Revisiting Abhijnanasakuntalam (Love, Lineage and Language in Kalidasa’s Nataka)

Item Code: NAH310
Publisher: Orient Blackswan Pvt. Ltd.
Author: Saswati Sengupta and Deepika Tondon
Language: English
Edition: 2011
ISBN: 9788125044192
Pages: 348 (12 B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 8.5 inch x 5.5 inch
Weight 520 gm
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Book Description

About the Book

Kalidasa’s Abhijnanasakuntalam has an iconic status in the history of Indian literature. It is a tale of love found, forgotten and restored between Dusyanta, the hero king, and Sakuntala, an innocent maiden.

Bringing together linguists, literary critics, historians, Indologists and Sanskrits, Revisiting Abhijnanasakuntalam analyses the play as more than just a figment of imagination- as a rich terrain for exploring links between culture, history and politics, as an interplay of memory, desire and languages. Divided into three sections, it focuses on the continuity as well as the change in the narrative of Sakuntala, locating it in contexts of class, caste, gender, patriarchy and monarchy.

The first section, ‘The Biography of a Narrative’, addresses the earliest appearance of the narrative in the epic Mahabharata, its best known form Abhijnanasakuntalam as nataka and William Jones’ Orientalist interpretation of the play. It also critically examines the varied representations of the play in diverse forms such as art, theatre and cinema.

Contrary to popular perception today that Sakuntala is the central protagonist of Abhijnanasakuntalam, the second section, ‘The Hero King’, address how and why Dusyana is posited as the ideal in literature and its material reality in the context of the Gupta Period the construction of kingship in different genres, and the politics of a courtly culture and patronage within which the articulation of the heroic king takes place.

About the Author

Saswati Sengupta is Associate Professor, Department of English, Miranda House, University of Delhi

Deepika Tandon is Associate Professor, Department of English, Miranda House, University of Delhi.


That Sakuntala: Texts, Readings, Histories should have been the starting point of this collection of essays on Abhijnanasakuntalam, is a rare honour for me. Both scholarship and literary sensitivity are drawn upon in this collection to explore the many facets that I merely touched on in mine. I could never have thought that it might act as a trigger releasing an extensive exploration and giving us a rich study of the text and the subject.

I should perhaps briefly state what led me to put together the original ok. What began as a lecture on the variant stories of Sakuntala encapsulating changing representations of the central figure, eventually took the form of a lengthy essay interspersed with translations of the relevant versions. The variants suggested that, even though fictional, Shakuntala in these versions was representing the change in diverse social contexts.

This brought me to the question of how historians can interconnect fiction and history in a form other than the usual-which is that of merely garnering small nuggets of information from fiction to be treated as historical evidence. We all know of the all too familiar distinction. which has frequently been made between history as hard facts and fiction as imagination which sets up an opposition between the two. But fiction has a context and a point in time which suggests that a historical moment influences the form and content of fiction. Do new literary genres reflect points of historical change? The intersection of history and literature in this sense has so far had only a few takers among either Sanskritists or historians. Sanskrit texts have been examined as part of the larger concerns of literature but less often as reflective of their historical contexts. Few historians have looked at the mutations in a narrative as reflective of historical change.

My choice of the story of Sakuntala drew on many thoughts. The literary form changed from an epic narrative in the Mahabharata, to a drama in the Sanskrit classical idiom, to variants in the Indian regional languages to translations into English and other European languages.

The multiple commentaries on the play especially in modern times and its representation in painting and in cinema led to its being projected as an icon of classical civilisation and an image of Indian womanhood from the past. With a play such as this the historical perspective predictably introduces the question of how did the depiction of Sakuntala as a woman change over historical time. Associated with this were definitions of modern identities: of nationalism, traditional culture and gender.

This book of essays ranges over many themes and lingers over those that give visibility to what was earlier hidden. Almost by accident Abhijnanasakuntalam became one of the core texts in the pursuit of Oriental studies and the ideas that this in turn provoked. The colonial uncovering of India’s past was motivated by curiosity about its earlier culture and equally by the fashioning of its form to suit the requirements of colonial policy. The primary interest therefore was in the codes that governed Hindu society and its religious texts. Creative literature was something of an aside. The projection back to what might have been the social contexts of literary texts was not viewed as essential to understanding them.

Varying readings and presentations of the play had begun more than two centuries ago emerging in part out of Orientalist interest but also from the prior scholarship on the subject. The regional differences that surface in this are reflective of other aspects of cultural perceptions as are the differences that are central to the varying idioms that gave shape to the play in the public mind, such as in painting and cinema. Comparative analyses with other works evoke new dimensions of the network of relations focusing on the royal court and the marginalisation of what has been called the heterodoxy.

Language is a significant marker of both cultural and social identity. Whereas the first has been previously commented on at the literal level of who speaks Prakrit and who uses Sanskrit, the social identity implicit in these distinctions and the hierarchies that follow, has also to be considered, as for example in the rather contradictory figure of the vidusaha. Social identity inevitably brings in the question of gender and a drama such as this allows for a full play of takes on this theme.

Then there are the hidden agendas. Why did Kalidasa introduce the incident of the curse and the ring? Is there a paradox between Sakuntala being an apsaras and her requirement of being a pativrata?

Given the myriad forms and renderings of Abhijanaaakuntalam a fuller exploration of these was obviously called for. This collection of essays is such an exploration and addresses the nuances of the play and more. I am delighted that there is now a third group of players involved, other than Sanskritists and historians, and that group is the English Department of Miranda House, bringing in analyses from the perspective ‘literary studies. I can only express my admiration for their seriousness d determination in calling together the many scholars from near and distant places. In their scholarly contributions to this volume they have provided many new insights and challenging perceptions of the text.


Revisiting Abhijnanasakuntalam germinates from a two-day international conference organised in January 2010 by the Department of English, Miranda House, University of Delhi. The conference in turn had gestated the Friday fortnightly sessions of the Department-a tradition whereby a theme, or a text, is chosen for a year, sometimes two years in running, and the Department sits together and discusses it. In the summer of 2008 we had chosen to study Kalidasa’s Abhijnanasakuntalam.

But why Abhijnanasakuntalam; why is the English Department of Miranda House flirting with Kalidasa was a question we were often asked. It was actually a pedagogical imperative for us. Abhijnanasakuntalam was made part of an optional paper titled ‘Classical Literatures’, when the syllabus for English Honours students of the University of Delhi was revised in 1999 and it was accepted that English is a language in which literatures of India may also be taught.

We thought that we knew the play, but it was really in the class room, in lively exchanges with our students and in the Department, that we began to discover the bilingual play as also multilayered. The discussions on the play, its role in shaping tradition, the power of tradition in our everyday lives, the complex interface between politics and history in constructing cultural icons, the politics of class, caste, gender as underpinning concepts of romance, motherhood, kingship-the questions just grew and grew.

Kalidasa’s Abhijnanasakuntalam has an iconic status in the history of Indian literatures and within the ideologies of nationalism and domesticity of nineteenth century elite Indian societies that drew from brahmanical social values and still continue to dominate lives and politics in contemporary India. It has, as a canonical text in classical literature, generated a vast body of critical and artistic responses ranging from early medieval to contemporary India, across high and popular traditions. In revisiting the play, we hoped to understand not only the intricacies of the multilayered play but also the impulses which helped preserve the play as a nation’s canonical text.


Abhijnanasakuntalam rearticulates an inherited story. It appears for the first time possibly in the Satapatha Btahmana (about 900 BC) in a brief reference. The epic Mahabharata, a layered tale that grew from bardic narratives and took shape between 400 BC and AD 400, presents a lengthier version of the Sakuntala story. Scholars agree that Kalidasa’s nataka was inspired by the Sakuntala episode of the epic Mahabharata, though there are a few like Maurice Wintemitz who argue that the story may have been taken from the Padmapurdna. 1 The appropriation of the traditional story however is not inert. There are differences and the most obvious of these is that of genre. The prologue of Abhijnanasakuntalam identifies itself as a navena ruitahen or a new play

The Sanskrit dramaturgical treatise Natyasastra, redacted in its present form possibly by AD 200 defines natya, usually translated as drama, as ‘a representation of bhavanukirtna/states of the three worlds (NS. 1.106)’ and as a ‘mimicry of actions and conducts of people (NS. I. 111-12)’. The original impulse of Sanskrit nataka is not easy to locate. The beginning of this mimetic form may be traced in the Vedic age if it is argued that seeds of drama were contained within sacrificial rituals. The Taittiriya Brahmana (900 BC?) mentions sailusa, the Mahabharata refers to the term nata and Panini (700 BC-500 BC) in explaining grammatical aphorisms mentions krsasvin-all three terms refer to an actor. Texts like Patanjali’s Mahabhasya (200 BC), Bharata’s Natyasastra and the Harivamsa (AD 300-500) mention plays or dramatic performances.

The Natyasastra (1.17) claims that Brahma compiled the abhinaya/histrionic component of the treatise from the Yajurveda. Terms

like rupa or rapaka/representation, preksha/spectacle (NS. 1.124) and guidelines for histrionic representations such as angika/gestures, vacika/speech, sattvika/ interpretation of the various moods represented in the plot and aharya/dresses and make up (NS. VI.23) suggest an emphasis on spectacle where Natya is concerned. In Section 1.13 of the Natyasastra, ndtya is described as an ‘object of diversion which must be audible as well as visible’ and ain it is clarified that an anukara1)a/mimicry of the exploits of the rods, the Asuras, kings, as well as of householders in this world is called Natya (NS. I.120). According to Manomohan Ghosh, epic, narrative poetry and fiction are at once distinguished from drama which is preeminently spectacle and that persons attending the performance of a play were always referred to as preksaka (spectators) and not as srotr (audience)." leaning in a play, unlike in an epic, is thus made visually as well aurally.

Very little is known of the actual conditions of the performance of Abhijnanasakuntalam but it is quite clear from the surviving recensions mat in Abhijnanasakuntalam the mimesis of communication among the dramatis personae is dialogic and not narrative. The nataha is voiced through two primary languages, Sanskrit and Prakrit, which are also further subdivided such as Maharastri, Saurasenl and Magadhl forms of Prakrit. The King, his advisors, the ascetics speak Sanskrit, the language of the elite while all the women, the vidusaha and the minor characters such as the fisherman speak different forms of Prakrit. In other words, the articulations in sanskrit represent sacerdotal and political power, while those in Prakrit, me lack thereof. The mimetic quality of the work thus reveals a character’s relation to the others in a hierarchical world of caste, class and gender from the moment any character speaks. A linguistic taxonomical categorisation of the statements in the nataka reveals that the directives, the commissives and the declarations whose function is to bring about a state of affairs indicated in the proposition are almost always in Sanskrit. In the crucial Act V of the play where Sakuntala, and her memory, are rejected, two rival concepts of faith and marriage are articulated in two languages in the royal court proceedings. The rejection of one set of arguments is symptomatic of the inadequacy of the competing languages and the characters’ unequal access to power. The languages of the play are thus not only the medium of articulation but also the socio-political registers of the dominant and contesting ideologies of the historical moment of the play’s production. The play therefore provides a rich terrain for exploring links between culture, history and politics.

Kalidasa’s dates have not been conclusively proved but it is accepted that he was active between AD 400 to AD 500 during the Gupta period which is commonly thought of as a ‘golden age’ in India much like Periclean Athens and Elizabethan England. Yet, it is also a period which attempts among other things to restructure the agrarian economy by drawing in peripheral areas under brahmanical supervision, converts communal property into feudal property, harnesses local cults to Vedic brahmanism under state patronage and strengthens caste patriarchy in many ways. Kalidasa’s inherited story of Sakuntala and Raja Dusyanta plays out within these matrices which shape that complex process called social relation. The differences between the epic version and the play may help, to use Romila Thapar’s eloquent phrase, illumine the historical moment of its articulation.



  List of figures xi
  Publisher’s Acknowledgements xiii
  Foreword xv
  Romila Thapar  
  Acknowledgements xxix
  Introduction 1
  Saswati Sengupta and Deepika Tandon  
1 The First Reading of’Sakuntala: A Window on the Original and the Second Reading by Kalidasa 17
  Alf Hiltebeitel  
2 Staging AbhijnanaSakuntalam 38
  Mandakranta Bose  
3 The Celestial Fruit of Collected Virtues’: A Reading of William lones’ Sacontala 54
  Shampa Ray  
4 ‘Gani Sakuntal Racito’: Annasaheb Kirloskar’s Sangit Sakuntal as Marathi Opera 75
  Urmila Bhirdikar  
5 The Making of Sakuntala: The Erotica and the Paradox of Representation 90
  Parul Dave Mukherji  
6 Shakuntala on Celluloid: The Framing of an Archetype in Colonial and Post-Colonial Hindi Cinema 11l
  Parul Bhardwaj  
7 Seeing and Hearing: Representations of Kingship 131
  in the Abhijnanasakuntalam and the Raghuvamsam of Kalidasa  
  Kumkum Ray  
8 When the King is the Subject: The Play of Power 148
  in Kalidasa’s Abhijnanasakuntalam  
  Saswati Sengupta and Sharmila Purkayastha  
9 Can Men Change? Kalidasa’s Seducer King in the Thicket of Sanskrit Poetics 167
  David L. Gitomer  
10 The Inarticulate Nymph and the Eloquent King 185
  Somadeva Vasudeva  
11 The King’s Companion: The Figure of the Vidusaka in Abhijnanasakuntalam 206
  C. M. Neelahandhan  
12 The Rejection of Sakuntala in the Mahabharata: 219
  Dynastic Considerations  
  Simon Brodbeck  
13 A Royal Hunt for a Lineage: Kshattiyas, Apsarases and the Gandharva Marriage 238
  Uma Chakravarti  
14 The Many Mothers of Abhijnanasakuntalam: Constructing, Celebrating and Confining Motherhood 255
  Deepika Tandon  
15 The Ring and the Amulet: Love and Memory in Kalidasa’s Abhijnanasakuntalam 276
  Meera Sagar  
  Bibliography 295
  Contributors 313
  Index 315


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