By common assent, Kalidasa is one of the world's supreme poets. Apart from Shakuntala, however, which was known to Goethe and Apollinaire, Kalidasa's work is not well represented in European books or the Internet. Scholars even dispute Kalidasa's dates, though he clearly wrote for a highly-civilized princely court, either of the 5th century AD Guptas or the 1st century BC Paramara dynasty. Only a few works are undisputedly by Kalidasa plays: Malavikagnimitram, Vikramorvashiyam and Abhigyanashakuntala; epic poems: Khumarasambhava and Raguvamsham; lyric poems: Meghdutam and possibly Ritusamharam.

Though dead in the sense that it is not widely spoken today, Sanskrit has been a literary language for three millennia or more. Some of the world's great literature including the Bhagavat-gita is written in Sanksrit, and that enormous body of work still influences life on the subcontinent. Though there exist many primers, dictionaries and audio resources, Sanskrit takes a long time to learn (if not the seven years that Chinese requires), and the metre of its poetry has the further difficulty of being quantitative. Nineteenth century translation by Raj officials were somewhat trite and sanitized. Most contemporary efforts are workmanlike, only hinting at the splendour of the original.

Indian literature does not have the following among English-speakers enjoyed by continental or even Chinese literature. The reasons are probably the introverted attitudes of Modernism, somewhat indifferent translations, the Christian opposition to a frankly sensuous if not sensual imagery, and the impersonal and non-demotic nature of Sanskrit court poetry. Sanskrit poetry is literature of a very high order: it is not personal expression but a fusing of spiritual, sensuous and intellectual matters in a non-western tradition. To these excellent reasons for reading it, should be added a closer integration of poet and landscape, and the spiritual basis of its civilization.

Sanskrit is an ancient language, and the better dictionaries have large entries — 160,000 in the modified Monier-Williams dictionary at Cologne, for example. Reading the original Sanskrit requires extended effort, therefore, but the rewards are an appreciation of a beautiful and learned language, and a glimpse of traditions that enrich our understanding of south and southeast Asia.

Anyone taking a degree in Sanskrit will read Kalidasa, and most of the resources in libraries and on the Internet are indeed scholarly. Books include C. Rajan's Kalidasa: The Loom of Time: A Selection of his Plays and Poems (1989), and Hank Heifetz's The Origin of the Young God: Kalidasa's Kumarasambhava (1985, 1990), Leonard Nathan's The Transport of Love: Kalidasa's Megadhuta (1976), C. R. Devadhar's Works of Kalidasa (1984) and the various guides by M.R. Kale: The Meghaduta of Kalidasa (1969), etc. A translation of Meghdutam is available from Ocaso Press in free pdf form.

Suggestion: The Recognition of Sakuntala : A Play in Seven Acts. Translator W.J. Johnson. O.U.P. 2001. $9.95.

A lively verse rendering that makes a fair attempt at capturing Kalidasa's poetry. The book includes the version of the story from the Mahabharata, the likely source for Kalidasa.

C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.