Kalidasa: The Loom of Time
Little is known about the greatest poet in classical Sanskrit literature and one of the greatest in world literature. A most self—effacing writer, he has chosen to reveal little of himself in his work.
Kalidasa probably lived and wrote at the close of the first millennium ac, though a date later by some five centuries has been assigned to him by some scholars. It is highly probable too tl1at he lived and wrote in Ujjain. Madhya Pradesh—splendid capital of empires, a centre of culture and India's great emporium for a thousand years.
Kalidasa is a dramatist, a writer of epic and a lyric poet of extraordinary scope. In all seven of his works have survived, though tradition has ascribed to him many a spurious work authored by later writers who assumed his style. The two works best known outside the country are the play, Sakuntala and the lyric monody, Meghadutam. Kalidasa is a courtly poet: hut at the same time he is a very learned poet who wears his learning lightly and with grace.
It has been suggested that Kalidasa was a high court official who was sent on embassies by the Emperor Chandra Gupta II to other royal courts; and that-Meghadutam was written during a long spell of separation from his wife when he was residing at the Vakataka capital of Nandhivardhana, near the ‘Rama’s hill' of the poem as adviser to the widowed Queen Prabhavati Gupta, daughter of the emperor who was ruling the kingdom as regent for her infant son.
Kalidasa`s work is instinct with Siva' s presence. The blend of the erotic and spiritual that characterizes Siva-mythology is reflected in the poet's work, A mystic feeling for the transcendental combines with a sensuous feeling for beauty in Woman and Nature.
Chandra Rajan studied Sanskrit from the age of nine, in the time-honoured manner with a pandit in Chennai. She went to St Stephen’s College, Delhi, where she had a distinguished academic record and tank degrees in English and Sanskrit. Trained early in Carnatic music, she studied Western music in New York. She has taught English at Lady Sri Ram College. Delhi University, and at the University of Western Ontario, London, Canada.
Her publications include: Winged Words; Re-Visions, a volume of verse; The Pancatantra and Five-and-Twenty Tales of the Genie (Vetalapancavinsati).
She is currently involved in a long-term project for the Sahitya Akademi-a translation of the complete works of Kalidasa.
A Note on Texts and Translations
Ka1idasa‘s works have unfortunately come down to us not in their original form. but in several recensions (divergent versions of a text) current in different regions of the country. The ancestry of the: recensions is not clear. But it is evident that after his lifetime, Kalidasa’s poems and plays became subject to alterations, the reasons for which are again not clear. It is not uncommon for this to happen in the history of Sanskrit literature. Many factors would have contributed to the process of the one true text becoming diverse recensions. The manuscripts of the works, none of them contemporaneous with the author belong to one or other of the recensions. They display a bewildering variety of readings; the length of the texts themselves as well as the number and order of the verses in them vary: interpolations present a problem. Some of the variants are substantive enough to warrant a somewhat different reading of the text, as in the case of Abhijnanasakuntalam (Sakuntala for short).
The translations in this volume differ in their text basis from the great majority of other translations. The texts of both Meghadutam and Abhijnanasakuntalam follow the Eastern Indian (Bengal) recensions to which insufficient attention has been given. Even though the Bengal version is not the one translators most frequently use, the bibliographical arguments for it and for Sakuntala in particular, are not unequal to those for other tests and, as I shall endeavour to show there arc strong aesthetic arguments for it.
The text of Sakuntala has been handed down in four main recensions: Eastern or Bengal, Southern, Kashmir and Devanagari (Northern). Which of these comes closest to the play as Kalidasa wrote it and as it was staged during his lifetime is difficult to determine, to say the least. Dileep Kumar Kanjilal attempts this difficult task in his critical edition of the play, A Reconsmtruction of the: Abhijnanasakuntalam, 1980. He finds motifs, images and word-clusters specific to the Bengal Recension echoed in later plays such as Harsa’s. He also examines the Prakrit verses and finds them correct grammatically and metrically in the Bengal text and indicating where they are not in other texts, argues for its superior authenticity. Pischel who edited the play according to the Bengal Recension. In 1977 (reprinted in the Harvard Oriental Series, l922. after his death). Is of a similar opinion.
The Devanagari Recension of Sakuntala with Raghava Bhatta‘s commentary was published by die Nirnaya Sagar Press, Bombay, in 1883. It is the shortest text of the play and dies one frequently translated. The Bengal Recension, which I have translated, is a longer version containing 35 more verses a number of additional prose passages. My translation is based on the critical edition produced by Kanjilal, already referred to. In his introduction. Kanjilal writes that he has reconstructed the play on the basis of the oldest extant manuscript, an early twelfth century Newari manuscript in the possession of the Asiatic Society, Calcutta. supported by other Bengal and Sarada manuscripts, two of the latter not having been utilized before, The differences between the Pischel and Kanjilal editions are few and minor, I have adopted one Devanagari variant in my translation as being more appropriate in the context. In 7.7.2, the Bengal Recension reads aga meaning trees, while the Devanagari has ara, tl1e spokes of a wheel. This might be an example of the kind of error at copyist of manuscripts could have made.
One can argue that the Bengal text is more satisfying, aesthetically. The longer and more numerous prose passages and the additional verses result in a smoother narrative and fuller characterization. The differences between the two recensions are found mainly in Acts l and 3; they are particularly significant in the love episodes which the Devanagari treats in a rather perfunctory manner.
The Devanagari text (D) seems to make somewhat abrupt transitions in- some places, giving the impression of something missing at that point. For example, it does not contain the lines at the end of Act I, where Anasuya asks Sakuntala to hurry up and come with her and Priyamvada, as well as Sakuntala`s response about the numbness in her thighs—a deft touch which conveys the sudden physical impact an overpowering emotion might make. Again in Act 2 the Devanagari text does not have st. 8 which seems to be an appropriate response to Madhavya's wry comment preceding it. The conversation regarding the untimely blossoming of the Madhavi bush is not included either (l.20.+ 14-30). This passage is important because it foreshadows Sakuntala’s marriage and characterizes it at the same time.
The Bengal text devotes more space to the development of the love of Sakuntala and Duhsanta, in Act 3. It presents the courtship as well as the conflict in Sakuntala's mind in some detail. Stanza 40 at the end of Act 3 reveals Something of the complexity of the King’s character. The first three lines bring Out one aspect, the pleasure-loving and philandering side to his nature, and it articulates his carpe diem philosophy-seize: the monument before it flies away beyond your reach, But It concludes on a different note, when Duhsanta says, ‘My heart, in the beloved‘s presence, stands some- what abashed'. A man of the world assured and poised and a great King who has fallen in and out of love many times, has had his way presumably and got what he wanted. Duhsanta now stands dumbfounded before the Innocence and purity that Sakuntala represents, By sharply abbreviating a long section of verse and prose starting at st, 26 (20 in D) which concludes with the important stanza discussed above, the Devanagari text makes a crucial omission. It further omits the delightful prose passage of four- cornered banter which follows st. 23 (st. l8 in D).
The King in the Bengal text is more fully drawn. He is a man of words us well of deeds more so than in the Devanagari test. He loves as passionately as he lights furiously. And he is a man who is in love with love as much as he is in love with a girl: a man who talks about love and being in love in a highly self-conscious manner. And how beautifully he speaks about it all! By presenting Duhsanta in the first half of the play as a passionate lover courtly and gallant—too gallant for the liking of the simple hermit girl who mistrusts such gallantry. and as it turns out with pond reason—Kalidasa draws a sharp contrast between this man, debonair, noble and even considerate at times, and the cynical, harsh and cold King of Act 5.
Sakuntala is also drawn more finely in the Bengal text. The final section of Act 3, already referred to, reveals another side to her character: she is not wholly innocent of the ways of love. Seeing through the Kings flimsy stratagems to get close to her, she indicates that she too can play at this game, though not with his expertise. The Sakuntala of the Bengal text also shows some of the fiery spirit of her ancestress in the epic. Both the hero and the heroine are more idealized in the Devanagari text; they are more interesting in the other.
The minor characters come across better in the Bengal text. Priyamvada has more lines given to her, providing more scope for her bubbling sense of fun and her readiness to tease both Sakuntala and the King. Madhavya’s sharp wit, always reaching out to deflate Duhsanta`s ego and undercut his highflown statements. has more room to play around.
The captions at the end of each Act seem to be a feature of the Bengal Recension, They are not found in the Devanagari texts of the plays, though the epic Raghuvamsam and the long poem Kumarasambhavam have captions at the end of each canto. In Sakuntala the captions for the first two Acts. ‘The Chase’ and `The Concealment of the Telling are notable. They contain an element of symbolism. The chase is a central motif in Act 1; the King is not merely chasing a deer, he is after a girl. The deer is closely associated with Sakuntala through imagery and it leads the King into her world which I have characterized in the introduction as the green world' as opposed to the gilded world of the court. The chase motif is picked up in Act 2 where we come across several phrases pertaining to the sport of hunting: the hunter’s skill; his elation when he gets the quarry; knowledge of ‘the changing responses of fear and anger of" woodland creatures‘. (Sakuntala reminds the King in Act5, that during his stay in the Hermitage, he once described her and her pet lawn as kin. both ‘creatures of the woods’,) All of these phrases conveying as they do the sense of dominance over the prey and gaining possession of it, characterize the initial attitude to and relationship of Duhsanta with Sakuntala.
The interesting point to note about the caption to Act 2, 'The Concealment of the Telling` is that it is parallelled by another concealment in Act 4, the concealment of Durvasa’s curse by Sakuntala’s Friends. The first concealment in Act 2, moves the plot forward; the second introduces the complication. The theme of concealment has ramifications in the play.
The translation of Meghadutam in this volume is based on the text of the poem on which the early seventeenth century Bengal scholiast. Bharata Mallika wrote his highly informative and sensitive commentary. Subodha I have used the critical edition of this text with commentary, produced by J.B. Chaudhuri. The differences between this critical edition and the critical edition produced by S.K. De for the Academy of Letters (Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi) are few and minor. The text of the poem established by Mallinatha, the fourteenth century scholiast from South India, contains a longer version. This text has had wide acceptance and is the one frequently translated. The verses in Mallinatha’s text which have not been accepted as genuine by Bharata Mallika (or by De) are placed in Appendix IV.
I have used the Nirnaya Sagar Press edition of Rtusamharam with Manirama’s commentary-a rather perfunctory commentary.
We now come to the matter of translation and the translation of Kalidasa’s texts specifically. Translation is like serving two masters at the same time. Languages do differ widely in their grammatical and syntactical structures and though one hopes to meet the demands of the source and receiving languages in a balanced manner, it is a fact that compromises have to be made one way or the other. We endeavour to provide the best approximation to the original not only within the limitations set by our own abilities but more so within those set by the receiving language.
Sanskrit is a highly inflected language; and it has some distinctive features which indeed constitute some of its strengths; for example, the extensive use of compound words and prefixes, and an array of synonyms with slight nuances of meaning that colour the expression of what is being said. The inflexional structure and the use of compound words give the language a tightly knit compactness which is of importance in poetry; this compactness suffers some dilution in translation. Because Sanskrit is a highly inflected language, word order is not of special importance as it is in English; punctuation is minimal consisting of a vertical stroke (I) to mark the end of the second quarter of a stanza and two vertical strokes (II) that correspond to the period in English. Inversions are frequent, with the predicate often separate from subject and object by long clauses consisting of single compound words, with their sub-units linked alliteratively, not only for euphonic but other poetic effects as well. This lends and language a musical quality difficult to convey in another language. This is especially true in the case of poetry which was and still is chanted or sung and not read silently.
Compound words are also able to project images with immediacy: for example the word, parusapavanavegotksiptasamsuskaparnah (Rtu.: 1.22) conveys strongly the picture of wild winds and their force and energy: by splitting the compound word into its sub-units we have the following:
Violent-winds-by great velocity-hurling-up-shrivelled-leaves
Compound words can also articulate ambivalences (see notes on Megh).
Puns, proverbs and certain kinds of wordplay especially those dependent on sonic resemblances or identity are almost untranslateable; for example, the phrase dhanus-khandam akhandalasya, the literal meaning of which is-a fragment of the bow wielded by the fragmentor (breaker) - we need notes to make the point clear. However this is a difficulty present in all translation; for example, in the following line from Keats: ‘Thou still unravished bride of quietness’, something is bound to get left out in translating it into an Indian language; specifically, one would be hard put to find a single word to convey both senses of the word ‘still’.
Kalidasa’s poetry like much of Indian art is stylized. The stylization is not a rhetorical procedure but part of the self-awareness with which the verse shapes itself. The translation therefore, to be faithful, has to somehow contrive to be stylized and readable; to steer clear of a literalness of rendering as well as an identification of readability with contemporaneity. It has been my endeavour throughout this volume of translations to be faithful not simply to what the poetry says (its paraphraseable meaning) but also to how it says what it says. That would be to respect its way of perceiving itself to create artifacts of the imagination. To accomplish this with some degree of success, inversions are unavoidable at places, and also the occasional passive construction which is frequent in Sanskrit. I have used these sparingly.
The translation of the prose in the drama poses its own brand of problems. Kalidasa uses several dialects (prakrits) current in his day. It is not possible to differentiate between them by style or through diction. Therefore, there is an unavoidable ironing out of the rich variety of speech of that age into one flat prose.
But I have attempted some slight differentiation in another area. There are several levels of speech in the play, depending on the occasion, private or public, and on the relationships of the speakers to one another, and here some differentiation is possible.
Nature has a life of its own in Indian thought; it enshrines centres of power, radiating holiness, plenitude, beauty. For this reason, I have refrained from using the neuter form of the English pronoun. A hill is therefore a ‘he’ and a stream is a radiant ‘she’.
I have translated only a few of the names of the flora in the Kalidasan landscape. While there are several kinds of lotuses mentioned, each with its own distinctive name in the original and each beautifully evocative, I have reluctantly used the generic term ‘lotus’. I have however, retained the Sanskrit names for many other flowers, trees, shrubs and vines mentioned or described, for two reasons. Firstly, English equivalents are not readily available (except botanical terms) and identifications are not always definitive. Secondly, the Sanskrit names form part of the poetic effect in certain passages; they frequently sound like the roll call of epic heroes and their weapons.
Kalidasa the Loom of Time
Translated and Edited With an Introduction by Chandra Rajan
Kalidasa is the greatest poet and playwright in classical Sanskrit literature and one of the greatest in world literature.
Kalidasa probably lived and wrote at the close of the 1st millennium BC though his dates have not been conclusively established. In all seven of his works have survived: three plays, three long poems and an incomplete epic. Of these, this volume offers, in a brilliant new translation, his two most famous works-the play Sakuntala and the long poem Meghadutam (The Cloud Messenger). Aldo included is Rtusamharam (The Gathering of the Seasons) a much-neglected poem that deserves to be known better. Taken together these works provide a window to the remarkable world and work of a poet of whom it was said: ‘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.’
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
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 impor-
tance as an innovator in the history of Sanskrit literature is clearly
established. The brilliant medieval lyric poet, Jayadeva, in praising Kalidasa
as Kavi-kula-guru (Master of Poets), conveys his recognition of this aspect
of the poet's greatness. Bana, the celebrated author of the prose-romance,
Who is not delighted when Kalidasa's perfect verses spring forth in
their sweetness, like honey-filled clusters of flowers?
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 writers" and the commentaries
written on them and from inscriptions.' 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 Rsmeyana; similarly Kali-dasa 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 tile Vedas. We can then
translate the name Kali-dasa 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 con-
sciousness, the changeless reality behind the manifold changing world that
is brought into being by his inherent power or Sakti-s-cosmic energy. Kali
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 Ardha-
narisvara-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 Kali-dasa-‘the servant of Time' or 'the servant of
The description of an ascetic in Marica's hermitage seems to
contain an allusion to this legendary happening (Sak: 7: 11). Rather than
dismissing them summarily as apocryphal, such legends are better read as
metaphors for the divine inspiration that is seen to lie behind poetic
composition and as underlining that powerful vision and extraordinary
felicity of expression that some poets possess more than others. They are
perceived as being born again touched by the divine fire; the new name is
assumed to indicate this and identifies their initiation into their calling. The
legends surround them with an aura of the miraculous that sets them apart
as vehicles of the Holy Power of the creative word, Vac.
Some Sanskritists in fixing Kalidasa's dates, have theorized that his
works contain veiled references to his patron, King Vikramaditya of
Ujjayini with whom Indian tradition associates the poet, and base their
identifications 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 Kali-dasa 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 commu-
nion 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 was 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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