Kalidasa’s Trilogy Consists of the Bookconsists of three of kalidasa’s poetical works: Meghadootam, Kaumarasambhavam and Raghuvamsham.
The book starts by introducing Kalidasa to the readers and goes on to introducing his above mentioned worlds. Then the three stories are presented, not as a literal translation from Sanskrit, but as an adaptation in English prose hightlighting the beauty of Kalidasa’s poetry at every step. Except for Meghadootam, which is an original tale of a yaksha pinning for his wife and sending a love-massage through a cloud; Kalidasa has drawn from older sources like the Puranas and Ramayana for his other works. Kumarasambhavam is about Shiva and Parvati. Raghuvamsham is about a royal family, the Suryavamsha, the family of Rama of Ramayana.
The purpose of this book is to bring to the readers the treasures of Indian classic literatue, so that they are able to understand and appreciate its beauty and are encouraged to read the original works.
Even the twenty-first century admires Kalidasa, the renowned poet of ancient India, who composed in Sanskrit the highly-rated works Meghadootam, Kumarasambhava, Raghuvamsham, Abhigyanashakuntalam, Malavikagnimitram, and Vikramorvashiyam.
But unlike most Sanskrit poets, he did not speak about himself in his works. Most of the information on him is folklore rather than history. His time and place Kalidasa is supposed to have been the court-poet of Raja Vikramaditya of Ujjaini, one of the navaratna (nine gems) the king had as his courtiers.
In his works, Kalidasa described landmarks of Ujjaini (like the temple of Mahakala and the river Sipra) with enthusiasm, and made eulogistic references to the name ‘Vikrama’. Along with wondermi descriptions of nature, his work shows great familiarity with urban living, especially in palaces and courts. But ‘Vikramaditya’ is a title rather than a name and there have been many kings in Indian history with the title of ‘Vikramaditya’. Which Vikramaditya should Kalidasa be dated by?
Some scholars put him in the court of a Vilcramaditya whose rule commenced in 56 BC and who is the founder of the Vikramera, and would not place Kalidasa beyond the 1 century, AD.
Some think that Kalidasa’s Vikramaditaya was Yashodharmadeva, the king of Malaya in the 6t century, AD. Others argue that Kalidasa’s works reflect the heyday of the Gupta period (300-650 AD) and there was more than one Gupta king with the title of Vikramaditya and one of these must have been Kalidasa’s Vikramaditya. What we do know for sure is that the Aihole inscription of 634 AD mentions Kalidasa by name and the Mandasor inscription of 472 AD seem to borrow from Kalidasa. These set a lower limit to Kalidasa.
Kalidasa depicted not only Ujjaini, but a host of other places in northern India, especially the Himalayas. He must have traveled a lot, and loved doing it. He had known the smell of the freshly ploughed earth as well as that of the sap of coniferous trees. He had seen peacocks dance in the forest to the clap of thunder, as well as in the palace, to the jingle of ladies’ bangles.
The story goes that Kalidasa in his youth was ignorant and inarticulate. Princess Kamala, who was highly educated and very proud of being so, had announced that she would marry only someone who could get the better of her in a learned discourse.
Two learned men, defeated at her hands, decided to teach her a lesson by tricking her into marrying someone really stupid. They found a man on a tree cutting off the very branch he was sitting upon. Asking him not to open his mouth before the princess, but answer only in signs, they presented him at the court as a very learned scholar. By a combination of his gestures and their interpretations, Kalidasa won the debate without even saying a word.
Princess Kamala happily married him, but right on the wedding night, a camel (ushtra in Sanskrit) called out outside their bedroom. Coyly the princess asked, “0 husband, what is that?”
Instead of any clever discourse, Kalidasa came out with “Ushta”. “What did you say?” cried the princess, in disbelief that a learned scholar could not even pronounce the word correctly.
Realizing that he had made some sort of a blunder, Kalidasa tried to correct himself by saying “Utra, Utra.”
This was no scholar, the princess realized. She threw Kalidasa out and went into depression. Kalidasa made every effort to educate himself and cure any speech defects that he had.
Roaming in the forest and praying to deities, he received the blessings of the goddess Kali (Sarasvati, according to some). From a dullard who could not even pronounce Sanskrit words correctly, he became transformed into the poet Kalidasa, one who serves Kali).
With his new-found literary gifts, he went knocking at Kamala’s door again.
“Who is it”, she asked.
“Asti kashchit vakvishesha (someone specially gifted with words is here)”, came the reply and Kamala realized that her husband had come back a changed man. She then requested him to compose literary pieces, each beginning with one of the four words that Kalidasa has used.
Kalidasa began Kumarasambhavam with ‘asti’, Meghadootam with ‘kaschit’ and his Raghuvamsham with ‘yak’, but possibly could not keep it up any further. There is no work of his that begins with ‘vishesha’.
Apart from these three poetical works, he wrote three famous plays: Abhigyanashakuntalam, Vikramorvashiyam and Malavikagnimitram. There are other works that are said to be his, but are really imitations. Minor poets of later times have often tried to pass off their works in his name. But Kalidasa’s poetry is so distinctive that they have not really succeeded. Works that unquestionably bear his stamp are the six mentioned at the outset.
In spite of Kalidasa’s becoming a court-poet, there is no account of how his end came. But the legend is that he was murdered by a courtesan in Ceylon (Srilanka), whose king Kumaradasa was a friend of his.
Kalidasa — his style and sources
Except for Meghadootam, which is all-original, Abhigyanashakuntalam, Kumarasambhavam and Raghuvamsham are drawn from even older sources, like Mahabharata, Ramayana, Brahma-Purana, Kalika-Purana, Shiva Purana. Even Malavikagnimitram and Vikramorvashiyam have references to mythology and history.
Kalidasa’s works are free from involved constructions, forced witticisms and worn-out similes. His style is simple and sweet, his observations original, and his imagery fresh. His mastery of various rhythmic patterns makes him a delight to read and recite. He strikes the right balance between melody and majesty. If, out of all these qualities, any one is to be singled out as his specialty, that would be his similes, or as the old Sanskrit phrase goes, “upama Kalidasasya. “. Their aptness and originality are unrivalled.
But more important than any stylistics, it is the human quality in Kalidasa’s works that is his hallmark.
The descriptions of Nature in Meghadootam are superb, but what makes them all the more remarkable is that they are seen through a film of human emotions felt by a creature — the Yaksha
— Who is superhuman or mythical?
Even when Kalidasa drew upon existing sources, he made them undergo a transformation, a trans-creation. He filled out the bare outlines of legendary or historical sources. On their found dations he built splendid structures of his poetic imagination. Shakuntala’s story is there in Veda vyasa’s Mahabharata, but narrated in the impersonal, aloof manner of great epic literature. When Kalidasa retells it, his focus is on the personal elements, the intimate feelings.
In Kumarasambhavavam, when Kalidasa takes us through the story of Shiva and Parvati getting wed, he brings out the human emotions in a way the Puranas did not. He depicts Himalaya as the father of a young marriageable daughter, keen to get Shiva for his son-in-law, but too self-respecting to broach the topic himself. He depicts his wife as a mother who longs for her daughter’s wedding right from her childhood, but sheds tears when the day actually arrives. Parvati he presents as a young girl used to her looks being praised, who gets a big shock when she finds Shiva above beauty that is not spiritual but only physical. What is more, Kalidasa imbues the great Shiva — one of the main godheads of the Hindu trinity — with very human qualities. Having made Parvati undergo rigorous penance to raise her spiritual level, he has to try to bring her back to the level when he can win a smile from her, and ultimately, her favours. In the process, he has to descend to making his ghostly attendants make ghastly faces at her, take her on a honeymoon trip, and eventually make her drunk!
In Raghuvamsham, Kalidasa takes us through generations of a particular royal family, the Suryavamsha or Solar dynasty. He describes conquests and governance, but more than that, the pain of having no son and heir that Dilipa and Dasharatha have to experience, and of subjugating personal feelings to public opinion that Rama had to do. It shows how every scion of the family cannot be equally strong. It demonstrates how a once-glorious dynastic rule came to a sorry end. But it also leaves posterity a chance to believe in the revival of this family in particular and the strength of family-line in general. It is not a chronicle of kings; it is a story of human interest.
The play Vikramorvashiyam is about the love of a mortal for an immortal — the celestial nymph Urvashi. It is best known for a scene in which King Vikrama wanders through a forest, apostrophizing flowers and plants as if they were his vanished love. Malavikagnimitram, the third of Kalidasa’s plays, is a playful intrigue among royal ladies, without any great purpose, but nevertheless an accomplished piece of work.
Kalidasa — his universality and eternity
Kalidasa enjoyed great popularity in his own time, and was exalted by later Sanskrit poets such as Banabhatta, Kumarila, Govindacharya and Jayadeva. In more recent times, Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore was an admirer of Kalidasa, and Bengali literature in general owes a lot to Kalidasa’s Sanskrit.
In the West, Kalidasa has been admired by Goethe, Humboldt,Schlegel, Max Mueller, Sir William Jones, and Sir Monier Williams. In 1955, the World Peace Council in Vienna called on all people to pay tribute to Kalidasa in 1956.
But how did Kalidasa go west? Walter Rubens (Kalidasa, The Human Meaning of his Works, first published in Berlin in 1957, translated and reprinted in India in 1984) has this to say:
“In 1789, just at the outbreak of the French Revolution, Sir William Jones (who became the judge at the Supreme Court of Bengal in 1783) published an English prose translation of Abhigyanashakuntalam. He demonstrated to an astonished Europe that ancient India had known the drama or the stage-play, and compared Kalidasa to the great English poet and dramatist, Shakespeare.”
In 1791, George Forster, the Mainz Jacobin (revolutionary democrats revolting against big landowners and big bourgeoisie in France) produced his German prose translation of Jone’s English version of Abhigyanashakuntalam. He sent a copy to Goethe, who was inspired to comment:
“Wouldst thou the young year’s blossoms and the fruits of its decline,
And all by which the soul is charmed, enraptured, feasted, fed?
Wouldst thou the earth and heaven itself in one sole name combine?
I name thee, 0 Shakuntala, and all at once is said.”
It does not really matter that Kalidasa cannot be dated and placed exactly. He belongs to all times and the whole world.
And that is why, though several translations and adaptations already exist, here is yet another, of his three poetical works — to enable contemporary world-citizens to take a fresh look at Kalidasa.
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