So your theater group or class needs a play to put on. What should it be: Cats, Hamilton, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Uncle Vanya? Well, how about Kālidāsa‘s The Recognition of Śakuntalā? Or अभिज्ञानशकुन्तलम्, if you’re more familiar with that name.
Kālidāsa is considered the greatest of the Sanskrit playwrights; he lived around 400, perhaps under the Guptas (the greatest of the medieval empires). He’s often compared to Shakespeare, but a better comparison, based on style and theme, would be to Molière.
King Duṣyanta, back in epic times, goes hunting. He and his charioteer chase a deer into the hermitage of the sage Kaṇva; the ascetics ask him not to kill the deer in the sacred grounds. He agrees and enters the hermitage. Kaṇva is not there, but his foster-daughter Śakuntalā greets him instead. The two are immediately smitten with each other.
He leaves to go back to his camp, but can’t stop thinking of her. Fortunately, he gets the opportunity to go back: with the sage absent, demons are bothering the ascetics, and they ask the king to chase them off. He does, and spends some time with Śakuntalā. He convinces her to marry him. (A love match was acceptable for kṣatriyas, less so for brahmins. Fortunately for the king, Śakuntalā’s father, though a sage, was also a kṣatriya. That’s a story in itself, told in the Rāmāyaṇa.)
Duṣyanta gives Śakuntalā his ring and returns to his capital with a promise to send an army to fetch her. But while he is away, another sage, Durvāsas, comes to the hermitage but is ignored by the lovesick Śakuntalā. He immediately curses her to be forgotten by the king. The only mitigation is that he will remember her again if he sees the ring.
(In the script this scene is quite abrupt— Durvāsas barely gives anyone time to react. I’m guessing the ignoring was communicated through staging. Also of note: Hindu myth and legend is full of these very specific and powerful curses. One reason never to piss off a brahmin.)
Kaṇva is happy to marry his already pregnant ward to the king; he sends her to the capital with a small entourage. But the king doesn’t recognize her, and indeed berates her as a liar and a wanton. She searches for her ring— but it’s fallen off, back when she was bathing in the river. The king won’t take her, and the ascetics won’t bring her back to Kaṇva. All she can do is appeal to her nymph mother Menakā, who whisks her off to heaven.
The ring is found in the mouth of a fish, and the king recovers his memory— and his shame. He lounges sadly around the palace, painting a picture of her. Before he can do anything more, however, Indra appears and asks him to help fight demons. When he’s finally done with this (apparently it takes a few years), he stops by a celestial hermitage and finds a strapping young boy who reminds him of himself. It turns out this is his son Bharata. He soon finds Śakuntalā, all is forgiven (the curse is explained by the gods) and all ends well.
The son, by the way, is the ancestor of both sides in the Mahābhārata and is the source of the Hindī name for India, Bhārat.
The Sanskrit theater
Sanskrit plays were explicitly designed to evoke emotion (rasa); the recognized types were love, laughter, sorrow, energy, anger, fear, disgust, and amazement. Śakuntalā falls into the erotic category, evoking love.
A curiosity about the Sanskrit plays is that only male, upper-class characters actually speak Sanskrit. Women and low-class men speak one of the Prākrits— later vernacular forms of the language. There was also a convention to have a buffoon, always a brahmin but also speaking Prākrit. In Śakuntalā it’s the king’s friend, a fat and cowardly figure. (The Prākrits developed into the modern Indic languages, though only a thousand years later.)
The plays were performed on a bare stage, and props (such as the king’s chariot) and changes of location were mimed. However, costumes were elaborate.
The text, by the way, describes Śakuntalā as wearing a dress made of bark (valkala).In the epics, this is described as the characteristic attire of ascetics, but the play describes the garment as flexible (indeed, it makes a point of saying that her breasts push it out) and tied by a knot, which rule out anything like, say, chunks of oak bark. An online article suggests that valkala means bast fiber— that is, a rough fabric made from plant stems, like hemp. (Paintings invariably depict her in something silky, but they also derive from at least a thousand years after the play.)
So how is it?
The plot and situations are engaging enough. The dramatic high point is Duṣyanta’s cruel rejection of Śakuntalā at the palace. Śakuntalā is justifiably angry:
Yes, I deserve it— I deserve to be called a self-willed wanton, since I put my trust in the Puru dynasty, and gave myself to a man with honey in his mouth but poison in his heart!
The translation I read, by W.J. Johnson, also gives the original story of Śakuntalā from the Mahābhārata. Curiously, Śakuntalā there is given a lot more to say, and far more biting.
The play is mostly prose, but with frequent short bursts of poetry. I am not a great judge of poetry, but I have to say Johnson’s versions don’t do much for me. E.g., the king’s description of Śakuntalā tired from carrying a watering pot:
From heaving up the pot, her palms are raw,
Her shoulders stoop,
Her breath is labored and her bosom shakes,
All sifted strength.
On filmy sweat the mimosa’s bloom
Slides from ear to cheek,
And as her hairband slips, those cobalt locks
Flow round her submerged hand
Like water round a rock.
Here he addresses the fateful ring:
Ring, if your reward
is anything to go by
Your good deeds
are as evanescent as mine,
For though you earned a place
on her matchless, translucent fingers,
You lacked the merit to stick there
and you fell.
Still, it’s interesting stuff, and the great advantage of reading plays to get into Indian literature is that they’re short. (The Mahābhārata, by contrast, is about ten fat books long.)