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Revisiting Kalidasa

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Kalidasa Meghdutam: The Cloud Message

Translated: Srinivas Reddy

Published: 2017


ISBN No: 978-0-670-08798-3

Pages: 139

Price: 399

Publisher: Penguin Random House India

Kalidasa Kumarasambhavan: The Origin of Young God

Translated: Hank Heifetz

Published: 2014

ISBN No: 978-0-670-08689-4

Pages: 216

Price: 399

Publisher: Penguin Random House India

Kalidasa Malavikagnimitram: The Dancer and the King

Translated: Srinivas Reddy

Published: 2014

ISBN No: 978-0-670-08687-0

Pages: 165

Price: 399

Publisher: Penguin Random House India

Kalidasa Raghuvamsham: The Line of Raghu

Translated: A.N.D. Haskar

Published: 2016

ISBN No: 978-0-670-08710-5

Pages: 208

Price: 399

Publisher: Penguin Random House India

Kalidasa Abhijnanashakuntalam: The Recognition of Shakuntala

Translated: A.N.D. Haskar

Published: 2016

ISBN No: 978-0-670-08746-4

Pages: 368

Price: 399

Publisher: Penguin Random House India

Contemporary English translations of Kalidasa’s works opens the question of the relevance and significance of the classical Sanskrit literature today. Masterpieces like Abhijnanashaakuntalam and Meghdutam has been revered not only by Indian thinkers like Tagore but has also captured admiration worldwide through appreciation of scholars like Goethe and Max Mueller. Kalidasa’s work is known for its extraordinary dramatic impact and poetic diction that expresses tender and passionate sentiments with gentleness and moderation. Most popular, Abhijnanashaakuntalam is a love story of a king Dushyanta and a hermit girl Shakuntala, separated and united by divine intervention. It is a drama in seven acts(theme borrowed from Mahabharata), rich in creative fantasy.

Shakuntala is imagined as an epitome of beauty and has caught the attention of several artists, poets, dramatists, historians and lovers of arts for generations. Meghadutam (Cloud Messenger): the lyrical poem is of a message sent by an exiled yaksha to his lover (wife); his envoy being a megha or cloud. Its beautiful descriptions of nature and the delicate expressions of love in which passion is purified and desire ennobled has won much admiration. Malavikaagnimitra (Malavika and Agnimitra) tells the story of the love of Agnimitra of Vidisha, king of the Shungas, for the beautiful handmaiden of his chief queen. In the end, she is discovered to be of royal birth and is accepted as one of his queens. Kumaarasambhava (Kumaara’s Occasioning), usually translated `The Birth of the War-god’, a mahakavya relating how Parvati won the love of Siva in order to bring into the world Kumara (i.e. Karttikeya) the god of war to destroy the demon Taraka. Raghuvamsha (Raghu’s genealogy), a mahakavya, regarded by Indian critics as Kalidasa’s best work, treats of the life of Rama, together with a record of his ancestors and descendants. It narrates the tale of the only king in this pious dynasty who fails to come up to the ideal standard, namely, Agnivarna. The works are notable for its blend of erotic mysticism and as explained by Hank Heifetz in the introduction of Kumarasambhavam, they spread awareness of Kalidasa’s sensuous affirmation of life amidst disgraces of human history. Several of his works have been also hailed as most relevant for ecological studies as the narratives exhibit a moral relationship between human societies and nature. For example, Meghadutam contains graphical descriptions of nature and topographical details of ancient India, the text is significant for exhibiting the interconnectedness between humans and nature as the cloud represents the journey from the lover to the beloved. Detailed metaphors of nature to describe beauty, passion, happiness, grief, longing make it an important text for lessons in eco-spirituality and has also been advocated by theorists as a text advocating environmental justice!

Yet, very rightly, much has been written about the weakness of these classics. His works contain no reflection of the social political problems of the times; they do not reflect the tumultuous times in which class, caste and gender discrimination flourished. His work is considered as an excess of description and sentiments with little concern for the legacy of exclusion which in fact Kalidasa very eloquently prescribes. The most prominent (and powerful) criticism of Kalidasa’s masterpiece Shakuntala by historian Romila Thapar explores how Shakuntala cannot be stereotyped (as Kalidasa does) as a beautiful by meek, sensuous but a pure naïve woman who waits for her husband king to restore dignity to her by accepting their son as his heir. There is another Shakuntala of the great epic, where she has depicted as fiery and a self-reliant woman who is wronged and who bravely asserts her rights. Thapar explains how Kalidasa’s version of Shakuntala gets privileged and tradition is refashioned to suit particular codes and behaviours that legitimise a cultural gendered history. Alarmingly, Kalidasa’s Shakuntala represents the ideal Indian women and legitimises a legacy of gender discrimination. It also faces the challenges posed by ecofeminists who question patriarchal norms which is not only the cause of gender discrimination but also environmental degradation (nature and women both become objects of assimilation and enjoyment in a male-dominated world).

Thus, need to constantly revisit the classics, recognize these moments of violence and reconstruct it in a way that makes it more open and inclusive. The translators in the preface and introductions explain the relevance of their work as not merely nostalgia and revivalist in motivations. Translations of different periods give us an insight into the evolution of language and the new meanings that words acquire through its engagement with the world (thus the need for multiple translations). Varied truths and new interpretations of the texts (through translations) makes an interesting case to understand how Indians imagine their past and shape their future. A good example of the same is a Marathi play “Dushyantpriya” written and directed by Sarang Bhakre that emphasises on the issue of homosexuality through Kalidasa’s Abhigyanashakuntala. A theatre group rehearsing for their play on Kalidasa’s Shakuntala are forced to fill in a man for the role of Shakuntala as the lead lady drops out. What follows is a series of events, where a gay relationship develops between the lead actors, unacceptance and rejection of one of the partners and lastly a happy reunion of the couple. What is very interesting is that the classical text is kept intact and is performed in the 21st century to make a case for homosexuality! Like “Dushyantpriya”, the Penguin series of translations of Kalidasa’s works too are written in a secular style and could prove to be effective in bringing about diverse interpretations that can counter forces that emphasise of single truths and its resulting violence.