Kalidasa’s epic play ‘Abhijnanashakuntalam’, dramatising the love story of Shakuntala and Dushyanta, has been retold for the 21st-century stage.
Penguin Classics has brought out this new translation ‘The Recognition of Shakuntala’ by Vinay Dharwadker as part its ongoing series that seeks to bring the great poet’s oeuvre to a new generation of readers.
Kalidasa’s most famous play refashions an episode from the Mahabharata, dramatising the love story of Shakuntala, a girl of semi-divine origin, and Dushyanta, a noble human king.
After their brief and passionate, but secret, union at her father’s forest ashram, Dushyanta must return to his capital.
He gives Shakuntala his signet ring, promising to make her his queen when she joins him later.
But, placed unawares under a curse, he forgets her and she loses the ring that would have enabled him to recognise her.
The world’s first full-length play centred on a comprehensive love story, ‘The Recognition of Shakuntala’ is an undisputed classic of the ancient period.
It enacts the story of Shakuntala and Dushyanta in seven acts, with a large cast of lively, memorable characters.
It is regarded as the earliest play in world drama and theatre to be centred on a comprehensive narrative about love, and it is the oldest of the complete, free-standing works in any genre of literature around the globe to be focused on this theme.
The play develops a vivid representation of the process of falling in love, of infatuation and passionate union, of separation and failed reunion, of finding and losing and regaining a soul mate, and of reuniting in a child and living happily ever after.
Dharwadker’s commentary and notes give contemporary readers an opportunity to savour the riches of a timeless text.
“In this book, I offer 21st-century readers a brand-new translation of ‘Shakuntala’, which balances multilingual scholarly access to the Sanskrit-Prakrit text and its discursive environment with literary representation in English that draws on a practitioner’s experience in poetry, poetics, and translation spanning four decades,” he says.
Unlike previous translations in English, his rendering here attempts to reproduce Kalidasa’s poetic devices, figures, and effects in precise detail, and to transpose the shape as well as the substance of his primary and secondary plots and tertiary incidents on to this language without loss.
“At the same time, my version seeks to capture the liveliness of the dialogue, the dynamic evolution of three-dimensional characters, and the dramatic quality and thematic range of the whole with its 50 or more speaking parts onstage,” he says.
According to the professor of comparative literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, for any translator of ‘Shakuntala’ today, the problem at the core of this intransigent web-work spills over in two directions at once.
“In one, he or she has to negotiate extensively with the intricacy of Sanskrit as a language (of which both Greek and Latin are virtual subsets), and of the Sanskrit-Prakrit literary system, its dramatic tradition, and its historical and aesthetic contexts.
“In the other direction, he or she has to fully accommodate the qualities of Kalidasa’s play, as a poem in prose and verse and as a superb performance vehicle, which require sustained immersion, not only in literary practice and theatre-craft across genres and periods, but also in the separate practice of poetic translation,” he says.
‘Shakuntala’ is a perpetually modern classic because it retains its freshness and renovates its significance in different historical periods, but is fixes its own location as an imaginative work in three distinct worlds, he says.