Kālidāsa fl. c. 400
Indian poet and dramatist.
Acclaimed as the greatest of Sanskrit poets, Kalidasa is renowned for the descriptive beauty of his work. His sensitivity and eloquence in treating the themes of love and the sanctity of nature are best expressed in his lengthy lyric poem Meghaduta (The Cloud-Messenger) and in his drama Sakuntala. The latter work, considered the finest of the seven compositions attributed to him, was one of the first Sanskrit writings to be translated into modern European languages. The play was lauded as a masterpiece by the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and prompted William Jones's estimation of Kalidasa as "the Shakespeare of India." The Cloud-Messenger, especially well received by Kalidasa's contemporaries, garnered similar laurels upon its translation into Western European languages and remains Kalidasa's most popular poetic work.
Virtually nothing is known of Kalidasa's personal life. Various legend-based biographies of the poet exist, the most popular of these identifying him as one of the "nine gems," a group of first-century B.C. scientists and artists who resided at the court of King Vikramaditya of Ujjain, a legendary patron of the arts who may himself have been a mythical personage. More specifically, Kalidasa's play Malavikagnimitra (Malivika and Agnimitra), whose hero Agnimitra was the second king of the Sunga dynasty, indicates with certainty that the author lived sometime after about 150 B.C., the approximate date of Agnimitra's reign. The date of the Aihole inscription (634 A.D.), which contains a laudatory reference to the poet, has also been used as a chronological marker in placing Kalidasa. Furthermore, Kalidasa's works, according to K. Krishnamoorthy, indicate that he "lived in times of peace, when the leisured class would pursue the fine arts, free from threats of invasion from without or from conflicts within." Many scholars, including Krishnamoorthy, identify this golden age in which Kalidasa lived as the reign of Chandragupta II (c. 380-415), who ruled during the height of the Gupta dynasty, a period known for its achievements in art and literature. Various references in Kalidasa's works, distinctive of fourth-and fifth-century thought and practices, substantiate this conclusion, which has become the critical consensus.
Kalidasa is the earliest Sanskrit poet whose works have been preserved. In addition to The Cloud-Messenger,
Sakuntala, and Malavika and Agnimitra, the compositions most widely attributed to him include a second lyric poem, Rtusamhara (The Pageant of the Seasons); a third drama, Vikramorvasiya (Urvasi Won by Valor); and two epic poems, Kumarasambhava (The Birth of the War-God) and Raghuvamsa (The Dynasty of Raghu). Numerous reactions of these texts are extant, but scholars generally consider the Devanagari the purest version. The texts of Kalidasa's poetry have been especially well preserved; they have traditionally played an important part in the Indic school curriculum and have attracted much scholarly discussion since the poet's day. The Cloud-Messenger, for example, inspired forty-five commentaries from Kalidasa's contemporaries—more than any other Sanskrit composition. While the author's works went through numerous editions in India, they were not introduced to Western European audiences until William Jones translated Sakuntala in 1789. Subsequent translations, most notably those of H. H. Wilson (The Cloud-Messenger, 1813), R. T. H. Griffith (The Birth of the War-God, 1853), and Arthur W. Ryder (Shakuntala and Other Works, 1912), have fostered the growth of worldwide interest in Kalidasa's works.
The Pageant of the Seasons, a lyric poem of 140 stanzas, is generally considered Kalidasa's earliest work. Less polished in content and diction than the poet's later compositions, The Seasons has prompted a continuing critical debate regarding its authenticity. Most commentators concur, however, that the poem is simply a less mature...
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