Kālidāsa’s Works – The Plays

This article is part 3 of 4 in the series Kalidasa

5. Mālavikāgnimitram

This is probably Kālidāsa’s first drama. This is proved by the first few verses in this drama, where he salutes earlier poets and humbly draws the attention of the audience to himself. The story is quite simple. The princess of Vidarbha, Mālavika, while on her way to King Agnimitra, gets lost in the forest because of an accident. The chief of the forest outpost finds her and assigns her to the services of the queen’s palace. When King Agnimitra sees her in a painting of the queen’s retinue, he becomes incurably attracted to her. All the efforts of his queens Dhāriṇī and Airāvatī to dissuade him fail. Agnimitra’s pursuit of Mālavika is aided by his friend Vidūśaka. Finally, queen Dhāriṇī decides to present Mālavika to the king. By that time, Mālavika’s party reach the palace and her true identity as the princess of Vidarbha is revealed. She will then be ceremoniously married to Agnimitra. This plot became so attractive to the later poets that a number of them produced imitations of it. The most notable examples are Priyadarśikā and Ratnāvali of King Harsha. All in all, it is an entertaining drama with considerable levels of skill exhibited in the evolution of the plot.

6. Vikramorvaśīyam

This is an adaptation of a Vedic story relating to King Purūravas of the lunar race and Ūrvaśī, the great apsara of devaloka. King Purūrava, a forefather of the Kauravas and Pāṇḍavas, happens to rescue Ūrvaśī from the demons who had abducted her. They fall in love with each other immediately. After some initial protests, the king’s wife Auśinārī also agrees to their marriage. In the meanwhile, Ūrvaśī gets banished from svargaloka by sage Bharata for not concentrating on her role in a dance-drama. With Lord Indra’s consent and blessings, Ūrvaśī marries Purūravas. However, Lord Indra tells her that when King Purūravas sees their son, she shall have to return. And so, Purūravas and Ūrvaśī marry and spend many happy days in the Gandhamadana hills. There, Ūrvaśī sees Purūravas looking at a girl on the river bank. She gets angry and runs away from him. She happens to enter Kumāravana, where women are barred from entering. For this offence, she gets converted into a creeper. Purūravas spends many days in a mad and passionate search for her. He finally gets divine help and comes into possession of saṅgamaṇīyamaṇi or ‘the jewel of union’. He finally gets attracted to a creeper and encircles it imagining it to be Ūrvaśī. Her curse is overcome by the saṅgamaṇīyamaṇi and she is united with Purūravas. They come back to the city and live happily. One day, the saṅgamaṇīyamaṇi is stolen by a vulture when it was being carried by a maid. The king sends forth his chamberlain to fetch it. He comes back and says that the bird was killed by someone and the jewel was easily recovered. The name on the killer arrow says Āyus, son of Purūravas and Ūrvaśī. Just then, a lady hermit by the name of Satyavatī comes in with Āyus and asks for Ūrvaśī. She tells the king that Ūrvaśī had entrusted her son Āyus to the āśrama of sage Cyavana. By killing a bird, Āyus had violated the rules of the āśrama and hence the sage had instructed her to hand him over to Ūrvaśī. The king sends for Ūrvaśī. When Ūrvaśī comes and sees Āyus, she embraces him with joy. Suddenly, she remembers Lord Indra’s words and tells the king about her impending return. The dejected king tells her that he would crown Āyus and retire to the forest. Just then, Lord Indra sends a message through sage Nārada asking Purūravas to stay on in the kingdom with Ūrvaśī till the end of his time. And then, Ūrvaśī and Purūravas lived happily. Though there is nothing spectacular about the plot, the intricate poetry makes this a pleasing read. Of particular interest would be the sections where he searches for Ūrvaśī among all the things in the forest.

7. Abhijñāna-śākuntalam

This is the most celebrated among all of Kālidāsa’s works. A small incident in Mahābhārata is picked up by Kālidāsa and turned into a magnum opus. King Duṣyanta, while on a hunting expedition in the forest, happens to visit the āśrama of sage Kaṇva. Sage Kaṇva would be away and he happens to see Śakuntalā, the foster-daughter of sage Kaṇva, and falls in love with her. Śakuntalā also gets attracted to the king and they marry with mutual consent in Gandharva style (where parents or guardians are not present). The king presents his royal ring to Śakuntalā as proof of their union. Then, the king returns to his city after promising to send for Śakuntalā as quickly as he can. In the meanwhile, the hot-tempered sage Dūrvāsa visits the āśrama and Śakuntalā, daydreaming about Duṣyanta, fails to pay due respects to him. In his anger, the sage curses Śakuntalā that she be forgotten by the person who had occupied her mind. Śakuntalā does not hear it but her friends do. They seek forgiveness from the sage. He tempers the curse by saying that Śakuntalā’s beloved will regain his memory upon seeing some object that he would have presented to Śakuntalā. And the sage walks away. Because of the curse, King Duṣyanta forgets all about Śakuntalā and immerses himself in his royal duties. On the other side, sage Kaṇva comes back, and by his yogic power, knows about everything that has transpired in his āśrama. When Duṣyanta does not send for Śakuntalā, sage Kaṇva himself decides to present Śakuntalā to the king. He duly sends her with some members of his āśrama for company. While crossing a river, Śakuntalā loses the royal ring given by the king. She does not realize it. And then, they all reach the palace of King Duṣyanta where they are received with the honour due to holy men. When Śakuntalā’s companions request King Duṣyanta to receive her, because of the curse, he fails to recognize her. And, Śakuntalā, having lost the ring, has no proof. The members of the āśrama advise her to stay in her husband’s place and leave. At this point, Menaka, the celestial mother of Śakuntalā carries her away. Sometime later, a fisherman finds the royal ring inside a fish and duly brings it to the king’s notice. Upon seeing the ring, the king remembers everything and repents at having failed to own Śakuntalā. In the meantime, Lord Indra seeks his help to fight the demons. King Duṣyanta obliges him and delivers victory for Lord Indra. He is suitably honoured by Lord Indra and is sent back to earth. On the way back, he happens to see Hemakūṭa, the āśrama of sage Mārīci. There he happens to meet a young boy getting the better of a lion cub and counting its teeth. The king experiences a kindred emotion towards that boy and soon gets to know that the boy is his own son borne by Śakuntalā. Śakuntalā and the baby boy Bharata are then duly assigned to King Duṣyanta by sage Mārīci. The poet does not make a spectacle of the reunion. It is because the anticipation and excitement had dissipated in Śakuntalā and she now retained only a sense of duty towards her family. The wonderful conversations and brilliant poetry in this drama make this a timeless classic.

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Vasuki H A

Vasuki is an electronics engineer and an IT professional. He is also a Sanskrit poet with a keen interest in Indian classical music and allied arts.
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