If any writer deserves the title of “poet’s poet,” it is Klidsa. The pure beauty of his language has prompted many poets over the centuries—both Indian and Western—to compose tributes to him. Notable among Western devotees is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who saw in Klidsa the poet’s “highest function as the representative of the most natural condition, of the most beautiful way of life, of the purest moral effort, of the worthiest majesty, of the most sincere contemplation.” In the West, critics have consistently placed Klidsa among the ranks of Sophocles, Vergil, Dante, and William Shakespeare, giving proof of his universal appeal.
To appreciate Klidsa’s plays, one must first understand the fundamental concepts that underlie Sanskrit drama. The essence of Western dramaturgy has always been conflict; a play usually traces the development and resolution of a particular set of opposing forces. To Indian dramatists, however, conflict is only a secondary consideration; their actual aim is the opposite, to depict harmony in their plays. They do this by evoking rasa in the audience, presenting the nine basic emotions (desire, laughter, anger, sorrow, pride, fear, disgust, wonder, and peace) in perfect balance during the play so as to produce at the end an illuminating revelation of oneness, in which for the moment the spectator is vouchsafed a dispassionate insight into the life of things. Ideally the drama therefore functions as an art that enlightens the spirit, instructing while entertaining.
Therefore, by Western standards, an Indian play is bound to be more or less deficient in action (etymologically, too, the Greek root of “drama” meant “action”). Onstage, the Sanskrit drama revealed other distinguishing features. It was a courtly entertainment, more often than not produced on special occasions in the presence of the king. It was metatheatrical by convention—at the beginning of each performance, a benedictory hymn would invoke the gods for their blessings, and the director (often with an actor) would introduce the play to the audience. There was no attempt at creating an illusion, picture-frame or otherwise. Although commentators emphasize the equal importance of the visual and audible portions, the visual spectacle did not depend on sets or scenery, but on costumes, makeup, and the art of acting, which relied on a codified system of stylized gestures and movements to represent everything: gods and goddesses, natural objects, human actions, abstract ideas, and subtle feelings. Not the least important among the audible elements was the poetry, which amply sufficed to suggest the settings of the various scenes. The Sanskrit drama was also a Gesamtkunstwerk synthesizing all the performing arts—music and dance commonly accompanied the play, act 2 of Mlavikgnimitra and act 4 of Vikrama and Urva providing typical examples.
Klidsa’s plays deal with the rasa of erotic desire. On a superficial level, they appear to center on similar, if not identical, circumstances: A heroic king falls in love with a beautiful girl who reciprocates the passion, external forces oppose or thwart their permanent union, and they are reunited after a period of suffering. Yet critics recognize each of the three plays as a prototype in its own fashion, each of them being much imitated by Klidsa’s successors. The five-act Mlavikgnimitra, its characters historical, is a light courtly piece that introduced the spirit of happy comedy to Sanskrit drama. Also in five acts, Vikrama and Urva is based on mythology, a romantic comedy with a supernatural flavor that examined the consuming passions of love in a quite unprecedented manner. The poet’s tour de force in seven acts, akuntal, also derived from mythological sources, transcended the form of a romantic play to become a sublime drama against a cosmic backdrop, offering a unique vision of the spiritual bliss and fullness attained by ideal love.
Given the close similarities among the plays, the best approach to Klidsa’s dramatic uvre might be to follow the development of his treatment of the same theme. Take, for example, the three plots. Mlavikgnimitra has a fairly complicated plot that unravels quite swiftly, befitting a love intrigue, but the plot seems to be imposed on the characters—character by no means makes destiny. Two devices appear, though, which Klidsa would use to greater effect later: Mlavik’s incognito stay at King Agnimitra’s court and Queen Dhrin’s signet ring. The plot of Vikrama and Urva is transitional: As in the preceding play, the king’s affair with the heroine is hindered by his jealous queen, but as in akuntal, the lovers are separated for a long period and are ultimately reconciled, the king seeing his son for the first time in the last act. Meanwhile, Urva has fallen prey to a curse, and a magic gem has been given a significant part in assuring her reunion with the king. The curse of Durvsas gets prime importance in akuntal, becoming the crux of the plot (in Mlavikgnimitra there was no malignant curse, only a neutral prophecy) together with King Dushyanta’s ring, so crucial to the plot that it finds a place in the title of the play. Added irony attaches to the curse because akuntal has no knowledge of it. What is significant, however, is that the curse and the ring are no longer mere devices, as in the other plots. Their seeds lie in the characters of the protagonists: akuntal was so engrossed in love thoughts that she neglected her duty and virtually courted the curse. akuntal shows otherwise a relatively simple plot developed without any hurry. Klidsa’s priorities have clearly changed.
Heroes and Heroines
The heroes and heroines provide another basis for comparison. Agnimitra’s virtue is debatable. With a son old enough to be a victorious general, he himself would probably be middle-aged, and his fascination for a teenaged maidservant unbecoming, if not ludicrous. Physical attraction draws him to Mlavik, or at best a sensuous appreciation of external beauty. He commits no heroic deeds and cannot even further his own love-cause; the portrayal suggests an indolent aesthete rather than a valiant king. Purravas, of Vikrama and Urva, reveals much greater depth of character. He is courageous in rescuing Urva, passionately in love with her, and dignified in his dealings with other people. Like all ancient kings, he has many wives, but he displays deep respect for his chief queen, Aunar, and seems a chivalrous husband. For a hero, however, he is perhaps too emotional. His poetic imagination unsettles his equilibrium when Urva leaves him out of jealousy. In Dushyanta, of akuntal, Klidsa pictures his ideal hero, not merely possessed of conventionalized kingly traits but an ideal man as well. Handsome, brave, and virtuous, he is also sensitive, cultured, a romantic. Neither vain nor despotic, he is humble and religious. He respects...
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