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It's time you read Kalidas

Don't be intimidated by the name. Three translations of India's greatest poet- Kumarasambhavam, The Origin of the Young;Malavikagnimitram, The Dancer and the King, and Kalidasa for the 21st Century, make reading his work a pleasure.

brunch Updated: Oct 04, 2014 17:24 IST
Saudamini Jain
Saudamini Jain
Hindustan Times

"Although she trembled and she stopped the hand Siva had placed on her navel, the knot that fastened up her silken robe loosened of itself, all of the way.”

The last cantos of Kalidas’ Kumarasambhavam is about Shiv and Parvati making love. The poem is a build-up to the sensual union of the Destroyer with his wife. Literally translated as The Birth of The Young Kumara, it begins with the gods conspiring to bring them together, so that their son can destroy Taraka, the demon plaguing the universe.

There’s no rose without a thorn: A painting by Raja Ravi Varma where Shakuntala is seen pretending to remove a thorn from her foot but is actually looking for Dushyant.

When one thinks of Kalidas,


, or Tagore’s favourite,


come to mind. Of the others, we’re woefully ignorant. But with three recently-released books, that can be righted. The fact that these books have come out at a time when there is a sudden interest in ancient Indian legacy is coincidental.

The first two, brought out by Penguin, include a reprint of

Kumarasambhavam, The Origin of the Young God

by award-winning translator Hank Heifetz.

Malavikagnimitram, The Dancer and the King

, by sitarist and researcher Srinivas Reddy, is a play on the love story of the Sunga emperor Agnimitra and the queen’s maid, Malavika.

Agnimitra and his best friend conspiring to hide the affair from the king’s wife and mistress sounds so modern. (Men were conniving bros in ancient India too? Hmm.)

Aleph has also brought out a volume of all seven works of Kalidas translated by poet Mani Rao titled

Kalidasa for the 21st Century Reader

– some in their entirety, others in part.

Kalidas who?
Once upon a time, there lived a fool. Such was his foolishness that one day, while sitting on a tree, he nearly chopped off the branch he was sitting on!

To punish the princess of that land (because she refused to marry his son), the chief minister presented the fool as a prince and got them married. She abandoned him at a temple, where the goddess Kali transformed him into a wordsmith: Kalidas. Or so the legend goes.

In truth, we know next to nothing about him. We’re not even sure if Kalidas was his real name! Most scholars place him between the 4th and 5th centuries, in the court of Chandragupta II, at a time when Hindu art and politics flourished.

An ancient scribe
“The charm of Kalidas,” says Srinivas Reddy, “is his piercing ability to capture simple but deep human emotions, and his keen eye for natural beauty. He is at once grand and subtle.” Kalidas’ work conjures up vivid imagery with descriptions of nature. He uses the landscape as a metaphor for complex thoughts and feelings.

And, of course, there is the insight into ancient India, (although it could be complete fiction). His Abhijnana Shakuntalam, the most prominent Indian play, is a retelling of the beginning of the Mahabharat where Shakuntala, a sage’s daughter, and Dushyant, king of Hastinapur, fall in love.

Dushyant convinces her to marry him in secret by saying, “Many daughters of great sages first marry gandharva-style, fathers approve later.” When a pregnant Shakuntala goes to court, the king fails to recognise her, the result of a curse. Years later, the king comes across a lost ring he had given her, and his memory comes flooding back. And they are reunited.

“What everybody who knows their Kalidas has agreed on,” says Dr Harish Trivedi, former professor of literature, Delhi University, “is that if you had to name one writer who could be said to represent the Indian sensibility, it would be him.” But the idea of reading Kalidas is forbidding. “Or perhaps uninviting,” says 23-year-old social researcher Riddhima Sharma. “You have to approach him through translations and find the right book.”

This is true. Many of the earlier translations, says Hank Heifetz, “were clouded with 19th century derived poetics, and by translators – most of them impressive scholars – who were poor creative writers.”

Simple pleasures
The new books are accessible. You don’t have to be well-versed with mythology or metaphor. They’re written in contemporary language, so you can read them even without the context provided in the introductions.

Sanskrit has compound words, English does not. However, even in the original, there is no need to think of Kalidas’ works as being particularly complex. It seems that Kalidas lived at a perfect time for Sanskrit when, writes translator Hank Heifetz, although the language was more polished than that of the more popular Sanskrit of the Ramayan and the Mahabharat, it wasn’t overwhelming or too remote from Prakrit, the language of the masses.

Kalidas’ Sanskrit was direct and clear. “If Kalidas has been praised as a literary genius, it is from the appreciation of his craft, imagination, and insight into human nature… not for any difficulty,” says Mani Rao.

But of course, she adds, “Anyone who wants to read Kalidas enters a literary moment immediately.”

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First Published: Oct 03, 2014 12:51 IST