Kalidasa’s Sakuntala is the best-known Sanskrit drama, and widely considered a masterpiece. It is based on an episode from the Mahabharata (book 1, ch. 62-69), though Kalidasa takes significant liberties in his version. Widely translated — there were “no fewer than forty-six translations in twelve different languages” in the century after Sir William Jones’ groundbreaking first translation (1789) alone, Dorothy Matilda Figueira notes in Translating the Orient — new editions continue to appear regularly. Barbara Stoler Miller’s, published along with translations of Kalidasa’s two other dramas (and three explanatory essays) as Theater of Memory, appears to have become a standard version, and certainly the classroom text of choice (at least in the US); it also has the advantage of being relatively easy to find (which is not the case with most of the other translations).
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The eighty pages of essays, covering three different aspects of Kalidasa and Sanskrit drama, and the solid critical apparatus (though the actual notes are a bit thin), as well the fact that it makes the other two Kalidasa plays easily available, does make this an appealing edition. It is not, however, ideal. Miller’s translation is solid, with a few inspired touches, but it does not stand out among the competition. In addition, more supporting material, and more extensive notes focussed specifically on the play would have been welcome.
Sakuntala is a play in seven acts. It begins with a remarkable Prologue, in which the director of the play briefly discusses the planned night’s entertainment with the lead actress. He’s worried about impressing his learned audience, and tells her:
I find no performance perfect
until the critics are pleased;
the better trained we are
the more we doubt ourselves.
(“Critics” — with it’s newspaper-reviewer connotations — is an unfortunate choice here; Kalidasa clearly only means he’s worried about the opinion of this generally well-informed audience.) The actress manages to reassure him with a brief song: she is so utterly convincing and enrapturing that he forgets what play he wanted to put on (after just having mentioned it moments before). It’s a hard scene to pull of on the stage, but on the page it can convince, and it’s a stunning start to the play (and also sets the bar very high). The play proper then begins, with King Dusyanta on a hunting expedition. He’s going after an antelope, but a monk stops him, telling him the antelope belongs to the local hermitage: Your weapon
should rescue victims, not destroy the innocent !
The king does as he is asked. Invited to the hermitage he looks around the grove, and comes across Sakuntala and two friends — but he hides before they see him. Sakuntala is the daughter of the head sage, Kanva (who is away at the time), — or so the king has been told. In fact, she is only the adopted daughter, and is actually the daughter of a royal sage and a celestial nymph (which is important, as the it wouldn’t be appropriate for the king to be involved with a commoner). Sakuntala is coming into her own, and one of the first things the king sees is Sakuntala asking one of her friends to loosen the no longer quite form-fitting bark dress she is wearing. As the friend says: Blame your youth for swelling your breasts.
(Ryder translates this much more successfully: “You had better blame your own budding charms for that.”) The king finally shows himself, but he’s uncertain whether to reveal his true identity — and pretends to be someone else. He finds out that Sakuntala would be an appropriate mate, but there’s still a bit of romancing to do. He does, however, give her the ring of the title — an embellishment of Kalidasa’s that isn’t found in the original source-material, but that will allow the king to come of looking better than he originally did. The second act begins with a Shakespearean buffoon’s monologue: the character of the fool transposed to India. The king is by now completely smitten. As the buffoon notes: She must be delectable if you’re so enticed.
The king is indeed filled with enthusiasm — but by the end of the act realises that the buffoon may let something about his passion slip back home at the palace, which might not go over so well, and so he tells him: I really feel no desire for the young ascetic Sakuntala.
What do I share with a rustic girl
reared among fawns, unskilled in love ?
Don’t mistake what I muttered
in jest for the real truth, my friend !
The audience knows better, and in the third act their true feelings can’t be hidden any longer — though both the king and Sakuntala suffer for their passion before they can embrace each other: SAKUNTALA:
I don’t know
but day and night
for wanting you,
Love torments you, slender girl,
but he completely consumes me —
daylight spares the lotus pond
while it destroys the moon.
The king wants to marry Sakuntala, but she is worried that the proposed rushed and secret marriage wouldn’t be appropriate. “Fulfillment of desire is fraught with obstacles”, the king sighs. Sakuntala gives in — but only off stage, in between scenes. When the fourth act opens the king has returned home, promising to send for Sakuntala later. Still enraptured, Sakuntala neglects her duties and is cursed by the angry sage Durvasas: the king won’t remember who she is — at least until he sees the ring of recollection. (In the original version of the story in the Mahabharata there is no curse or ring: the king is simply a cad: he remembers her well enough, but pretends not to.) But Sakuntala is sp swept away she doesn’t even realise what’s happened.
Much of the fourth act is filled with the sweet sorrow of parting, as Sakuntala prepares to leave the idyllic grove and the hermitage. It’s all the more poignant because she is not aware of the terrible fate she’s facing (while the audience knows exactly what’s coming). In act five Sakuntala arrives at the king’s court — and doesn’t get quite the welcome she expected. It should all be easy enough to clear up, even Sakuntala realises: “this ring will revive your memory and remove your doubt”. But, alas — there’s no ring on her finger ! It must have fallen off ….. Sakuntala has other evidence, describing their meetings, but that isn’t enough to convince the cursed king, and he continues to worry: Since it’s unclear whether I’m deluded
or she is speaking falsely —
should I risk abandoning a wife
or being tainted by another man’s ?
Act six begins with more comic relief, as a fisherman is interrogated by the police about a ring he found — the missing royal ring of recollection, of course. Now, finally, the king remembers. and he sets off to regain her. Sakuntala has by now given birth to a child, a boy who looks much like the king (and who should — so the king’s promise to Sakuntala long ago — be his successor). But the king can barely believe that there is any hope left for him: learning the boy’s mother’s name is Sakuntala he moans: But names can be the same. Even a name is a mirage … a false hope to herald despair. But, finally, there is the happy reunion and ending.
Much of the power of the play is as a character study of Sakuntala, as Kalidasa shows her in these different circumstances. Her love, her despair, her anger are all impressively displayed. Much of this — and, indeed, the success of much of the rest of the play — depends on the poetry of the play, and while there are some very successful bits, Miller’s translation does fall short. Sanskrit is a difficult language to translate in any case. The nominal compounds (similar to the German, except that they can be much more elaborate) pose a particular problem, and the Sanskrit verses with their own complex rules are also very difficult to convey.
Miller knows her stuff, and the substance of the play is well-conveyed. But much goes missing — especially that sense of poetry. Some of the problems can be guessed at from the explanation she offers of the play’s title in the notes (one of the few terms she explains at greater length): Sakuntala and the Ring of Recollection … This is not a literal rendering of the Sanskrit compound Abhijnanasakuntala, whose exact form and meaning are controversial even among Sanskrit critics and commentators. The word abhijnana means “recognition” or “recollection”; it is used in the play to refer to the ring Dusyanta gives as a token to Sakuntala (…) A more exact translation of the title might be “[The drama of] Sakuntala [remembered] through the ring of recollection,” where the entire compound refers to the implied word nataka (drama),and a word like smrta (remembered) may be supplied according to a rule of Sanskrit grammar governing elision in compound verbs. Unfortunately, there are probably few words (and verses) in the text that don’t warrant as much or more explanation.
Miller goes for the grounded, straightforward approach, not rhyming the verses, for example (Ryder, on the other hand, imposes a rhyme on all the verses). Enough of the original comes through to get a decent sense of the play’s qualities, but it rarely reaches the transcendent heights the original is reputed to have. A useful edition, with some decent supporting material (though more would have been welcome), it nevertheless isn’t entirely satisfying. – Return to top of the page –