Kalidasa is considered India’s most important playwright and The Recognition of Sakuntala is the best-known and finest of all his Sanskrit dramas. Little is known about his life. Scholars believe he lived some time during the Gupta period, between 300-500CE. What comes down to us about him is mostly legend. Supposedly, he was a beautiful man who attracted the attention of an empress who took him into her home. However, the empress was soon offended by his lack of refinement and learning and lost interest in him. Kalidasa found his wife’s disgust and infidelity unbearable. He turned to the goddess Kali (from whose name he derives his own) while contemplating suicide. As a result of his devotion, Kali blessed him with wit and literary ability by which he regained favor at another court. His poetry and dramas derive mostly from Hindu mythology. The Recognition of Sakuntala is based on a romantic episode from one of the major Hindu religious epics, the Mahabharata (Bk. I, Ch. 62-69)
The title of the play, The Recognition of Sakuntala, is slightly misleading in the English translation. While its exact meaning in Sanskrit is still a subject of debate, the word “Recognition” actually refers to a part of the episode that Kalidasa added to the original story rendering it more morally palatable. The drama recounts the discovery of a beautiful country maiden, Sakuntala, upon whom a king wandering in the forest on a hunting trip spies. “Recognition” implies a remembrance of a token of betrothal, a ring, the king gives to Sakuntala. The play is interesting as a specimen of courtship in ancient India and how it highlights the factors of class, beauty, gender and propriety that regulated and influenced behavior between lovers. Furthermore, the well-developed personalities of the dramatis personae offer readers privileged entrance into the minds of characters as they move through their passions and predicaments.
To read an English translation of the text, click here.
Further reading: * Kalidasa. The Recognition of Śakuntal-a: Śakuntal-a in the Mah-abh-arata. Ed. W. J. Johnson. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001.