My illustration of Kalidas’s image of Urvashi’s “deer-like” eyes
In May, I started reading one of Kalidas’s three masterpieces, ‘Vikramovarshiyam’ in Sanskrit with Hindi translation/interpretation/ dissection.
This is what I wrote in May:
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.
Having completed more than half of the book, I continue to be amazed by how detailed Kalidas is in his descriptions, particularly of the feminine form or things erotic. At one place he writes: “Keley ke samaan jhanghon wali wah sundari kahan gai hogi!” (I wonder where that beauty with thighs like a banana has gone). I am not quite able to picture a beauty whose thighs are like a banana. Does he mean as shapely or slippery? But it is a striking description.
Then sample this one about Urvashi. “Nitambon ke bhaari honey se dheere-dheere chalne wali….sada jawan rehne wali, patli deh wali, hans ki-si chal wali, harini jaisi ankhon wali devangna (Urvashi)…” (Walking slowly because of her generous buttocks..forever youthful, slender bodied, gliding like a swan with eyes like a deer.) The image of Urvashi with all these attributes is truly beguiling.
The poet dramatist is equally brilliant at other kinds of description. For instance this bit about a red glow emanating from the cracks in a rock in a forest.
“What is that red glow emanating from the cracks in the rock? It could not be a piece of an elephant’s red meat devoured by a lion. It could also not be a fire burning within because it has rained heavily in the forest. Oh! It is perhaps the a red gemstone like a the red Ashok flower that the sunrays are trying to grab.”