Indian Shakespeare~I

We call him Shakespeare of India. We regard him as the greatest poet and playwright of ancient India. The world recognises him as one of the greatest poets of all time.

Indian Shakespeare~I

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We call him Shakespeare of India. We regard him as the greatest poet and playwright of ancient India. The world recognises him as one of the greatest poets of all time. Yet, few people have read his exhilarating poems and plays and very few know about his life and work.This is mainly because he wrote in classical Sanskrit,once the pride of India but now designated as a ‘dead language’ and also because there was no recorded history about his time. He is none other than our one and only Kalidasa, the legendary poet and dramatist of ancient India.Like England’s Shakespeare,Kalidasa’s life is also shrouded in many mysteries.

A few miles from the city of Nagpur in Central India can be seen a sleeping town, Ramtek, known for its ancient Ram Temple and a Kalidas Smarak (Memorial) to commemorate Kalidasa’s writing of Meghadootam, one of his famous works. It is believed that Kalidasa composed the exquisite long poem Meghadootam sitting on the hillocks of Ramtek and looking at the advancing dark monsoon clouds from there. In recent time, a university, Kavikulaguru Kalidas Sanskrit University has been established at Ramtek in memory of Kalidasa.

This gives credence to the theory that poet Kalidas perhaps lived in this region, within the periphery of Ujjain, the capital city of a thriving empire ruled by the legendary king, Vikramaditya. But owing to the absence of any historiography and recorded evidence, this remains in the realm of speculation. Stories with considerable embellishment exist about Kalidasa’s early life, partly as folklore without any authenticity. One of the most popular stories has been that in his childhood, he earned the name of murkh Kalidas (Kalidas the fool) after he was found cutting the branch of a tree sitting on the wrong side, which could have resulted in a fatal fall. Another interesting story surrounds his marriage and his attainment of poethood. It is believed that, as part of a conspiracy hatched by some courtiers, the uninitiated young Kalidasa got married to an intelligent princess named Vidyottama and when she found out that her husband was not educated, Kalidasa was banished from the palace and asked to return only after he became a scholar.


Spurned by his wife, Kalidasa travelled to various places and finally came to the Gadkalika Temple (which still exists) on the bank of the river Shipra (Kshipra) in Ujjayini, where he started his tapasya. Here, he received the grace of goddess Kali and became a poet. It is also believed that Kalidasa was not his original name (which still remains unknown) and he was given the name Kalidasa because he received the blessings of goddess Kali. Nothing is known about whether the ‘learned’ Kalidas returned to his wife in the palace or whether he married somebody else. There are several versions of this story involving various places including Varanasi. Notwithstanding recent research and debates among scholars, no conclusive evidence has been found about Kalidasa’s origin.

Another dimension has been added to the confusion by several scholars saying that there were at least three poets with the name of Kalidas during the same period and that many works are falsely attributed to poet Kalidasa. William Shakespeare also faced similar accusations and became a victim of speculation. The theory of multiple Kalidasas should be discounted in the absence of any credible evidence. There is endless controversy about his origin and the place of his literary activity. Some scholars, based on the flora and fauna mentioned in his works, believed that he lived in the Himalayas while some others thought he lived in Ujjayini (modern Ujjain) and there were still others who speculated that he belonged either to Magadha or Kalinga.

According to Lakshmi Dhar Kalla (1891-1953), a Kashmiri Pandit and Sanskrit scholar, Kalidasa was born in Kashmir and later moved southwards to Ujjayini. Kalla in his book The Birthplace of Kalidasa (1926) supported this view by citing Kalidasa’s mention in his work about Kashmir’s flora-fauna (saffron plant, deodar trees, and musk deer), geographical descriptions (valleys and glades), some legends (Nikumbha in Nikumbha Purana) and Kashmiri Shaivaism (Pratyabhijna philosophy reflected in Sakuntala). Kalla’s theory of Kalidasa being a Kashmiri Pandit migrating to Ujjayini appears to be a plausible one because it matches the most common belief that poet Kalidasa, the genius, served as one of the Nav Ratnas (nine gems) in the court of the great king Vikramaditya at Ujjayini. Here again there is a twist. According to some historians, ‘Vikramaditya’ was a common title given to many powerful kings and since Kalidasa was supposed to belong to the Gupta era, in all probability, this Vikramaditya belonged to Magadha, so also Kalidasa. So the confusion remains.

According to the majority of historians of ancient Indian history, poet Kalidasa lived during 4th to 5th century CE in the Gupta era and that he had been one of the nine gems in the court of Chandragupta II (375- 415 CE) who ruled north India from his capital Magadha. If true, this will mean that poet Kalidasa lived in the Magadha region (modern Bihar) and not in Ujjain and the legend of his being a Ratna in the court of Malwa king Vikramaditya at Ujjayini would be a myth. Another confusion ~ a Sinhalese tradition says that Kalidasa died in Sri Lanka during the reign of Kumaradasa and died there being killed by a courtesan named Kamini. It is a mystery as to why and how Kalidasa landed in the distant island of Sri Lanka! It is a sad reflection on us that no records are available about the place of birth, death, life and chronology of creations of the greatest poet of ancient India.

It is also a tragic commentary on the Indian genius (the Rishis and Gurus) that unlike the Greeks who built academies and institutions to perpetuate their arts, culture science and philosophy, the great Indian kings, Rishis and scholars never bothered to create institutions, solely depending on the AshramGurukul system, although ancient India had been a treasure house of the highest forms of art, culture, literature and philosophy and produced a galaxy of great men and women in science, arts, literature and science. Kalidasa was one of them and he would have gone into oblivion but for his re-discovery by the Western scholars like Sir William Jones, Montgomery Schuyler Jr, Goethe, and Sir Monier Williams. Kalidasa wrote in classical Sanskrit. In an age when writing paper, pen, pencil, printing technology, indelible ink etc. were unknown and even the Devanagri script of Sanskrit was not fully developed, one can imagine how difficult it was to write and preserve the manuscripts. The writing materials consisted of mostly bird-feather pen, charcoal ink, vegetable colours, bhurjapatra, taalpatra and taamrapatra or cotton cloth.

To preserve, make copies and popularize the manuscripts for generations must have been a herculean task and therefore, the literary creations were necessarily confined to the author’s family or a small coterie of friends and royal patrons. It is suspected that Kalidasa who had been a prolific writer must have produced a lot more wonderful poems and dramas many of which must have been lost and only a handful of them that received royal patronage and were performed before royal audiences finally survived. Kalidasa’s works which have survived through centuries and are indisputably attributed to him have been two epics, three plays (dramas) and two long poems. These are:

1. Kumarasambhavam (Mahakavya or Epic): It is about the birth, adolescence and marriage of goddess Parvati with Shiva and birth of their son Kartikeya.

2. Raghuvamsam (Mahakavya): It is an epic poem about the kings of the Raghu dynasty.

3. Abhijnanasakuntalam (Play): Regarded as a masterpiece, it tells the story of King Dushyanta’s falling in love and gandharva marriage with Shakuntala, daughter of Viswamitra and Menaka, abandoned at birth but adopted by sage Kanva, during a hunting trip in the forest. Owing to a curse of sage Durvasa, the king completely lost his memory and refused to accept her when a pregnant Shakuntala went to the palace to be united with the king. She could not show the royal ring given to her as she had lost it while taking a bath en route in a river. When the ring with the royal seal was found by a fisherman from the mouth of a fish and returned to the palace, King Dushyanta remembered everything and the remorseful king sets out for the forest to be united with Shakuntala and his son Bharat.

4. Malavikagnimitram (Play): King Agnimitra falls in love with an exiled servant girl Malavika. After the queen comes to know about it she tries to get her killed but it is discovered that Malavika is actually a princess. The queen accepts her and agrees to marry her with king Agnimitra.

5. Vikramorvashiyam (Play):Following an unfortunate incident in heaven, the celestial nymph Urvasi, was sent back to earth as a mortal with the curse that the moment her lover lays his eyes on the child she will bear, she will die and being immortal, return to heaven. However, after coming to earth, Urvasi and king Pururavas fell in deep love and she didn’t wish to return to heaven. Following various mishaps which she overcame with courage, the curse is lifted and the lovers are allowed to remain together on earth.

6. Meghadootam ( The Cloud messenger ~ a khandakavya): This long poem tells the story of Yaksha trying to send messages to his lover through the dark monsoon clouds. This is one of the most popular and most sublime poems, unparalleled in Sanskrit literature

7. Shyamaladandakam (long poem): In this long poem, the poet describes the wonderful beauty of goddess Matangi.

(The writer is former DY.Comptroller and auditor general of India and former Ombudsman of reserve Bank of India. He is also a writer of several books and can be reached at. brahmas@gmail.com)