Kalidasa's status as a major poet and dramatist in classical Sanskrit Literature is unquestioned. Yet whereas individual works of the poet have been translated, an edition containing an English translation of his collected works does not seem to have been undertaken specially a rendering that combines fidelity to the text with readability using contemporary English. Three volume edition planned by the Sahitya Akademi might well be the Kalidasa-corpus in its entirety thereby fulfilling a long felt need and making these classics accessible to a much wider audience than at present.
All seven of the great poet's works that are considered authentically his are being rendered into English verse (verse and prose in the plays) by Chandra Rajan. Her critical introduction serves to place the texts in their context and suggests ways of looking at them singly and as part of the oeuvre.
The first volume is devoted to the poems of Kalidasa. This second volume contains his plays.
Kalidasa’s knowledge of the human heart and his understanding of the complex play of human motivation, are profound. A keen observer of nature in all its varied aspects-he sees with a painter’s eye and speaks with a poet’s tongue – he is at the same time a learned writer who wears his enormous learning lightly and with grace. A mystic awareness of the transcendental combines in his works with a sensuous feeling for beauty in woman and nature, reflecting as it does the blend of the erotic and spiritual that characterises Siva mythology. In all of his works he celebrates the values of the great civilisation that he was heir to, but not without questioning as is made amply clear in the introduction.
Chandra Rajan nee Sarma, the translator, graduated from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University. He had a distinguished academic record taking degrees in English and Sanskrit Language and Literature at Lady Sriram College, Delhi University and at University of Western Ontario, London, Canada. Her publications include Winged Words, an anthology of English poetry, Re-Visions, a volume of poems; kalidasa: The Loom of Time, The Panchatantra of Visnu Sarma in the Purnabhadra redaction, The Vetalapancavin-satika of Sivadasa, all three in the Penguins Classics series.
Kalidasa's status as the major poet and dramatist in classical Sanskrit literature is unquestioned.
Once, when poets were counted, Kalidasa occupied the little finger; the ring finger remains unnamed true to its name; for his second has not been found.
That is high praise. Kalidasa's accomplishment is distinguished not only by the excellence of the individual works, but by the many-sided talent which the whole achievement displays. He is a dramatist, a writer of epic and a lyric poet of extraordinary scope. In his hands the language attained a remarkable flexibility, becoming an instrument capable of sounding many moods and nuances of feeling; a language that is limpid and flowing, musical, uncluttered by the verbal virtuosities indulged in by many writers who followed him; yet, remaining a language loaded in every rift with the rich ores of the literary and mythical allusiveness of his cultural heritage. By welding different elements to create new genres, his importance as an innovator in the history of Sanskrit literature is clearly established. The brilliant medieval lyric poet, Jayadeva, in praising Kalidasa as Kaoi-Kula- guru (Master of Poets), conveys his recognition of this aspect of the poet's greatness. Barra, the celebrated author of the prose-romance, Kadambari, exclaimed.
Who is not delighted when Kalidasa's perfect verses spring forth in their sweetness, like honey-filled clusters of Dowers?
thus drawing attention to the exquisite craftsmanship of the poet's verse. For nearly two millennia, Kalidasa's works have been read with deep appreciation, widely commented upon and lavishly praised. It would be safe to assume that the poet enjoyed success, fame and affluence during his lifetime. We sense no hint of dissatisfaction in his works, no sign of bitterness at not receiving due recognition. Yet, we do not possess any information about him, his life and the times in which that life unfolded and fulfilled itself. All we are left with are a few legends. The poet has drawn a veil of silence round himself so complete that even his real name is unknown to posterity.
No name is affixed to the poems and the epic; they have come down to us virtually anonymous. What information we possess is derived from references to them by later poets'' and writers4 and the commentaries written on them, and from inscriptions.f The name is met with only in the plays, where in each prologue, the author styles himself as Kalidasa. Like others in Sanskrit literature, this name is descriptive; Vyasa, meaning 'the compiler', is the author of the Mahabharata; Valmiki, 'he who emerged from the anthill (valmika)’, of the Ramasana; similarly Kalidasa means the votary or servant of Kali. Kali is time in the feminine (Kala is time). The concept of Time as a creative principle is as old as the Vedas.6 We can then translate the name Kalidasa as 'the servant of Time', a phrase that prompts us to explore its significance.
Kala and Mahakala are among the many names given to Siva, the Absolute; the many names given to godhead are descriptive of its different aspects and functions as seen in the world of phenomena and apprehended by the human consciousness. Formless, Eternal, One, Siva is pure consciousness, the changeless reality behind the manifold changing world that is brought into being by his inherent power or Sakti, cosmic energy. Kill is one of the many names of Sakti. The names descriptive of the creative power are the feminine forms of the words pertaining to the many aspects and functions of the unitive godhead: Sivani, Bhavani, Kali, Mahakali, derived from Siva, Bhava, Kala and Mahakala, define the feminine, creative aspect of the One. In iconography this concept is imaged as Ardhanarisvara, the Lord whose one half is woman. Siva and Sakti are therefore one indivisible Whole.
The natural consequence of the poet's reticence is that a number of legends have gathered round his name. One of them presents him as a simple, unlettered Brahmin youth of uncommon beauty and grace of manner, who was orphaned at six months and brought up by the driver of an ox-cart. Through devout prayer and worship of the goddess Kali, he obtained profound learning and the gift of poetry and is said to have assumed the name of Kalidasa, 'the servant of Time' or 'the servant of Creative Power.
Some Sanskritists in fixing Kalidasa' s dates, have theorized that his works contain veiled references to his patron, King Vikramaditya, the second Gupta emperor with whom Indian tradition associates the poet, and base their identification of this king accordingly. If this were the case, it would be reasonable to assume that the poet may well have left a few clues about himself, his family and birthplace in his works that we could all then set out happily to discover. But he has not. All this points to something of significance; that it was the poet's deliberate decision to strip his texts of all biographical detail, veiled or otherwise. In its turn, this decision must be seen as indicative of Kalidasa's attitude to his writing. It suggests that he did not choose to situate it in his individual personality and relate it definitively to his own life and times, but projected himself as a medium, a voice. The poet has effaced the authority of his own voice from his texts. It is open to the reader to see this self-effacement from a metaphysical point of view as a transference of authority to a voice beyond Time, to 'the voice of Silence, that shaped the universe: or to perceive the texts as situated within time and responsive to cultural shifts in the course of time but not fixed in any specific context. The name Kalidasa would relate equally to both meanings of the word Kali in the name: Creative Power and Time.
To look at the first of the possibilities: Vac, the Sakti or inherent power of the Supreme Spirit in the Vedas, speaks through the poet who has constituted himself as a medium. And in so doing, Kalidasa places himself in the ancient tradition of the Vedic poet-seers who saw themselves as speaking the Word and uttering the Truth. Looking deep within, into the depths of their consciousness, they saw the light that never was on sea or land, and expressed the vision they discovered there 'for all ages to come'. The Word reveals the unseen through the seen, using the language of metaphor, and links the transcendent with the transient. The poet, Kavi (from which the word kavya for poetry is derived), establishes communion between the two worlds; between men and gods.
The second possibility is particularly useful in the interpretation of Kalidasa's plays by enabling the reader to adopt readings other than or in addition to the strictly historical one that places them in the framework of the poet's milieu and the poetics that were current in his age. There is more in a great work of art than can be compassed in any single mode of interpretation that sets out to explore its significances.
A classic does not simply belong to its own time. The very definition of a classic implies the recognition that it speaks to all ages, despite the complex ways in which it relates to and reflects the specific circumstances of the world in which it originated. A classic work must carry within itself the potentialities for relevance to future generations of readers in different cultural contexts. The very lack of biographical detail, the self-effacement of the author, frees his texts from a specific context with its own social and literary codes. Drama, which is the most socially-oriented of literary forms, comes across with an immediacy to audiences even when their responses are shaped and ordered by social and literary codes different from those in which it "vas imbedded. While placing Sakuntala in a particular set of poetics is no doubt useful and interesting as providing a historical reading, it is more illuminating and rewarding to see the play's accomplishment as lying in the manner in which it escapes the constraints of those poetics even as it acknowledges them.
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