Kalidasa (circa fourth century CE) is widely regarded as the greatest poet and dramatist in the Sanskrit language. Not much is known with certainty about his life, and though many are aware of his timeless Sakuntalam and Meghadutam, very few actually read him, even in translation. The aesthetics of poetry may have changed over 1500 years-we no longer compare women's faces to lotuses or their figures to vines-but it is difficult not to be moved by the sheer beauty and lyricism of Kalidasa's description of the exiled yaksa beseeching a cloud to carry his message across the mountains to his lover, or his evocative narration of the meeting of doomed lovers in the forest. Mani Rao's supple, contemporary translation removes the distance between Kalidasa and the distance between Kalidasa and the modern reader; she helps 'read' the poetry for us while remaining loyal to the text.
Selections from all seven of the great poet's works (which are considered by Sanskrit scholars to be authentically his creations) are included in this volume- Meghadutam, Kumarasambhavam and Rtusamharam; the heroic exploits narrated in Raghuvamsam which gives us a remarkable picture of ancient India; as well as the celebrated dramas Abhijnana Sakuntalam, Vikramovasiyam and Malavikagnimitram. This is a translation that belongs to today; Kalidasa renewed.
Kalidasa (circa fourth century CE) is widely regarded as India's greatest Sanskrit poet and dramatist. Over the centuries, his work was cited, commented upon, and celebrated, and served as a benchmark for poetics and aesthetics in literature. Kalidasa's work also became a source for understanding early Indian sensibilities.
Indian Poetry s Genius
Popular legends describe Kalidasa's transformation from fool to genius. One day, this fool sits on a tree in the wrong spot, about to chop the very branch he sits upon, and is noticed by the king's minister who holds a grudge against the kingdom's princess. The minister gives the fool a makeover, presents him at court as an erudite prince, and succeeds in marrying him off to the gullible princess. When the princess finds out the truth, she abandons the fool at the local Kall temple. The fool's simplicity and devotion win over Goddess Kali, who writes upon his tongue and transforms him into a brilliant poet-thereafter, this fool is called Kalidasa, 'devoted servant of Kalf". The legend is telling; that only a divine intervention can create such talent tells us just how highly Kalidasa is regarded by posterity.
The miraculous transformation from fool to genius also makes the poet endearing rather than formidable. A Sanskrit verse illustrates Kalidasa's place as the foremost among poets with a humorous story around counting by hand. In the old Indian way of counting on a hand, the palm faced up and the little finger got tallied first. Once, when poets were being counted, the first to be counted, on the little finger, was Kalidasa, The next in line was the ring finger, but there was no other poet who could follow Kalidasa ... naturally, this finger was andmika, which means 'nameless'.
Kalidasa's poems and plays made a strong impression on centuries of Indian publics, poets and critics. One may find arguments about the exact reason for Kalidasa's towering status in Sanskrit literature,but rarely any negative criticism or disagreement about his status. The twelfth-century poet Jayadeva called Kalidasa 'the guru of the family of poets'. Treatises on Sanskrit poetics turn so often to lines from Kalidasa's poems and plays for examples of figures of speech and use of metre, it seems as if Kalidasa's compositions literally shaped the ars poetica of Sanskrit literature and dramatics. Examples from across Kalidasa's poems and plays can fill a treatise on the srngara rasa, the erotic emotion of Indian poetics. But if Kalidasa has a knack for srngara, he also knows of complications when duty clashes with desire. Kalidasa's literary skill is matched by his knowledge of human nature and observational skill. Touching moments in the play Abhijhdna Sakuntalam, and the poems Raghuvamsam and Meghadatam show a compassionate understanding of emotional states. Sakuntalam and Rtusamhdram and even Kumdrasambhavam, show a sensitivity to the lively beauty in nature; when Kalidasa compares the physical beauty of women to natural objects, the compliment seems directed to nature. Malavikdgnimitram and Vikramorvasiyam show a sympathy for obsessive love along with an understanding of love-politics.
Kalidasa's metrical skill is impeccable. Technical choices, for sure, create related effects-in Meghadatam, the mandakrdntd metre of seventeen syllabic lines creates a slow, meandering rhythm, apt for the cloud's voyage. But the way Kalidasa works with the metre is so deft, the reader never feels that a word is contrived, or chosen for its syllable length or phonetic features rather than for aptness of meaning and suggestion. There is a lot of information in the long lines of Meghadatam, but each detail informs the other, and it all adds up to more than the sum of the parts. The antelope runs to avoid the rain, meanwhile the earth responds to the same rain, and the antelope sniffs the rising fragrance ... what we have is a montage, all these things come together at once.
Life and Times
'Who is Kalidasa?' is a perplexing question. We do not know when and where Kalidasa lived, in what kingdom or era, who his parents were, or his contemporaries, nor even if his name is a pseudonym. The prolific poet did not write about himself directly. Rajasekhara, a tenth-century poet known for his figures of speech, noted that Kalidasa remained unbeatable. Seventh-century writer Banabhatta praised the delights of Kalidasa's poetry in his poem-chronicle Harsacarita. Seventh-century CE philosopher Kumarila Bhatta cited from Kalidasa's play Sakuntalam. An inscription at Aihoe dated 634 AD mentions Kalidasa by name, along with the poet Bharavi. That, then, given us an estimate of when he was born, that Kalidasa lived before the early seventh century CE. The upper limit is less easy to fix. One sourse names Kalidasa, along with eight others, as one of the nine gems of King Vikrama's court. But we do not Vikrama was- 'vikarama' could simply be an appellation that means 'victorious'. One King Vikramaditya defeated the Sakas and established the Samvat Era that began in the first century BCE; another Vikramaditya was King Yasodharman, who defeated the Huas in the sixth century CE. Yet another Vikamaditya was the Gupta king, Chandragupta II, who ruled from Ujjayini in the fourth century CE.
Perhaps identity is best answered by citing works, but it's complicated when over thirty works can be attributed to Kalidasa. Over the centuries, works most often cited as Kalidasa's works are the four poems and three plays included in this volume, with some lack of consensus about the authorship of the poem Rtusamharam. The poem Meghadutam, and the play Abhinana Sakuntalam, are translated in full. A substantial excerpt has been translated from the other works: an act each from the poems Kumarasambhavam and Raghuvamsam, and selected stanza from each of the six sections of Rtusamharam. Studying these seven works given us an idea of the depth of Indian poetry's heritage and early Indian aesthetic values, as well as helps us re-imagine life in early India of around the fourth century CE.
Appreciating Kalidasa, Translating Kalidasa
Today, if most people know the storylines of Kalidasa's famous works Sakuntalam and Meghadutam, not as many have actually read them, even in translation. This unsurprising, for the conventions of ancient Indian poetics are far removed from our present context. We no longer compare women's faces to lotuses or their figures to vines, and fanciful expressions of love seem obsessive-compulsive. And because translations just cannot replicate Kalidasa's metre, the English-language reader cannot relish literary delights. However, Sanskrit readers of Kalidasa know that his brilliance is not just in prosody, it is in the use of the apt word, in the suggestiveness and unity of parts, how everything comes together. This kind of literary appreciation is one of the goals of this translation. A couple of examples will help illustrate the methodology.
In Meghadatam, we learn that the hero, a supernatural being called a yaksa, lived on a mountain named Ramagiri. Why is the mountain called Ramagiri? Kalidasa does not spell it out, nor do any commentators. In fact, 'Ramagiri ' has unmistakable connotations for anyone who knows something about the importance of the epic Ramayana to the Indian imagination. The anguish felt by the yaksa upon this mountain recalls the anguish of Rama when separated from Sita. The cloud (megha) brings back thoughts of Hanuman, who is the son of the god of wind, and who flies like a cloud, and Rama's messenger (duta). A comment within the translation (see page 6) helps the reader pay attention to these connotations. And what kind of hero is this yaksa? The first word in the poem is 'some' (kascit) -we are about to enter an epic-length poem from Kalidasa, and the character we meet is nondescript. This is most unusual. In the very first line, we are told of the yaksa's lapse of duty. Unless the reader knows the context of classical poetry and what is expected of heroes whom poems are written about, s/he will not realize its significance. A duty or obligation (adhikara) is the same as privilege (adhikara); therefore, a person who neglects his duty is not only a rebel, he is foolish toward himself. Has the yaksa become ordinary after the curse? Was it because he was besotted? An anti-hero? This translation helps point out this contrast by way of a commentarial remark. But it does not spoil all the fun. Why the use of the plural in 'hermitages'? A wandering yaksa, lost soul? Kalidasa does not say, nor do I. Having expanded just a little, I get back to Kalidasa's summary-style brevity, repeating the 'story so far' and then move to the next step in the narrative.
Across this translation, such commentarial input also takes the form of word choices, translation decisions. An example is in the dedication of Raghuvamsam. Kalidasa compares Siva and Parvati to speech (vac) and meaning: Vagarthaviva samprktau vdgarthapratipattaye, Jagatah pitarau vande parvatiparamesvarau. This stanza is popular as a stand-alone devotional hymn. It is also often quoted in discussions around language and Indian theories of meaning, and as an example of a poet seeking inspiration and divine help. M.R. Kale translates: For the right comprehension of words and their senses, I salute Parvati (the mountain 50 daughter) and Paramesvara (the supreme Lord) the parents of the universe who are (perpetually) united like words and their meanings. The meaning of the Sanskrit verse is conveyed accurately in Kale's literal translation. I go a little further. I translate: To make words meaningful / I invoke Siva-Parvati// Makers of the world/ Like word and meaning wed. By saying 'makers' instead of parents, and also using the word 'make' for what the poet does, I draw attention to their connection.
In general, I try to recapture the effect rather than the arrangements of the parts. In Meghadatam, I often repeat a phrase that applies to several parts of the stanza, gaining the sense of an oral rendition, as well as the montage effect. Raghuvamsam has a different pace, more brisk and compact. In the first canto translated here, each stanza has a distinct concept-an analogy, or a pattern-that adds to the narrative. On a cursory reading, stanzas 6, 7 and 8 which talk about the ideal King, may seem random, but they have tight, logical links. In fact, Stanza 6 is about the extent of the Raghu dynasty, its influence. Dative case governs Stanza 7, it informs us about their purpose, their high motivations, and this contrasts with the worldly supremacy we learned about in stanza 6. Stanza 8 covers their propriety, and within four lines we find out how the Raghu kings behave in each of their life-stages. Stanzas 7 and 8, therefore, build on the information given in Stanza 6. I indicate these connections by adding 'yet' and 'and', words which are not in the original. Everywhere, such interpolations, whether for the purpose of appreciation, or for explanation, are indicated by italicization and indentation. This method also helps do away with footnotes or endnotes altogether, and minimal explanatory remarks are integrated into the rhythm of the translated text for an uninterrupted reading. Where I have explained names, or given more recognizable names to descriptors or epithets, I have not used italics-thus, Saphara fish, river Gambhira, three-eyed Siva, Siva s wife Bhavani, fire-born Skanda, oblation bearer god of fire, Agni. However, for expressions that involve an imaginative usage, or where I draw attention to an etymology, I italicize my interpolations-thus, cowherd-guise Krsna, fragrant river Gandhavati.
While Kalidasa's poetry has metrical craftsmanship and intricate design, and features colourful similes, it is also attentive, precise, purposeful-values of modernist poetry. Whereas the plays cover a range of locations, shift between human and divine realms, they can also zoom in on fine details of emotional states. In addition to showing how Kalidasa can speak to contemporary poetics, I also use contemporary language. Thus, in the plays, I use language which today's actors may speak comfortably on stage. No quaint addresses like 'Hail, Majesty' to King Dusyanta, nor the address 'friend' when speaking to a person the audience already knows is a friend. As we enter the world of Kalidasa, Kalidasa's world also enters ours.
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