or 'The Lost Ring'
An Indian Drama
An Introduction to the Play by Vishnu Karandikar.
This poetic drama, written nearly fifteen hundred years ago by Kalidasa, represents India in the series of Great Plays. Shakuntala will be broadcast from 5GB on Monday, and from other Stations on Wednesday.
The story of an innocent maiden, dazzled by the glamour and polish of court life, taken advantage of and forsaken by the sophisticated cavalier, is perhaps as old as civilization itself. But, accepting the date given to Kalidasa by Western scholars, the story of Shakuntala, the girl of the hermitage, round whom Kalidasa wove his beautiful drama about 1,400 years ago, would charm even the most up-to-date flapper from the joyland of jazz. The story is simple - Dushyanta, the worldly-wise King, surfeited with the luxury of the palace and the company of the glittering beauties of his court, leaves his capital for a while and goes a-hunting. He comes across a group of young innocent girls from a famous hermitage, and the unpolished beauty, the natural charm, and the engaging innocence of the orphan girl Shakuntala attracts him. The girl is impressed by the courtly manners of the King and succumbs to his charms, after he had told her that they were married according to the Gandharva form of marriage based on free choice, then held legal under Hindu law. The King in due course of time leaves her and returns to his palace. The ascetic, Kanva, who has brought Shakuntala up ever since she was found as a baby in the forest near his hermitage, sends her with a couple of his disciples to King Dushyanta. Just before, a visiting sage had cursed Shakuntala for her neglect and she was unaware of the curse. The ring given by Dushyanta, which alone had the power of bringing back the memory of Shakuntala to his wayward mind, was unfortunately lost on the way to the King's court in a large pond outside the capital. Dushyanta repudiates her, the disciples of Kanva refuse to allow her to go back with them, and she is then miraculously taken away by her mother, who was a celestial dancer at the court of the God of Rain.
Later on, a fisherman is caught with the ring, which he had found in a fish caught in the pond. He is taken to the King, who remembers Shakuntala on seeing the ring, and begins to pine for her. Just then, Indra, the God of Rain, sends his celestial chariot, which can travel through the air, to King Dushyanta, asking him to help in subduing a recalcitrant demon. While returning the King halts on a famous mountain, noted to be the residence of one of the most respected sages of old, and sees a small boy, holding a lion cub in one hand and repelling the attacks of a lioness with a small stick in the other. He dis covers that it is his own son, Shakuntala having given birth to him in the hermitage, where she was placed by her mother. The King had no heir, and the sudden discovery of such a fearless son adds to the joy of his reconciliation with the forest maiden, but now known to be so well connected, with influence even with the King of Gods, Indra.
Anyone familiar with the mentality of the aristocracy of the land, when it comes into touch with the people of the country, would follow King Dushyanta with pleasure and see the subtle art of the poet when he makes the King compare the girls in the hermitage with the ladies of his court: 'The woodland plants outshine the garden flowers!' There is again the same touch of delicate irony when the old lady of the hermitage unconsciously interrupts Dushyanta's passionate wooing of Shakuntala and inquires whether her fever was subsiding. 'I am sprinkling holy water on you,' she naively informs the love-lorn maiden, 'and I am sure you will be all right now.' The dramatic way in which Dushyanta is prevented from kissing Shakuntala on the stage and thus committing an unpardonable scientific error, is also one more example of the varied talent of Kalidasa. Seeing the approach of the old lady, some of Shakuntala's girl friends, who had been keeping watch outside the bower of creepers where Dushyanta and Shakuntala were having their first love scene, cry out a warning and the kiss is not given.
Act four of the Shakuntala drama is perhaps the most moving. The fifth and sixth acts are also full of pathos. Here the art of the author is startlingly evident. The fourth act indicates the sorrow of the people of the hermitage and even that of the trees and the animals and birds at the thought of parting with Shakuntala. The fifth act, where the King spurns Shakuntala, having forgotten her is vividly descriptive of another kind of pathos. If Shakuntala was stirred by the pathetic scenes of the fourth act, she became indignant at the insinuations and jeers of the King's court in the fifth. The dramatic contrast between these two acts is one of the most moving spectacles in Shakuntala. The heroine sheds tears of sympathy in the one, while she is torn with grief and anger in the other.
The distress of Shakuntala and her struggle against all odds, the fighting spirit shown in her vigorous duel of words with the insulting king, all these are woven into the structure of the fifth act. The sixth is the repentance of the King. Kalidasa shows himself to be the master of the art of debate and wonderfully skilful in depicting the varying emotions of different types of people. The sorrowful ascetic Kanva, the indignant Shakuntala, the supremely arrogant King in the fifth act and the repentant sinner in the sixth, all these are shown with an amazingly lively pen. which would reflect credit on the master-writer of modem times.
The fourth act, thus, has been known as the best of all the works of Kalidasa. The trees drop their flowers at the feet of Shakuntala, the birds are weeping, the pet deer are circling round their mistress, the old ascetic feels almost benumbed with grief. He says: 'My sorrow will not disappear with time, oh Shakuntala; because the trees you have planted round the hermitage will be growing and will always remind me of your sweet childhood.'
'A girl is always brought up as a trust for others,' sighs the sage, 'but she has to be delivered over to her lover when the time comes. If such are the pangs of sorrow to an ascetic living secluded in a hermitage in a forest, I wonder what would be the grief of parents living in towns surrounded by their families.'
In order to make a break between the pathetic and highly emotional fifth and the equally touching scenes of repentance of the sixth act, the author has introduced a little scene of diversion, which, however, vitally develops the plot of the play.
The King's men, as the police were called then, have caught the fisherman with the signet ring of the king, lost by Shakuntala.
Clothed with petty authority, the police were as willing to throw him to the crows and jackals, when they suspected him of crime, as they were eager to make friends with him over a jar of wine, at his expense, when they found that the King was pleased.
That even in hermitages situated on almost inaccessible mountains there should be painted earthen toys for children, indicates the type of civilized society found in India even then. The dramatic touch of the poet is again visible when the boy's attendant calls out 'See this Shakuntalavanya' â€” 'the beauty of the birdâ€™ and the boy, who was engaged in interesting conversation with the King, has heard only the first half of the word and thinking that his, mother had arrived says: 'Oh where is my mother?' Dushyanta thus comes to know that it is his own son, without breaking the usual etiquette by asking about the child's parentage. Little touches like these render a distinctive charm to the masterpiece of Kalidasa.
I would like to give more extracts describing the passionate sorrow of the animate as well as inanimate residents, so graphically painted by Kalidasa. But to those who would care to weep along with Shakuntala's friends I would recommend the translations of the drama which have been published. Shakuniala is one of the precious 'treasures of Indian literature, and its hold on the Indian people is as powerful as it was 1,400 years ago when it was written.