Sunday, February 25, 2007

On Kalidasa's Shakuntala, and the Clay Sanskrit Library

This piece on the Clay Sanskrit Library project and on Kalidasa's play The Recognition of Shakuntala appeared yesterday in Mint.

The place of Sanskrit in India today is much like that of Latin in the West. It is part of the bedrock of our history and its words are the root words of our contemporary speech, but it has long ceased to play a role in the commerce of daily life and, like all dead languages, it has become the preserve of priests and schoolchildren. Many of the greatest works of Indian literature are written in Sanskrit, but apart from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, their influence upon us is muted because the language itself has fallen silent.

Now an ambitious new publishing project, the Clay Sanskrit Library, brings together leading Sanskrit translators and scholars of Indology from around the world to celebrate in translating the beauty and range of classical Sanskrit literature. Two dozen volumes of a projected 100 titles have been issued already. Published as smart green hardbacks that are small enough to fit into a jeans pocket, the volumes are meant to satisfy both the scholar and the lay reader. Each volume has a transliteration of the original Sanskrit text on the left-hand page and an English translation on the right, as also a helpful introduction and notes.

Alongside definitive translations of the great Indian epics—30 or so volumes will be devoted to the Mahabharata itself—Clay Sanskrit Library makes available to the English-speaking reader many other delights: The earthy verse of Bhartrhari, the pungent satire of Jayanta Bhatta and the roving narratives of Dandin, among others. All these writers belong properly not just to Indian literature, but to world literature.

One work of Sanskrit literature that for long has belonged to world literature is Kalidasa’s great play, Abhigyanashakuntala, or The Recognition of Shakuntala. Translated into English for the first time in 1789 by British scholar William Jones, then a high court judge in Calcutta, the play found a wide audience in Europe and was swiftly retranslated into several other European languages.

The great German poet Goethe was struck by the beauty of Kalidasa’s verse and enthused, “If you want heaven and earth contained in one name/I say Shakuntala and all is spoken.” Goethe put into his play, Faust, a prologue similar to the one in Shakuntala, in which a director and an actress mull over what to play for an audience of “sophisticated spectators”, before deciding on a play with a plot “devised by Kalidasa”.

Sanskrit is a notoriously difficult language to translate and, since the 18th century, many other translators have grappled with the power of Kalidasa. Somadeva Vasudeva’s elegant new translation of Shakuntala for Clay Sanskrit Library is the latest of several extant translations, such as the one by Arthur Ryder in 1912.

Kalidasa, court poet of the 5th century Gupta emperor, Chandragupta II, took the plot line for his play from an episode in the Mahabharata, changing it slightly for his dramatic purposes. On a hunting expedition in the forest, the king Dushyanta—Kalidasa’s heroes are always kings, their actions having ramifications not just for themselves, but for the entire world—meets, in a hermitage, the beautiful “forest-dweller” Shakuntala, daughter of a nymph. They fall in love and marry secretly.

Dushyanta leaves behind his signet ring with Shakuntala, but because of a sage’s curse, he is unable to recognize her when she later arrives at his court, pregnant, but having lost the ring. Shamefully abandoned, Shakuntala is lifted up into the heavens by the gods. When the ring is later found in a fish’s belly, the king’s memory returns. But Shakuntala is gone. Many years later—Kalidasa draws out the time-scale of his plot to create an affecting emotional arc—the valiant but grieving Dushyanta fights a war on behalf of the gods and is then reunited with Shakuntala and his young son.

The 7th century poet Banabhatta remarked, “No one fails to feel delight when Kalidasa’s verses are recited; they are sweet and dense, like clusters of buds.” Banabhatta’s flower metaphor is especially apposite, because Kalidasa was a great poet of nature. His work is full of beautiful descriptions of birds, trees, flowers and seasons, sometimes extended to the human realm through metaphors, as in the description of the king as a great tree, that “endures with its crown fierce heat/and cools those sheltering in the shade”. This new translation of Shakuntala presents freshly an evergreen poet in whose work, to quote one of his translators, “all life, from plant to god, is one”.

Some links: "On Bhartrihari" by Greg Bailey, the translator of Bhartrhari's love poems; Csaba Dezs┼Ĺ on Jayanta Bhatta's Much Ado About Religion; Robert Goldman's long introduction to his acclaimed 1984 translation of the Ramayana, and the text of a lecture on the Mahabharata by one of its more recent translators, P. Lal.

And an old post: "Seventh-century Indian life in Dandin's Dasakumaracharita".


Space Bar said...

Many of the greatest works of Indian literature are written in Sanskrit, but apart from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, their influence upon us is muted because the language itself has fallen silent.

If you were talking only about literature, I'd agree. But in general, the Sanskrit that we hear or imbibe (and perhaps not understand) is entirely religious: Vedanta, The Gita, the Upanishads,Shankaracharya's commentaries on all of the above -- all these have been revived with purpose by organisations such as the Chinmaya Mission.

The influence Sanskrit has on our lives is not muted; it is skewed. I hope these translations restore the balance somewhat.

Chandrahas said...

Space Bar - You're quite right. I should have said it's the secular literature of Sanskrit that has been neglected. Not being overly religious, I didn't quite account for the point you make, which is a better and more nuanced representation of the state of classical Sanskrit texts.

shamitbagchi said...

Hello Chandrahas,
Excellent initiative by NYU, that you have written about, else we will get the hyper-spiced Ashok Banker versions of Ramayana! I did not bother to read them.
I follow your blog regularly, off and on, excellent reviews and thoughts on literature, many of my book purchases have been influenced by your blog; though before this, I have never commented here.
I am avid reader and write too - so I'd like to know how I could get published in newspapers - a little suggestion perhaps nothing more. Some of my writings are here - please sample and give your opinions. Some are older and hence not of good quality, though I have to say I am constantly trying to improve.

Thank you,

Hari said...

It’s interesting how resilient Sanskrit has been as the language of liturgy: even today so many rituals and chants are in conducted in Sanskrit. And as a child, when I unerringly recited, from sheer rote learning, a thousand incomprehensible verses of the Vishnu Sahasranamam, I had been inadvertently sustaining Sanskrit’s liturgical function.

But thanks for pointing these other aspects of Sanskrit out. I’ll try to get my hands on these invaluable translations.

On another note, the linguist Nicholas Ostler in his sweeping book on the major languages of the world, Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World, has an excellent chapter on Sanskrit; it is through this book that I first learnt of the Sanskrit grammarian Panini. Ostler has a special affection for Sanskrit; here's what he said about it in an interview: “Its [Sanskrit's] grammar has been rigorously analyzed, but not in a doctrinaire way – there is room for intellectual debate. The classical Indian culture in which Sanskrit first flourished offers an immense variety of material, from romantic comedy and sensual poetry to epic, massive-word play, political science and philosophy. It embodies a contradiction, that a language whose literature is so lithe, should be indigenously analyzed as a sort of architectural structure.”

Chandrahas said...

Shamit - Thanks very much for the kind words. The foolproof trick to getting better is to keep working on your game always, and to read good things, and to keep a notebook to write out things that you like.

Hari - Yes, you are not alone among Indians in "inadvertently sustaining Sanskrit's liturgical function". It seems odd to imagine that people once actually conversed in Sanskrit.

Thanks very much for that valuable tip. I'll look up Ostler's book.

The ramblings of a shoe fiend said...

I last read Sanksrit in college, and your post made me realise how long it had been. Thank you for these links, I've passed it on to my father, who is forever quoting Kalidasa.

yeggi.raman said...

As someone who studied Sanskrit in school and college as a second language, almost by rote, I had to wait for many years before the beauty of Sanskrit slowly seeped into me. Having studied the full text of Shakuntala and parts of Raghuvamsa and Kumarasambhava, passages from these texts do to me what daffodils did to Wordsworth-- they flash upon that inward eye. Those flashes never fail to induce a bliss.
I dont regret the years spent in trying to master declension and conjugation

ybr (alias ybrao a donkey) said...

I translated Bhartrihari's Niti Satakam (100 verses on Ethics) and Vairagya Satakam (100 verses on Renunciation) taking much pains. Original verses are given in Roman script. But there are no readers. Ethics and Renunciation in strict sense have nothing to do with religion. Could your readers encourage me? I am willing to correct my errors if pointed out by readers. All the above are available free at my blog.

Sasa said...

I am studying this play for theatre and working on directing a modern revival of it as well and need to present my directorial view on the play-- like Ivan above! Any advice would be great. Could you tell me what aspects I should include in order to hold on to the Indian tradition of the play while adding Western concepts, or what types of characters to cast? Also, any photos of the production would really help.
Thank You!

Chandrahas said...

Sasa - I'm not sure how exactly to answer your query. My guess is that you would probably need to put together a clear picture of how the play was originally staged, and then begin to think about how to adapt or change those elements. You might want to look up Barbara Stoler Miller's remarks on Kalidasa's dramaturgy in her book Theater of Memory. I had a copy of that book, but I gave it away to a professor friend of mine, so I can't look it up right now. But it might contain references to other books or descriptions of productions which you could then look up. Let me know how it goes.