(My column in Mint Lounge, December 23 2017)
In 1791, when German poet-playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe first encountered the story of Shakuntala, he was moved enough to declare that if heaven and earth combined in one name, that name would be hers. His passion for Kalidas’ epic heroine lasted a lifetime, and even on the eve of his death, he referred to Shakuntala as “a star that makes the night more agreeable than the day”. Goethe was not alone in his fascination for Kalidas’ Abhijñānaśākuntalam, which captured Europe’s imagination after William “Orientalist” Jones produced his translation Sacontala, or The Fatal Ring(1789). Since then, this heroine has emerged as one of India’s most memorable mythological characters, featuring in Raja Ravi Varma’s canvases as well as on the movie screen, not to speak of endless literary works. Indeed, as the historian Romila Thapar notes, Shakuntala was crowned the ideal of Indian womanhood, her integrity and blamelessness going down as virtues to be emulated by every good daughter and wife.
The celebrated Shakuntala created by Kalidas, however, is markedly different from the original template in the Mahabharat. In this earlier avatar, Shakuntala is a remarkably direct and confident figure. When Dushyanta, who has killed “thousands of deer” in the course of his royal hunt, arrives at her adoptive father’s hermitage, he calls out, “Who is here?” Shakuntala appears and after welcoming him, asks how she may be of service. With the father away, Dushyanta notices her “beautiful hips”, “lustrous appearance” and “charming smile”. After she explains her half-celestial origins, the king is moved to declare, “Be my wife, buxom woman!” and suggests to this “girl of the lovely thighs” that they ought to marry right away, in the gandharva style where passion makes up for lack of ceremony. Shakuntala initially asks him to wait, but is eventually persuaded that this is indeed a legitimate form of marriage. But first she seeks a promise: Her son from this union must be the king’s heir. “If it is to be thus, Duhsanta, you may lie with me.” The lady in the Mahabharat is sensible, in other words, and able to command from the king a significant pledge.
The Shakuntala Kalidas’ exquisite poetry breathed into life, however, was not, as the scholar Kanchana Mahadevan writes, “the assertive woman of the epic”. Unlike in the Mahabharat, she barely even talks to him directly—she is too innocent and sweet. Indeed, as a companion explains, she is “as delicate as a jasmine”. She falls in love with the king, who is tempted by this “flower that no one has smelled”. Either way, their mutual attraction results in a consummation, and in what might have been inspired by a Buddhist tale, the king departs after handing over to Shakuntala his ring. While she is lost in romantic dreams one day, a sage with a legendary temper appears. And not finding her up to the mark in his service, he issues a curse that her lover will forget her. Following entreaties by others, he subsequently allows a caveat that when the king sees the ring, he will remember Shakuntala. And so, in this version, matters are taken beyond human control to the realm of fate that serves, in essence, to absolve our male lead of his subsequent betrayal.
The ring and the curse are interesting additions by Kalidas. In the Mahabharat, our heroine, after a three-year pregnancy, appears at Dushyanta’s court with their son to remind the king of his word. “Remember,” she says, “the promise you made long ago when we lay together, man of fortune, in Kanva’s hermitage!” Dushyanta, however, quite deliberately chooses not to recognize her. “I do not know that this is my son…Women are liars—who will trust your word?” A strong exchange follows, and while Shakuntala is angry, she remains full of furious power. “Even without you, Duhsanta, my son shall reign over the four-cornered earth,” she declares. “My birth is higher than yours, Duhsanta! You walk on earth, great king, but I fly the skies.” Eventually, a magical voice confirms that the boy is the king’s son, upon which Dushyanta announces that he had known Shakuntala was telling the truth all along. As Wendy Doniger translates: “I knew…that he was my own son. But if I had accepted him…just from her words, there would have been doubt among the people.” The king, for reasons of public approval, had been telling an untruth. And without irony, he then proceeds to forgive Shakuntala for her harsh words!
The same episode is transformed by Kalidas. In his version, Shakuntala is pregnant, and accompanied by others who speak for her in court. The king does not recognize her and suggests that she is trying to pass off another man’s seed as his own. “Don’t cuckoos let other birds nurture/Their eggs and teach the chicks to fly?” he asks. But through the device of the curse—which means the king has genuinely forgotten Shakuntala—Kalidas exonerates him, where, in the Mahabharat, Dushyanta is guilty. The fact that Shakuntala has lost the all-important ring complicates matters. But unlike, to quote Thapar again, “the spirited woman who argues her right” in the epic, Shakuntala in Kalidas’ retelling sheds pious tears till her mother, the celestial nymph Menaka, comes to her rescue. Eventually, after the ring reaches the king through the means of a dead fish, he remembers everything, and sets out to reunite with his wife and child. Nobody is to blame here—Shakuntala is pure, the king’s rudeness was the result of a curse, and what really determined matters was a tragic twist of fate.
Kalidas’ was a tremendously popular version (in a 19th century Urdu translation, Shakuntala is so chaste that she even acquires a veil) given that hero and heroine were both romantic victims. But the play also encapsulates a moment when the powerful woman of the epic makes way for a new ideal—an ideal that was embraced by Western audiences in Goethe’s day, and which Indians too have accepted, forgetting the more remarkable woman who first appears in the epic, one who does not conform to notions of patriarchal correctness, but stands proud, instead, as a challenge to the world of men.