Kalidasa : The Shakespeare of India

Kalidasa was acclaimed as ‘Indian Shakespeare’ who penned his masterpieces of plays, poems, epics, etc in Sanskrit, writes MEERA S. SASHITAL.

The period of Kalidasa was linked and was supposed to be linked to the reign of one Vikramaditya. But the question arose which king, as most of the kings were titled Vikramaditya like Chandragupta II and Skandagupta. It was also argued that Kalidasa lived in first century B.C. during the period of another Vikramaditya of Ujjain but now it is generally accepted that Kalidasa’s period falls between 5th and 6th century CE. His name along with Bharavi’s name is mentioned in a stone inscription dated 634 CE found at Alhole located in present day Karnataka.

Wilson believes Kalidasa to have been one of those “nine gems” which adorned King Vikramaditya’s court when Vikramaditya reigned at Ujjayini in Central India; this warlike Vikramaditya who defeated  the hordes of Scythians, and inaugurated the glorious Vikram era. But Bhan Dhaji and many others it seems argue that it was not under this king that Kalidasa had penned his Sanskrit masterpieces and, they bring strong evidence to prove that his time was during the reign of Chandragupta II, or even of Harshavardhana both of whom bore the title of ‘Vikramaditya’.

There are many stories regarding Kalidasa’s early life. According to the legend the poet was known for his beauty which attracted the attention of a very learned Princess who married him. However, as legend has it Kalidasa was illiterate, almost a dunce and when the Princess discovered he was below her expectations she was terribly ashamed of this. Kalidasa a great devotee of Goddess Kali (his name means literally Kali’s slave) is said to have prayed to Goddess Kali to bestow on him knowledge and wisdom I am told Kali the Divine Mother wrote on his tongue and transformed him to be the greatest Sanskrit poet and dramatist the world has ever seen.

Another story tells us about Kalidasa being an illiterate shepherd of humble origin who is married to Vidyotama, a learned Princess through a conspiracy. On discovering that she has been tricked Vidyotama banishes Kalidasa asking him to acquire scholarship and fame if he desired to continue their relationship. She further stipulates that on his return he will have to answer the question ‘Asti Kashchit Vagarthan’ (Is there anything special you have acquired in expression?).

To her satisfaction Kalidasa had by now attained knowledge and fame as a poet.but Kalidasa finds the enigmatic question of the proud princess too piercing and hurtful  We are told Kalidasa just answers her by narrating the three famous poems viz. ‘Kumarsambhava’, ‘Raghuvamsa’, and ‘Meghduta’ beginning with the words Asti (there is), Kashchit(something) and Vagarthan (speech). Getting infuriated at Kalidasa for declining to lead a marital life with her, the Princess curses him saying he would be killed by a woman. Literally it seems Kalidasa was murdered by a courtesan when he visited Ceylon.

Scholars have speculated that Kalidasa may have lived either near the Himalayas or in the vicinity of Ujjain, or in Kalinga. The speculations are based respectively on Kalidasa’s detailed descriptions of the Himalayas in his Kumarsambhava, the display of his love for Ujjain in Meghduta, and his highly eulogistic description of Kalinga Emperor Hemangada in Raghuvansa.

Regarding his works, Kalidasa wrote three plays. Among them Abhijnanasakuntalam (“of Sakuntala recognised by a token”) is generally regarded as a masterpiece. It seems it was among the first Sanskrit works to be translated into English and has since been translated into many languages .Scholars extol Kalidasa’s works by saying “throughout Kalidasa’s work runs a potent characteristic, a wonderful, all-surpassing power of description and glorification of Nature, of the beauty of forest, field and sky, stamped with such soulfelt sincerity of expression as can only belong to one man, and that a prince among poets.”

Like Rabindranath Tagore the greatest modern poet of India, Goethe,the master-poet of Europe summed up his criticism thus: “Kalidasa’s Sakuntala (Kalidasa’s most famous drama) blends together the young year’s blossoms and the fruits of maturity; it combines heaven and earth in one”.

Malavikagnimitra tells the story of King Agnimitra who falls in love with the picture of an exiled servant named Malavika. The Queen discovers her husband’s passion for the girl and getting infuriated imprisons Malavika. But fortunately Malavika turns out to be a Princess thus legitimizing the affair. Vikramorvashiyam tells the story of mortal king Pururavas and celestial nymph Urvashi who fall in love.

But after a series of mishaps including Urvashi’s temporary transformation into a vine, a curse is lifted and the lovers are allowed to unite and remain together on earth. Kalidasa is the author of other poems viz. Raghuvamsam (Dynasty of Raghu) and Kumarasambhava (Birth of “Kumar” or Subramanya). Kumarasambhava describes the birth and adolescence of the Goddess Parvati and her marriage to Lord Shiva. It seems eroticism is at its peak in this poem, wherein in the eighth canto Kalidasa has described the love transports of Parvati and Shiva together in wedlock after numerous trials and privations.

The well-known poem Meghaduta, or “The Cloud Messenger” contains some of the most beautiful descriptions of Indian scenery ever written. It is the story of a Yaksha trying to send a message to his lover through a cloud. While languishing in exile in remote solitude of Mount Ramagiri he observes a cloud floating northward, low overhead. Yaksha addresses it in his lonely grief, imploring it to carry a message to his beloved wife in distant Alaca. Kalidasa takes this opportunity to describe the scenery on its route. Most of the poem consists of such vivid description of the country the cloud will pass over. Kalidasa has described the dance of peacock at this sign of approaching rain:

 “Pleased on each terrace dancing with delight The friendly peacock hails thy grateful flight:

Delay then, certain in Ujjayin to find All that restores the fame or cheers the mind..

Hence with new zeal to Siva homage pay, The God whom earth, and hell, and heaven obey… (H. H. Wilson)

Chandragupta had made Ujjayani his capital, and Kalidasa’s poems more than once refer with affection to this State that it seems more than probable that it was there and under that monarch that he lived. Kalidasa also authored minor poems. Ritusamhara described the six seasons by narrating the experiences of two lovers in each of the season.

Kalidasa was undoubtedly a Poet of Nature. Mary B. Harris in her work, ‘Kalidasa, Poet of Nature’ writes that” he was a man of culture and acquainted with the fine arts This we infer from the number and character of his allusions to painting and music, in his lyrics and dramas. He was a Nature student and Nature lover as are most of his race; the great world-artist of nature whose talent is seen at its highest mark in his poem “The Seasons”, which also gives rein to the poet’s other supreme characteristic of intricate eroticism interwoven with Nature.” Kalidasa is reknowned for his Similies. A well-known Sanskrit verse “Upama Kalidasya” praises his skill at ‘upama’ or similies.

Kalidasa was acclaimed as ‘Indian Shakespeare’ who penned his masterpieces of plays, poems, epics, etc in Sanskrit. Many Western scholars have attempted to translate his works but the beauty of the original Sanskrit Works of Kalidasa, perhaps, has yet to be captured.

To quote a great scholar “If ever man won immortality by what he thought and wrote rather than what he was, Kalidasa is he. Plays, poems are all that remain; no tomb, no sculptured inscription, no city even, whose proud citizens may point  and say, “That is where Kalidasa lived and worked.”

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