"Of the forms of Poetry, the drama is the most charming; among dramas, the Sakuntala" (काव्येषु नाटकं रम्यं तत्रापि च शकुन्तला)."No composition of Kalidasa displays more (than the Sakuntala) the richness of his poetical genius, the exuberance of his imagination, the warmth and play of his fancy, his profound knowledge of the human heart, his delicate appreciation of its most refined and tender emotions, his familiarity with the workings and counter-workings of its conflicting feelings—in short, more entitles him to rank as the Shakespeare of India"—Sir Monier Williams. These quotations are only typical of the chorus of praise and admiration which this play has won from scholars, both Indian and non-Indian. In India the play has an eternal appeal to the mind and heart of the people whose thoughts, feelings, aspirations, ideals—in a word, whose national soul is revealed in it in a manner and measure not quite approached, much less surpassed. Indeed, the Sakuntala exercises an almost nostalgic influence on the Indian mind and heart with its holy penance-groves, hermitages full of spiritual calm where Nature is as instinct with life as man, sages engrossed in spiritual meditation, kings full of reverence for these forest dwellers rich in asceticism and ever abiding by the law, the rich happiness of family-life, the social qualities of courtesy and respect for guests and the high regard for moral conduct. Likewise, ever since it was first translated into English by Sir William Jones more than a hundred and fifty years ago, the play has fascinated the Western mind and heart as shown by the lavish tributes showered upon it by Goethe, Lassen, Schelegel, W. Von Humbolt, Sir Monier Williams, Herder, Hillebrandt, to name only a few. It has been translated practically in all the prominent languages of the world; and even stage versions of it have been attempted to suit the Western theatre.
The story of the drama drawn on the vast canvas of the world is as high as the heavens, as wide as the world and as deep as the human heart. It is told in terms of love and its vicissitudes with a profound understaning of human nature and the human heart.
Detailed contents Act I
After the prologue the scene opens with King Dusyanta riding on a chariot and hotly pursuing a deer which 'now and then gracefully turns it neck and looks at the chariot that is closely pursuing it, and which on account of its high bounds runs more in the sky and less on the ground.' As the King is on the point of releasing his well-aimed arrow, he is suddenly stopped by three hermits shouting, "O King, the deer belongs to the hermitage— it should not be killed. Stay, stay, the arrow should not be discharged at this tender—bodied deer, like fire on a heap of flowers Where, on the one hand, like fire on a heap of flowers. Where, on the one hand, the frail life of the deer—poor things! —and where, on the other, your arrows of adamantine strength striking (so) sharply? (10). Therefore, withdraw your well-aimed arrow. Your missiles are intended for the protection of the distressed and not for harming those who are innocent." (11). On the King suiting his action to these words, the ascetics bless him with the. birth of a sovereign son, and ask him to go and accept the welcome at the hermitage of Sage Kanva, which was situated nearby on the bank of the river Malini. The sage, of course, was not then in the hermitage as he had gone just about that time to the holy Somatirtha for appeasing the adverse fate on his daughter Sakuntala who, in his absence, looked after the guests and their hospitality. Dusyanta then drives towards the hermitage, he asks the charioteer to keep the chariot in the outer precincts of the hermitage and rest the horses while he went inside. As he enters the gate, he sees three hermit-girls of entrancing beauty carrying water-pots for the purpose of watering the trees. The King hides himself behind a tree and overhears the conversation of the three friends. He is fascinated by the un-earthly bodily charms of Sakuntala in her blooming youth and dressed in barks.
The King is smitten with love for Sakuntala but wonders whether she could be an eligible bride for him a Ksatriya. Suddenly, Sakuntala cries for help as she is attacked by a bee which was disturbed by her while watering the Navamalika creeper. She calls upon upon her friends to help her but the latter reply with a smile. ‘Who are we to protect you? Call on Dusyanta. The penance groves are indeed to be protected by the King’. The King, seizing this opportunity, rushes quickly and enquires as to who was thus acting immodestly with the innocent ascetic-girls. The girls are a little taken aback and then explain that it was nothing serious; only Sakuntala was frightened by the bee that was rushing at her.
The King is then invited to sit on a platform under a tree and the girls, too, take their seats. Sakuntala wonders how she was experiencing emotions contrary to the life I the hermitage at the staranger. Her friends watch her condition and put her the question, O Sakuntala, if the sire were present here today?-Sakuntala enquires, ’What would happen then? To which the significant reply come, ’He would satisfy this distinguished guest with his richest possession in life (meaning Sakuntala).’ The King enquires about Sakuntala’s parentage and learns from her friends that she was the child of the sage Visvamitra and he celestial nymph Manaka who had abandoned her as soon as she was born. The sage Kanva discovered her in a forest and ever since reared her up as his daughter. The sage did not wish Sakuntala to remain a spinster all life but he was waiting until a suitable match was found. At all this conversation turning about her, Sakuntala feigns anger and tries to flee the place. Priyamvada, however, stops her, saying that she could go only after discharging her debt of two water-pots in the watering of trees and turns her back forcibly. The King observes that Sakuntala was already tired and he himself offers a ring by way of her discharge from the debt. Priyamvada, however, returns the ring and asks Sakuntala to go. "—If I am mistress of myself" mutters Sakuntala to herself. The King observes that "though she does not mix her speech with my words, yet she lends the ear when I am speaking. Although she does not stand keeping her face squarely at me, yet for the most part her gaze is not directed anywhere else" (18)., and concludes that she too was in much the same condition as he himself.
At this stage a summons is announced to all the immates of the hermitage to take care of the animals in the hermitage as Dusyanta had come about the place ahunting. Besides, a wild elephant terrified by the sight of the chariot was rushing into the penance grove. The girls are nervous at the news and, having bidden good-bye to the King, turn towards the hermitage. Sakuntala, however, says that her leg was pricked by a pointed Kusa blade and her garment was caught in the branch of the Kuravaka tree While trying to look after herself, she glances at the King and then walks away with her friends. The King feels averse to returning to the capital.
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