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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 3 - Classical Drama  


The Theatre Prologue to Kalidasa's
Shakuntala and the Ring of Recollection

The classical period of Indian culture begins in the fourth century A.D. and has its literary expression primarily in Sanskrit, the language of the priestly caste of Brahmans. The foremost classical author of the period is the playwright and poet Kalidasa, who served the Gupta monarchs of Northern India in the beginning of the fifth century A.D. He is best known for his romantic drama, Shakuntala and the Ring of Recollection, based on a minor episode of the Mahabharata.

The beautiful daughter of a nymph and a sage, Shakuntala has been brought up in a holy forest. When the king Dushyanta enters the forest in chase of an antelope he is hunting, he becomes entranced by the girl instead and marries her in a secret ceremony. Kings, however, have duties beyond the forest, and Dushyanta must return to his court. He gives Shakuntala his ring and bids her await his summons to the court. Left behind in her world of nature, the preoccupied Shakuntala carelessly violates the ancient laws of hospitality and in retaliation is cursed by the sage she has offended: the king will forget her until he sees again the ring he has given her upon parting. She loses the ring and is rebuffed by the king. Supernatural powers come to her aid, however, and carry her off to an aerial world to bear safely his child Bharata, who is to become the ancestor of India (and whose name is embedded in the title of the epic Mahabharata). After suffering remorse when he finds the lost ring, Dushyanta is reunited with Shakuntala above the clouds and there watches the prowess of his remarkable son.

The special qualities of classical Indian drama may be observed even in this sketchy outline: neither tragic nor comic, the play explores a series of emotional moments and contrasts the different spheres which Hindu culture designates for human beings. The play describes the quest for harmony between the court and the forest through the different scenes which portray Dushyanta's world of dharma, or duty, and Shakuntala's realm of nature and spontaneous action. Their love does not depend on psychological factors; the playwright does not build characterization or seek verisimilitude in the way Western dramatists generally do. Scenes seem separated from each other and are structured not so much in order to provide a logical sequence of events as to offer opportunities to illustrate a particular flavor of sentiment (rasa) for an audience of connoisseurs. Shakuntala's sensuousness and Dushyanta's strength are portrayed through gesture, music, and costume as well as in dialogue. Even the dialogue discriminates among characters, for those cast in noble roles, like the king and the sage, speak Sanskrit verse, while women and comic characters speak prose in the dialect of commoners, called Prakrit.

The effects achieved by classical Sanskrit drama depend on skillful, disciplined performance, on the one hand, and on well-versed audiences, on the other. Theatrical presentation relied almost exclusively on royal patronage: audiences comprised small groups of the educated elite, perhaps two hundred persons at a time, collected in a special room in a palace. Classical actors perfected a physical code of eye movements, hand gestures, danced postures, and the like, so that each member of the audience could appreciate the finesse of their execution. Every finger had to be held in a carefully rehearsed way, since it was a sign of a certain emotion or state of being. This is a most elegant art form.

Like all classical Sanskrit plays, Shakuntala begins with an invocation to a god and a prologue. Rather than attempt to draw the audience into an emotionally realistic situation, this dramatic tradition insists on its artificiality. By contrast, the classical drama of fifth-century Athens, which relied on masks and had to reach thousands of spectators in huge outdoor arenas, paradoxically shows less awareness of its status as an art form.

Goethe, the great German neoclassicist, admired not only the Greek and Roman traditions but the Sanskrit model as well; although it is rarely reprinted in student anthologies, a theatre prologue based on that of Kalidasa's Shakuntala precedes the action of Goethe's monumental two-part verse drama, Faust. (The translation that Goethe knew was done into English in 1789; the translation below was published by Barbara Stoler Miller in 1984.)

The water that was first created, the sacrifice-bearing fire, the priest, the time-setting sun and moon, audible space that fills the universe, what men call nature, the source of all seeds, the air that living creatures breathe-- through his eight embodied forms, may Lord Siva come to bless you!


DIRECTOR (looking backstage): If you are in costume now, madam, please come on stage!

ACTRESS: I'm here, sir.

DIRECTOR: Our audience is learned. We shall play Kalidasa's new drama called Sakuntala and the Ring of Recollection. Let the players take their parts to heart!

ACTRESS: With you directing sir, nothing will be lost.

DIRECTOR: Madam, the truth is:
I find no performance perfect
until the critics are pleased;
the better trained we are
the more we doubt ourselves.

ACTRESS: So tell me what to do first!

DIRECTOR: What captures an audience better than a song? Sing about the new summer season and its pleasures. To plunge in fresh waters swept by scented forest winds and dream in soft shadows of the day's ripened charms.

ACTRESS (singing):
Sensuous women
in summer love
flower earrings
from fragile petals
of mimosa
while wild bees
kiss them gently.

DIRECTOR: Well sung, madam! Your melody enchants the audience. The silent theater is like a painting. What drama should we play to please it?

ACTRESS: But didn't you just direct us to perform a new play called Sakuntala and the Ring of Recollection?

DIRECTOR: Madam, I'm conscious again. For a moment I forgot. The mood of your song's melody carried me off by force, just as the swift dark antelope enchanted King Dusyanta.

(They both exit; the prologue ends. Then the king enters with his charioteer, in a chariot, a bow and arrow in his hand, hunting an antelope.)

Questions for Discussion

  1. The translation is unable to convey the contrast between the Director's lines, which are in Sanskrit, and the Actress's, in Prakrit. Does this distinction mean that he is more powerful than she?
  2. How does the Actress's song predict the view of women and the natural world that will be enacted in the complete play?
  3. What other plays are you familiar with that demonstrate some confusion between the "real world" and that of the play?
  4. Why are good performances (like the Actress's here) capable of making us forget ourselves (as does the Director)?