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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Essay | Natural elegance

Essay | Natural elegance

A play and a poem by Kalidasa are brought to readers in English in two lush translations

Kalidasa’s ‘Shakuntala’, imagined by Raja Ravi Varma. Photo: Wikimedia CommonsPremium
Kalidasa’s ‘Shakuntala’, imagined by Raja Ravi Varma. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

What can you say about a man who was stupid enough to saw at the branch that he was sitting on before the goddess came and filled his mouth with an unmatched eloquence? O Kalidasa! Would a play by any other name be as sweet? Probably not.

Kalidasa occupies a place in Sanskrit literature that is unquestioned, despite the uneven quality of his earlier works. In his later plays and poems, he is unmatched in both form and content, becoming, in fact, the standard by which genres (like the nataka) were eventually defined. Whatever the legends and myths that fill out Kalidasa’s past, the historical information we have indicates a comfortably ensconced court poet, creating masterworks at a time of enormous cultural efflorescence, that is, the fifth century empire of the Guptas.

As a student of Sanskrit, I dreaded our kavya classes—I could not parse the ornate language, I found the imagery of buzzing bees and flowers and clinging vines effete and rather silly, I longed for the robust constructions of the epic. But years later, I had an epiphanic moment in which Kalidasa’s verse from Act V of Shakuntala, about the traces of memory that cling to our souls, came to me and brought tears to my eyes. I have since learnt to love Shakuntala (more properly known as Abhijnanasakuntalam)—for its formality, for the very conceits I had disdained, for the same images I had scorned. And I felt like I had been the man sawing at the branch upon which he sat—cutting myself off from what was surely one of the most abundant well-springs of beauty in Sanskrit.

Penguin offers us two lushly produced volumes of Kalidasa’s works: the early play Malavikagnimitram and the late mahakavya Kumarasambhavam titled The Dancer And The King and (somewhat infelicitously) and The Origin Of The Young God, respectively. While I miss the sombre elegance of the black-spined Penguin Classic with its hushed insistence to being taken seriously, these are beautiful books. Their hardback covers are vibrant, the paper is a creamy delight, the type faces are beautiful. Best of all, the translations they hold within themselves deliver what the materiality of the volumes promise: vibrancy, delight and beauty. You should judge these books by their covers.

Malavikagnimitram—The Dancer And The King: Translated by Srinivas Reddy, Penguin, 165 pages, Rs399
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Malavikagnimitram—The Dancer And The King: Translated by Srinivas Reddy, Penguin, 165 pages, Rs399

I will say, however, that the volume has way too many Notes for my taste. Here, Reddy proves to be a nervous or, rather, an overzealous translator. Most of his Notes provide a literal, or an alternative, reading. A translation, especially one for a lay reading public, must create a work with a seamless, shining surface. The translator providing alternative readings or more literal ones is like a conjurer showing us how s/he does her/his tricks. We don’t want to know how magic works, we simply want to be enchanted.

Kumarasambhavam—The Origin Of The Young God: Translated by Hank Heifetz, Penguin, 216 pages, Rs399
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Kumarasambhavam—The Origin Of The Young God: Translated by Hank Heifetz, Penguin, 216 pages, Rs399

Also interesting to me is how clear critics are about the exclusion of additional sargas in Kumarasambhavam that were not composed by Kalidasa, which are set apart by their inferior quality. The same text-critical principles are not exercised on the Valmiki Ramayan, for example, where kandas that are substantially different from the main text are considered to be integral parts of the larger work. Both the instinct to include and exclude are processes of canonization, the one led by religion, the other by literature.

Heifetz is in utter thrall of Kumarasambhavam, which is a very good thing for a translator who takes on such a challenging work, so central to the canon of classical Sanskrit poetry. His translation is magisterial, showing a vast knowledge of the poetics of the work itself and speaking with manifest authority. For all of that, it remains a translation accessible to the lay reader. Heifetz finds an English register that suits the exalted tone of the original Sanskrit but remains free of archaic phrasing and bombast. This is no mean feat, given that for the most part, Heifetz stays with the Sanskrit construction of complex nouns defining an almost buried subject.

These two volumes are a wonderful addition to any library of classics. Personally, I could not be more pleased that the hard work of solid scholars and polished writers is allowing me to further my new-found love for Kalidasa, despite my own inadequacies with translating him. Truly, the goddess bestows her grace on us all.

Arshia Sattar is a writer, translator and scholar based in Bangalore.

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Published: 26 Jul 2014, 12:11 AM IST
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