Reading Kalidas on a whim


Quite on a whim, I have just started reading one of Kalidas’s three masterpieces, ‘Vikramovarshiyam’ in Sanskrit with Hindi translation/interpretation/dissection.

The edition that I am reading was published by Ramnarayan Lal Benimadhav of Allahabad. Unfortunately, it does not mention the year of publication but I suspect it has to be the early to mid 20th century. It was priced at three rupees fifty paisa.

Reading a great epic poet and dramatist whose vintage is traced to anywhere between the first century before the current era to the fourth century current era, demands that one declutter one’s mind of 21st century constructs. However, Vikramovarshiyam remains remarkably accessible.

The basic plot is about a king named Pururva residing in the ancient capital of Pratishthanpur who counts Indra, the lord of the heaven in Hindu mythology, among his close friends. It is magical right there because by definition Indra dwells in heaven, which is not earth, and requires some sort of celestial journey. Kalidas tells us that Pururva is a regular visitor to Indra’s court which would require us to imagine that he does back and forth between our world and the other world. I am sold right there.

But then comes Urvashi, variously described as a celestial nymph or a celestial seductress, whom Pururva falls in love with during one of his heavenly sojourns. A major twist in the story is introduced by Kalidas here. According to the Hindi translation I am reading, either through a curse or because Pururva saw Urvashi naked that the two are separated. The curse means she is turned into a vine, Lata as it is called in Hindi. Some time later, because of the divine munificence, she is again turned into her original form and the two reunite. Urvashi bears Pururva eight sons.

The very first act of the play begins with Urvashi being abducted by a demon named Keshi from whom Pururva rescues her. Kalidas’ description of Pururva’s chariot, as its slices through clouds (Yes, the chariot is flying), is striking. He writes about the chariot’s wheels crushing the clouds and kicking them up like dust. He also takes care to point out that the chariot is going so fast that the spokes in its wheels appear to be one single piece as they revolve.

Kalidas is regarded, and quite rightly so, as the greatest poet in Sanskrit whose imageries were breathtakingly detailed, picturesque, erotic and stunning. I can read Sanskrit but barely understand about .00001 percent. Of course, I feel many of the words because they have spread throughout Indian languages, including my own Gujarati. Mercifully, I read, write, speak and fully understand Hindi.

It is obvious that as a poet and dramatist, Kalidas considered it very important to be nearly cinematic in his descriptions of whatever situations he was describing. He combined his profound knowledge of the art and grammar of poetry with the power of observation. In his epic poem ‘Kumarasambhava, here is how describes Uma (Parvati) in intense meditation through the summer and as monsoon rains approach. The translation is by Daniel Henry Holmes Ingalls, Sr. who was the Wales Professor of Sanskrit at Harvard University. He died in 1999.

“Still sat Umā though scorched by various flame
    Of solar fire and fires of kindled birth,
Until at summer’s end the waters came.
    Steam rose from her body as it rose from earth.

With momentary pause the first drops rest
    Upon her lash then strike her nether lip,
Fracture upon the highland of her breast,
    Across the ladder of her waist then trip
And slowly at her navel come to rest.”

Rain drops tumbling down from the sky, momentarily trapped by Uma’s long eyelashes and then dropping to her nether lip before breaking down on the “highland of her breast’, sliding down the “the ladder of her waist” and finally settling on her navel. If this is not a poet of the highest imagination at the peak of his craft, what is?


About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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