Friday, September 30, 2016

The Recognition of Sakuntala

One of the great plays of classical Indian drama is Kalidasa's The Recognition of Sakuntala. This seven-act(!) play has some tremendous poetry, and I'd like to share some pieces of it rendered into English by Arthur W. Ryder.

The first act begins with King Dushyanta hunting a deer and finding a beautiful maiden. The young Sakuntala has been raised by hermits, and is now blossoming into womanhood. While the maiden's father was a mortal, her mother was a nymph. As King Dushyanta puts it:

                    To beauty such as this
                         No woman could give birth;
                    The quivering lightning flash
                         Is not a child of earth.

In Act II, the king falls more in love with Sakuntala, and he is pleased when the local hermits ask him to stay and protect them from encroaching demons. (King Dushyanta's bow is really good against demons. This becomes important later.) Unfortunately, his mother sends a messenger requesting that he come home immediately to help her celebrate the breaking of a fast. Not knowing what to do, he laments:

                    Two inconsistent duties sever
                         My mind with cruel shock,
                    As when the current of a river
                         Is split upon a rock.

The solution is for King Dushyanta to stay with the hermits while his friend Madhavya returns to court, letting the king's mother know that duty keeps him away. While the king protests he isn't staying just to spend more time with the captivating young maiden, we in the audience aren't so sure.

In the third act, we find out that the demons have fled without King Dushyanta even having to bend his bow. His attentions turn to Sakuntala, who is showing signs that she, too, might be in love. As the king notes:

                    Her cheeks grow thin; her breasts and shoulders fail;
                    Her waist is weary and her face is pale:
                    She fades for love; oh, pitifully sweet!
                    As vine-leaves wither in the scorching heat.

As the lovers come together, it looks like everything is going to end happily. Unfortunately, everyone is so concerned with budding romance that no one is at the hermitage to greet the great sage Durvasas. Though we don't see Durvasas on stage, we hear his curse:

                    Because your heart, by loving fancies blinded,
                         Has scorned a guest in pious life grown old,
                    Your lover shall forget you though reminded,
                         Or think of you as of a story told.

Sure enough, when Sakuntala comes to visit King Dushyanta at the court, he has no memory of her, and doesn't at all recall their secret marriage. (Doh!) Behind the scenes comes a voice singing:

                    You who kissed the mango-flower,
                         Honey-loving bee,
                    Gave her all your passion's power,
                         Ah, so tenderly!

                    How can you be tempted so
                         By the lily, pet?
                    Fresher honey's sweet, I know;
                         But can you forget?

Scorned, Sakuntala departs, heavy with child. The king comes to regret his rejection of her when a fisherman discovers a ring Sakuntala lost. Upon seeing the ring, King Dushyanta's memories of her return.

It appears that the two are headed toward a reunion, but first Matali, charioteer of heaven's king, arrives with a mission for Dushyanta. Demons have risen up again, and Dushyanta must come to the rescue with his bow. He prepares for battle, saying:

                    My arrow, flying when the bow is bent,
                    Shall slay the wretch and spare the innocent;
                    When milk is mixed with water in a cup,
                    Swans leave the water, and the milk drink up.

Returning from his victorious battle against the demons, King Dushyanta meets first his young son, and then the beloved Sakuntala. No longer quite as young or carefree, she is truly a woman now, and the king feels sorrow mixed with joy when he says:

                    The pale, worn face, the careless dress,
                         The single braid,
                    Show her still true, me pitiless,
                         The long vow paid.

Kalidasa's poetry is bitter sweet, which is probably what helps to make it so memorable.