clearly, the articulation of the heroic King of near supernatural qualities was possible within the space of Court culture and politics. 

It is important to note that Abhijnanashakuntalam has had a vibrant history of reception and cannot just be reduced to a work of art representing the society in the Gupta period when it was produced. Indeed, the play has been at the centre of a variety of theoretical and critical commentaries on drama and literature in both India and the West. From being translated for the Mughal court under Emperor Farrukh Siyar in 1716 AD to being acclaimed and translated in German by renowned German poet Goethe, the play has occupied a central position in discussions of poetry and drama.It has also provided the ground for many nationalist debates in the nineteenth century in India and became important in discussions of cultural policies of European imperial powers. Thus, the play has played an important role in its contribution to a construction of tradition and culture in India.

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