Critical Evaluation

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The greatness of the drama akuntal lies in its tremendous lyric power. The play was originally written in a combination of verse and prose, a form that most modern translators from the original Sanskrit have tried to emulate, although not always successfully. While almost nothing is known of the playwright, Klidsa, legend has it that he was the son of a good family of high caste, but that he was abandoned as a baby and reared as a common laborer. In spite of that handicap, says the legend, he became a great poet and dramatist as well as the favorite of an Indian princess.

The story of akuntal stems from an ancient Hindu legend recounted in book 1 of the Mahabharata (200 b.c.e.-200 c.e.). When Klidsa dramatized this well-known legend, he was not presenting an unfamiliar tale but artfully retelling an old one. Greek writers had Homer’s Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611) and Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614) for their sources; Indian writers went to the two great Hindu epics, the Mahabharata (c. 400 b.c.e.-200 c.e.) and the Ramayana (c. 500 b.c.e.) for theirs. In the West and in the East, writers usually adhered to the main story lines of the originals but varied the plot structures slightly and added subplots and details of psychological insight. The advantages of working within an accepted cultural framework are immediately evident. The audience instantly recognizes the story, correctly identifies allusions in it, and knows the story’s place in the larger mythological context, freeing the writer from the need to provide lengthy description and explanation. The writer thus may concentrate on intricacies of plot and on the characters’ spiritual and psychological development.

In addition to this common use of tradition, there are crucial differences. The first is material: The contents of the two mythologies of East and West are vastly different. More important is a subtle and complex difference in dramaturgy. Aristotelian Western drama places top priority on plot (imitation of action); characterization, setting, and other embellishments are subordinate to the action. Sanskrit drama, however, emphasizes rasa (a dominant emotion or flavor, a “sympathy”). It imitates emotion; the action is thus subordinated to the progressive evocation of an emotional state. Hence priorities are shifted from action to feeling, from an accumulation of episodes to a series of moods, a movement from plot to dominant emotion.

In akuntal, the dominant emotion is love, in all its varieties and flavors. The playwright has akuntal fare badly at the hands of the gods and of human beings in order to intensify the depiction of her emotional state, to bring out in stark relief the multifaceted depths of her love. akuntal’s love—its intensity, its depth, its breadth—is what the play is all about. The work’s examination of this emotional state is so compelling that it overwhelms all other considerations.

Herein lies the core of Sanskrit drama at its best in Klidsa’s masterpiece: Feeling takes precedence over rationality. The Western reader must therefore adjust to the Hindu scale of dramatic values instead of imposing Western standards on this non-Western play. The rewards of reading akuntal in the appropriate cultural context are well worth the effort.

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