Literary Shelf

The Charm of Abhigyan Shakuntalam by Kalidas

When we approach Abhigyan Shakuntalam by Kalidas, we must forgive Patriarchy first. We as modern readers / viewers must cleanse ourselves of the opposition (often rightly) that we hold against the patriarchal system of society. We must understand and accept that we cannot demand, say colour blue from someone who has not seen or known of dreamt of that colour. The basic sketch of the story comes from Adi Parva of Mahabharata. Kalidas, seeing a rich dramatic plot with steep upside and downs, twists and turns, climax and anti-climax, took the story and made it into this marvel of a play.

When I say that we have to forgive Patriarchy first, I mean that this is the story of a guile-less, pure, pristine, innocent girl who trusted a man, who was cursed for making a mistake while being lost in love, and of being oblivious of her surroundings as she was pining for love, a girl who was publicly humiliated, doubted and turned back and finally a girl who accepts the man after all this when he is remorseful and begs her pardon. We need to swallow all this if we want to aesthetically enjoy the play. Abhigyan Shakuntalam is very much a play which upholds chastity in women as their paramount virtue. It attaches all honour and dignity to the female body. It upholds the role of a woman as the mother. It expects women to be patiently suffering, accepting and forgiving.

This is just too much to deal with for an aware reader of the 21st century. Where is justice? Why is the man not held responsible? This is exactly where literary training and practice comes into picture. This is where "context" becomes as important as the "text".

When we approach Kalidas and particularly This play Abhigyan Shakuntalam, we must literally practice Coleridge's concept of willing suspension of disbelief. We need to enter the world of the writer. To understand the literary richness of this play, we must keep aside ideas of feminism, oppression of Patriarchy and the flame of women's rights. We must enter the milieu of Kalidas. We must understand that we cannot expect the colour blue from someone who has not seen the colour blue. Kalidas even in his wildest dreams could not have thought of deconstruction, postmodernism and the feminist movement. His direct aim was not to improve society. Neither was he a sociologist. He was not into social service per se. He was not propagating any ideology. We must remember that Kalidas was not a social scientist. His conscious aim was not to comment on the status of women in society. Kalidas was in a different realm altogether. Kalidas was a litterateur, a playwright.

Kalidas was purely an artist. Based on past literary theories, and literature available to him and also availing his own inner sensibilities, Kalidas sculpted himself into a wordsmith, an author who could tickle and evoke human emotions like none other. The literary achievement of Kalidas is unparalleled in world history. He breathes life into words. He is a word magician. Kalidas is considered to be one of the greatest dramatists of all times because of his tremendous ability to stir human soul through words.

He knew stage craft. He knew how to use figures of speech. He knew how to present a twisting plot. He lived his characters. The greatness of Kalidas lies in the fact that you can feel the strike of breeze on your cheek when he describes the wind. He drowns you in rains. He fills your nostrils with fragrance. An involved reader, an engrossed viewer is transported into the world of Kalidas. You smell flowers. You feel droplets of rain on your skin. Kalidas makes you laugh and cry through his words. He is simply the master of words.

Goethe wrote, " If you wish to see the young flowers of spring and the ready to pluck fruits of summer at once; or of you wish to see the object which pleases, hypnotises, delights, and quenches you at once; or if you wish to see  the earth and heaven in one look; I invoke the name of Shakuntala and all quests are answered at once." (

Goethe learnt a lot from Kalidas. "Heinrich Heine's posthumous work in 1869 brings to our notice an important fact. In the chapter "Thoughts and Ideas" he wrote, "Goethe made use of Shakuntala at the beginning of Faust. Goethe's Prologue to the Theatre of Faust is inspired from Shakuntala where an actor/director comes on stage and flatters the audience of their wisdom and cultural disposition to seek their blessings and patronage (though the audience were quite different in both eras)." (

Such is the aura and impact of Kalidas! Evoking senses through words, Kalidas is an exceptional practitioner of the Rasa Theory. The stature of Kalidas demands certain prerequisite qualities from the reader and the viewer; "willing suspension of disbelief" is one of them. Apart from having a taste for aesthetics, the reader/viewer has to be "sa-hriday". Sa-hriday reader is an important concept of Sanskrit poetics. One can absorb literature only when one is ready. One cannot enjoy a piece of art unless one is able to dissolve one's ego and one's self in the ongoing art.

We must keep our ideas aside. The basic idea is to enjoy art. In the fifth chapter of Kavya Meemansa, Rajshekhar writes, "The poet and the sa-hriday critic or reader are both constituents of the same literary principle and it is the combination of both these alone that constitutes "Kavya" (poetry)... Sa-hriday's mind is like a mirror which has become clear on account of the study of poetry and who thus possesses the ability to be absorbed in the thing being described..." (Rajshekhar: Kavya Meemansa e-text on

Then Rajshekhar goes on to describe different types of readers or recipients of art. But the point to be noted here is that the ability to see the world as the poet does, is the chief quality of an ideal reader. While reading Abhigyan Shakuntalam, we must know that fault-finding is easy; understanding the context and experiencing the art are difficult. We should aspire to do the difficult task as it will ultimately give us ach better and a much more satisfying artistic experience.

Abhigyan Shakuntalam is an excellent example of eco-literature. Just as Shakespeare uses Nature in As You Like It, Kalidas gives us the feel of Nature as the background of all happy happenings in the play. Auspiciousness lies in the forest; conflict and tension lie in the royal court and the city.

The forest is the mood-setter for joyful incidents. The trees set the tone. Nature and her benevolence are omnipresent. From the lap of Nature flows the stream of good luck. Shakuntala has nick-named each animal and each plant. It is a universal phenomenon that the moment we love a person or a thing, we give it a name of our own. This is the human way of making a thing or a being one's own. The unique name signifies a bond between the two.

We want to uniquely possess a being or thing by giving it a private nickname. This is the relationship of Shakuntala with deer, birds, trees, flowers and all other flora-fauna around her.

Kalidas has also employed Nature beautifully and effectively in symbolic communication. Shakuntala is young, beautiful, healthy, imaginative and happy. She as a budding girl is also budding with desires. Her longing for love is natural. Kalidas describes climbing of jasmine creeper on mango tree symbolizing the union of a man and a woman. Shakuntala does not utter the word "marriage" directly. She talks about entwining of jasmine and mango. She talks about the marriage of jasmine with mango tree. This is Shakuntala's way of expressing her desire. This is the typical style of Kalidas.

When Shakuntala is separated from Dushyant, she is in unspeakable misery. She anxiously talks about the doe (female deer) looking for her buck (male deer).  

She describes how the doe is in pain, is in tears and cannot bear separation. Shakuntala is talking about herself without talking about herself. She desperately tells her friend to find out the male deer and unite the two. This is how her pain is reflected. This is how Kalidas speaks in symbolism. Kalidas puts his heart into it. When Kalidas describes the pain of separation, it is difficult to hold back tears. Such is the power of his involvement in the life of his characters. We all remember the famous poem of Baba Nagarjun:

"Kalidas, sach sach batlana!
Indumati ke mrityushok se
Ajj roya ya tum roya the?
Kalidas, sach sach batlana?
Amal-dhaval giri ke shikhron par
Priyvar, tum kab tak soye the?
Roya Yaksh ya tum roye the?
Kalidas, sach sach batlana!


Sometimes Kalidas gives very deep messages through Nature imagery. I am particularly struck with these lines where Shakuntala's friend tells her, "Shakuntala, we have watered the trees that blossom in summer; we have watered plants which are about to blossom. Now let us sprinkle those whose flowering time has passed. That will be a better deed because we shall not be working for a reward." (Kalidas: Shakuntala. Translated by Arthur W. Ryder. Cambridge, Ontario 1999.

There are so many layers in these lines. Nature is needed for her own sake and not for human exploitation. Greenery is essential. The earth belongs to Nature. We should care for trees just as for old people whose flowering time is over. We should not always be working for a reward. We should strive to do better deeds. So much is packed in these lines! We can see a whole worldview here which is holistic. This is how the voice of Nature speaks through Kalidas.

In the whole panorama of world literature, Kalidas is arguably the most sensitive poet towards Nature. The moment we think of Kalidas, we think of flora-fauna, lotuses, deer, valleys, breeze and rivers. Such is the close association between Kalidas and Nature. He identifies with Nature completely. He does not portray Nature separately.

Nature is one with human breath. He so well imbibes the philosophy of oneness with universe. Nature is the doer; Nature is the messenger; Nature is the sympathizer. Nature is the larger entity.

Humans are not the rulers in the world of Kalidas. Humans may be there or not; Nature lives, flows, thrives in all dimensions. This understanding of Nature-human oneness is so relevant to our contemporary times. It appears that Kalidas has written his words just for us. Kalidas understood that human personality is nothing but an echo. Human personality is a reflection of what it comes in contact with. Nature in the plays of Kalidas and particularly in Abhigyan Shakuntalam comes out as a deep psychological impact on human personality. Shakuntala is an echo of Nature, untouched by city life, it's politics and cleverness, it's rules and even morality. She knows no moral policing. Shakuntala is pristine, pure, and untouched. She has grown in the lap of Nature. She trusts people easily. Her trust in Dushyant is one such example. She agrees to marry Dushyant in the jungle itself because it comes natural to her. She does not doubt anything. The occurring in the play, Nature and the personality of Shakuntala are all in sync with each other. We must feel that thread which connects them all. We must catch that sense of simplicity which binds Shakuntala, Nature and her marriage with Dushyant.

Shakuntala is a good girl. Her gesture of marrying Dushyant is naturally related to her raw, unadulterated upbringing in the jungle. No one has told her as to how the society runs. She has not been introduced to weapons society uses to cow-down women. She does not the social mechanism of guilt and reputation.

The personality of Shakuntala has been described in this play through symbols, images, metaphors, and similes - all drawn from Nature. The beauty of Shakuntala has been described through flowers, rains, breeze, trees, deer, birds, and peacocks. She runs like a deer. She laughs like a lotus. She comes as a cool breeze. We can feel Shakuntala all over us. She is the elemental woman, made up of air, water, ether, fire, and earth. That is the craft, the intuition, and the art of Kalidas. The spontaneity of Shakuntala grips the sensibility of the reader/viewer. The way she responds to humans, Nature, and situations is truly out of the world. She comes as a gush of Nature, as an elemental force.

As mentioned earlier, Abhigyan Shakuntalam as a story originally comes from Adi Parva of Mahabharata. It is a sub-plot, a minor tale in a very large and intricate tapestry of the eternal epic. It is a tale of love, followed by anxiety, tension, separation, and finally re-union. All these happenings are hyphenated with the all-pervading presence of Nature. In fact, hardly anything goes by the human made plans. Human society and its rules go for a toss, so to say. Shakuntala is a love child of Apsara Menaka and Rishi Vishwamitra. She was abandoned in the jungle near the hermitage of Rishi Kanu. She is effortlessly accepted into the hermitage without any question being asked on her past or future. She grows in that hermitage. Shakuntala is the life of the hermitage. She becomes the very soul of the Ashram. She does not have a mother to tutor her into worldly virtues. She knows animals better than she knows humans. She is adept in the language of birds, animals, flowers, rains, and winds. Kalidas presents the contrast between city life and jungle life effectively through the binary depiction of Shakuntala and Dushyant.

Dushyant comes from city. He is a ruler. He hails from a court of politicians and diplomats. This is the city world. The painful scenes of the play happen in city. The city scenario is full of tension, anxiety, politics and public humiliation. The world of Nature, on the other hand, is full of joyful unions, and fulfilment. We can feel the blissful calm. Lovers meet in the jungle but they are separated in city scene. That is how we are made to feel the soothe of Nature. The whole play reflects a larger paradox - the paradox of artificial versus natural life. By juxtaposing the two worlds, Kalidas highlights the advantages of natural world and natural way of life.

Nature is the ultimate luxury. Nature is the ultimate beauty. Pure air, fresh fragrance, clean water, flora-fauna, animals, valleys, fountains, hills, rivers - these elements are the pinnacle of luxury. It is the best life anyone can imagine. We in the 21st century loving amidst rising pollution, climate change, smog and new diseases like COVID-19 can easily relate to the value Kalidas attaches to the supremacy of Nature.

The wonder is that Kalidas thought of this in the 3rd century. We can only marvel at the expanse of his vision and his artistic craft. That all beauty is natural is such an obvious concept. Kalidas has an organic view of this world and life. His view includes personality formation, Nature, ecological balance, care for the old and overall goodness of life. The presentation by Kalidas is effortless. The pinnacle of art is when one does not feel any art, any effort, any kind of force. One feels that this is what life is.

A hint of the ferocious aspect of all permeating Nature is also given when some Rishis ask Dushyant to protect the hermitage from lurking demons. The linking demons are nothing but raw forces of Nature.

The characters in Abhigyan Shakuntalam are round characters. Both Shakuntala and Dushyant grow, change and evolve according to situations, time, place and behaviour of other people. From a sweet, innocent girl to a jilted, humiliated woman to a very responsible and dedicated mother, Shakuntala becomes it all. She really blossoms through the play. When Dushyant fails to recognize her in the royal court, it is not that she is deaf and dumb. She presents her case and asserts her dignity. Once away from the unfortunate scene, Shakuntala takes full responsibility of her actions. She does not abandon the child the way she herself was abandoned. Bharat is very much her own. She nurtures him in a dedicated manner. Shakuntala is not someone who falls apart or breaks down. She has a support system in the forest. She stands on her own.

Dushyant too develops a lot in the play. From a happy-go-lucky King who enjoys fun and frolic, he goes into the responsibility mode when the call comes from the court. He has his kingdom and public to look after. When the amnesia is over, Dushyant realizes that he has been unjust to Shakuntala. He rushes to her. There is no ego to hold him back. Dushyant bows down before Shakuntala and asks for her pardon. Life really comes a full circle for these two extraordinary human beings. We can identify with Dushyant as he is imperfect. He has flaws. He has weaknesses. He is easily lured into fantasies and luxuries. Amnesia marks a particular psychological state of Dushyant. The best part is that he is ready for course corrections. That is how human beings are. Kalidas envisioned a world of natural beauty, attraction, matrimony, separation, childbearing, as well as court life and steep ebb and flow of fate. We as readers and viewers relate to this drama. That is the success of Kalidas.


– Shakuntala of Kalidas. 1870. Translator- Sir Monier Williams. e-text
– Adi Parva. 1890. Translator - Kisari Mohan Ganguly. e-text
– Goethe, quoted in 

Image of painting by Raja Ravi Varma


More by :  Prof. Shubha Tiwari

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Views: 4250      Comments: 1

Comment It is my pleasure to comment that this paper on Kalidas' Abhigyan Shakuntalam focuses upon the aesthetic beauty and outstanding poetic talent of the gifted Indian Playwright. The suggestion of the writer that the reader should cast aside all the presumptions and presuppositions leads to track the path of pure literary pleasure. This will help the reader enjoy the great play in light of aesthetic necessity and natural beauty.

Dr. Shashi Kant Tripathi
29-Jan-2022 09:59 AM

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