This quarter, I’ve been taking a class on premodern South Asian literature. It’s the first in a two-part sequence: this class deals with literature in Sanskrit, Prakrit, Tamil, and Telugu, while the next class will cover Persian, Hindi/Urdu, Bengali, Punjabi, Marathi, and other north Indian languages. It’s been one of my favorite classes in college so far, and I’ve been learning so much about South Asian history, linguistics, and religion in addition to literature! We’ve been reading translations from the “Five Great Poems” (pañca-mahā-kāvya) of the classical Sanskrit canon, Prakrit love poems, Sangam poetry, a satirical 15th-century Telugu play, and many more. Next week, we’ll be discussing Telugu padams and devadasi songs, which I’m so excited about!
Needless to say, this class has given me many ideas for future blog posts. For now, though, I just want to share a small selection from one of the first works we read: Kalidasa’s play “The Recognition of Shakuntala” (Abhijñāna-śākuntalam), arguably the most famous work in all of Sanskrit literature.
Very little is known about Kalidasa’s life, but it is generally accepted that he lived around the 4th-5th centuries C.E., and resided for at least part of his life in the city of Ujjain in central India. Barbara Stoler Miller, one of the most eminent 20th-century scholars and translators of Sanskrit literature, writes in her 1984 anthology Theatre of Memory: The Plays of Kalidasa that he is “the acknowledged master-poet of Sanskrit”.
I’m not going to summarize the plot of Shakuntala, which you can read here. The selection I want to present comes from the very beginning of the play, when the audience first meets the male hero (King Dushyanta) racing through a forest in his chariot, chasing after an antelope. Describing the following scene, Miller writes: “we witness the king hunting a fleeing antelope in the sacred forest where Śakuntalā dwells. The movement of the chase creates a sense of uncertainty and excitement for the mind’s eye as it is drawn deeper into a mythical world. The poet’s intention to pierce the boundaries of ordinary time and space is suggested by the king’s description of the way in which his perspective is altered as he enters the forest.”
Leaving my own views on hunting aside, I have to say I really loved these three verses, and the last one is my favorite, just for the mental image it creates. The king’s exclamation that “split forms seem to reunite, / bent shapes straighten before my eyes” sounds almost like what someone would say while riding a roller-coaster!
Translated by Barbara Stoler Miller herself, these lines are spoken at the beginning of Act One of The Recognition of Shakuntala (Abhijñāna-śākuntalam). I’ve decided to only include the Sanskrit original for the poetic verses, leaving the prose lines in English. I have some longer blog posts coming up, but for now enjoy these action-packed verses!
King (rājā): Driver, this antelope has drawn us far into the forest. There he is again:
grīvābhaṅgābhirāmaṃ muhuranupatīta syandane baddhadṛṣtiḥ
paścārdhena praviṣtaḥ śarapatanabhayādrūbhayasā pūrvakāyam |
darbhairardhāvalīḍhaiḥ śramavivṛtamukhabhraṃśibhiḥ kīrṇavartmā
paśyodagraplutatvādviyati bahutaraṃ stokamurvyaṃ prayāti || (7)
The graceful turn of his neck
as he glances back at our speeding car,
the haunches folded into his chest
in fear of my speeding arrow,
the open mouth dropping
half-chewed grass on our path–
watch how he leaps, bounding on air,
barely touching the earth.
(He shows surprise.) Why is it so hard to keep him in sight?
Charioteer (sūtaḥ): Sir, the ground was rough. I tightened the reins to slow the chariot and the buck raced ahead. Now that the path is smooth, he won’t be hard to catch.
King: Slacken the reins!
Charioteer: As you command, sir. (He mimes the speeding chariot.) Look!
mukteṣu raśmiṣu nirāyatapūrvakāyā
niṣkampacāmaraśikhā nibhṛtordhvakarṇāḥ |
dhāvantyamī mṛgajavākṣamayeva ratthyāḥ || (8)
Their legs extend as I slacken the reins,
plumes and manes set in the wind, ears angle back;
our horses outrun their own clouds of dust,
straining to match the antelope’s speed.
King: These horses would outrace the steeds of the sun.
yadāloke sūkṣmaṃ vrajati sahasā tadvipulatāṃ
yadardhe vicchinnaṃ bhavati kṛtasandhānamiva tat |
prakṛtyā yadvakraṃ tadapi smarekhāṃ nayanayo-
rna me dūre kiñcitkṣaṇamapi na pārśve rathajavāt || (9)
What is small suddenly looms large,
split forms seem to reunite,
bent shapes straighten before my eyes–
from the chariot’s speed
nothing ever stays distant or near.