Abhijnana Shakuntalam by Kalidasa Summary

Prepared by Montu Saikia

Prologue: The Prologue of Abhijnana Shakuntalam contains two parts- ‘Benediction’ a brief conversation between the Actor who happens also to be the director of the play and the Actress playing the lead woman character of the play.

The Benediction is a part of the rituals performed before the beginning of a play in those ancient times. Here it is an invocation of Lord Shiva for protection and well being of all those present. It was performed by a Brahmin who acted as the manager/ director of the play. The eight primordial elements of Lord Shiva, hence also of all mortals, namely water, fire, the Priest, Sun, Moon, Space, Earth and Air are glorified in the Benediction.

The brief conversation part is a discussion between the director and the Actress regarding the play of the day. It serves to the information for the audience- a new play by Kalidasa entitled ‘The Recognition of Shakuntala’. The Actress as directed by the director performs a song which is on the present season- summer. It prepares the audience for the play to come. At the end of the conversation the director very wittily paves the way for the main action to begin on stage-

I was carried far, far away, lured

by your impassioned song,

as the King, Duhsanta here,

was, by the fleet fleeing antelope.

Act I

Being linked by the director in his last speech in the Prologue, the action of the Act I begins with King Duhsanta, on hunt in pursuit of a deer with his bow and arrows in a chariot. His aim gets obstructed by an offstage voice of an ascetic (named Vaikhanasa) praying for the life of the innocent antelope who also reminds him his duty of protecting and preserving his subjects including thoseof the world of nature by virtue of being the king. The king realizes his guilt and drops his weapons.

Thus asceticism (piousness) and duty (rajdharma) get projected as the dominant theme of the play. Further the action is endowed with the ascetic’s prophecy, never failing in nature, that the King will have a son ‘destined to rule the world’. As invited the King decides to visit the hermitage of Kanva who is away on some business and the presently his foster daughter Shakuntala  is in charge of service of any imminent guest to the hermitage.

While coming closer to the hermitage, Duhsanta gets throbbing in his arm indication of the omen being “presaging some woman’s charm.” He hides his royal identity and tries to look a humble and modest civilian.

Then the King encounters some hermitage girls coming for usual duties in the groves. Shakuntala and two of her friends- Anasuya and Priyamvada are engaged in nurturing the plants. This episode reflects the usual engagements of the hermitage dwellers.

Duhsanta observes from his camouflage, the charm of Kanva’s daughter. The playful tidying of her bark garment and the compliments by her friends helps the poet to romantically reflect the beauty of the heroine of the play, even erotically at length. This part is enriched with the romantic and picturesque rendering of beauty- natural and human. The romantic acquires its peak when it deals with a feminine vine climbing a masculine mango tree, the first with fresh blossoms and the latter with soft buds. The hermitage girls imagine them to be in nuptial bond. This is simply a parallel of the imminent love encounter between the hero and the heroine of the play. The King makes his appearance, though in disguise when her friends playfully ask Shakuntala to ask for the king Duhsanta to get rid of a disturbing bee.

Shakuntala along with her friends are startled and agitated at the appearance of Duhsanta before them, In particular Shakuntala feels like being shaken with a passion not appropriate for one under an ascetic life. She feels an erotic  sensation just at the sight of the King who introduces to be the newly appointed minister in charge of religious affairs. As appropriate to the Indian classical dramatic convention, Shakuntala’s love-striken condition is dramatized by her gesture and expression of “embarrassment”, not through dialogue.—is in keeping with the conventions of classical Indian plays, in which feelings like attraction were conveyed more through than through speech.

The King offers his signet ring in return of the hospitality towards him. Initially he refuses to introduce himself as the king. He tells them that the ring was a gift from the King. The meeting gets abruptly disrupted as a voice off stage warns the hermit dwellers about the king’s ensemble arriving the grove on hunt. Duhsanta gets separated from the hermit girls as part of measures as called for by the warning. But he feels his intense desire to prolong his stay in and around the hermitage, enjoying the invaluable company of Shakuntala.

Act II

King’s prolongation of the stay in the forest who even refuses to go back to his capital to take part in rituals and deputes his friend Vidusaka to play his role over there.

The King is love-stricken and prolongs his stay in the forest. Vidusaka (figure of comic relief in the play), the King’s companion, complains about the king’s prolongation. The King continues to obsess over his newfound love and that badly interfere with his official duties as the play goes on. He orders his hunting party not to disturb the ascetics’ grove in any way. Vidusaka blames the King for turning “the penance-grove into a pleasure-garden.” Duhsanta now cares only about his proximity to Shakuntala.

The King’s desire for lingering his stay in the grove by the messages from Kanva that evil spirits are disrupting the ascetics’ rituals, so Duhsanta (a minister in charge of religious affairs) has been asked to stay and protect the ashram for a few nights.

Karabhaka, the royal messenger, then brings a message from the King’s mother asking to attend the upcoming ritual fast to safeguard his succession. The dilemma with the King now is his preference between his duties as a king and a son and his urges as a lover. Finally he deputed Vidusaka to play his role in the royal rituals.

Act III

Metaphorically Duhsanta eexplains her lovesickness. Love being becoming explicit gandharva marriage takes place between Duhsanta and Shakuntala.

Shakuntala suffers from heatstroke. Actually her symptoms of heatstroke are the  symptoms of her love sickness for her love for the King in disguise. Duhsanta wonders, “Now, is it the heat, or is it the heart, as it is with me?” The girls question Shakuntala about the source of her illness, since it appears she’s “feeling exactly what women in love are said to feel.” The King, full of doubt, anxiously waits for her response. Shakuntala says that from the moment she saw Duhsanta, she’s been filled with longing for him, so her friends must help her. The King rejoices.

As advised by the friends, Shakuntala composes a poem expressing her love. As she recites her poem aloud, the King suddenly reveals himself in their presence. As part of their plot she reveals her love for the King which the latter reciprocates.

Now that Shakuntala and the King have declared their love for each other, they can consider themselves married—according to the gandharva form of marriage, which could be legally contracted in secret between members of the princely class, even without a formal ceremony.

Act IV

King is urgently called back to the capital. Shakuntala’s grief at separation. Short tempered Durvasa’s curse falls on Sakntala. Kanva learns about her daughter bearing the royal seed. Preparations for Shakuntala’s union with the King.

Anasuya and Priyamvada apprehend: “Who can say whether he’ll remember what’s happened in the forest?” Shakuntala’s and Dusyanta’s marriage is going well, but the King has been called back to his duties in the capital.

The aggrieved Shakuntala fails to receive Durvasa, a short-tempered sage announcing himself. He is heard pronouncing a curse: “That man, though prompted, / Shall not remember you at all, / Like a drunken sot, who cannot recall / What he said in his cups the night before.” On being placated by Priyambada, Durvasas concedes that “the sight of a memento can lift the curse.” The girls relax, recalling the ring Dusyanta has given Shakuntala.

The threefold grief strikes Shakuntala is about her separation from her husband by gandharva marriage, Durvasa’s curse and her father Kanva’s possible reaction when he comes to know about the marriage now that Shakuntala is carrying Duhsanta’s child.

It turns out that Kanva, while making a sacrifice, heard a voice chanting the news: “For the world’s welfare your daughter / Bears the lustrous seed of King Duhsanta.” So he is happy to learn that his foster daughter carries a royal child, and he’s ready to reunite husband and wife with due honor. The women celebrate Shakuntala’s marriage and her impending departure to join her royal household. She tearfully says goodbye to Priyamvada and Anasuya, and they remind her to show Dusyanta the ring he gave her, in case he’s slow to recognize her.

Act V

Kanva’s men arrive the court with Shakuntala. The King gets puzzled and is unable to recognize Shakuntala Durvasa’s curse being in effect. Shakuntala’s last resort- the signet ring got lost. The King agrees to shelter Shakuntala till she gives birth to her baby but the latter disappears.

As her party approaches the King, Shakuntala’s right eyelid trembles—an evil omen. The King just fails to recognize Shakuntala, rather he resfrains from looking at ‘other’s wife’ too long.

Kanva through his messengers explains before the King how the sage accepts the gandharva marriage between his daughter and the King and how now he offers his daughter’s hand to him who is pregnant with his offshoot. But the King refuses to accept denying any such relationship. Because, he has no memory of their marriage and can’t accept a pregnant lady with whom he has no known connection. When all attempts go in vain, Shakuntala tries to show him the signet ring he’d given her, she discovers, to her shock that the ring is missing from her finger. Shakuntala, who doesn’t know about Durvasas’s curse, is heartbroken, and her grief turns to anger as Duhsanta denies any connection with her. Then she discovers, in the most dramatic moment of the play so far, that her ring, the object that would override the curse, has gone missing.

The more Shakuntala tries to spark Duhsanta’s memory, the more he accuses her of using “honeyed words” to deceive him: “Females of every kind / Have natural cunning to perform these tricks.” Shakuntala is angry, telling him that he sees “everything through the distorted lens of [his] own heart.” She reproaches herself for having entrusted herself to a man “with honey in his mouth but poison in his heart.”

The ascetics accept Duhsanta’s rejection since they believe “a husband’s power is absolute.” They even refuse to take Shakuntala back to the hermitage provided it is true what Duhsanta stands while rejecting her. Vulnerable Shakuntala is abandoned both by her beloved and by her father’s household.

Duhsanta, on the advice of a court priest agrees to shelter ‘the woman’ Shakuntala till she gives birth to her child. Because he has been predicted that he is going to have a son endowed with royal signs in his physic. The bewildered Shakuntala prays that the earth will swallow her up. Moments later, the court priest tells Dusyanta that the weeping girl has suddenly disappeared: “Close to the nymph’s shrine, a curtain of light / Shaped like a woman, whisked her away.”

Act VI

A fisherman is arrested with the signet ring. Duhsanta recognizes and remembers his marriage with Shakuntala. The case of childless merchant lost in sea that is brought to the King intensifies the his desire for Shakuntala and her child.

Two policemen enter, leading a fisherman. He’s been accused of stealing a ring with the King’s name engraved on it. The fisherman, frightened, insists that he discovered the ring in the belly of a fish he was cutting up. One of the policemen taunts the fisherman that he’ll soon be executed, but soon the chief of police returns from the palace with news that the fisherman’s story has been corroborated. The fisherman is also to be given a sum of money equal to the ring’s value. The chief adds that when Duhsanta looks at the ring, he became “really agitated,” as though remembering someone important to him.

A nymph, Sanumati, enters. She’s a friend of Menaka, Shakuntala’s mother, and has promised to help Shakuntala. She wonders why the palace isn’t being prepared for the spring festival and decides to spy on some gardeners in order to find out.

The two young female gardeners, newcomers to the palace, are happily enjoying the scent of mango blossoms, when a chamberlain comes in and angrily scolds them for celebrating the spring festival in any manner. At the girls’ questioning, the chamberlain explains that the festival has been cancelled due to “the scandal of Shakuntala.” It turns out that when he saw the ring, Duhsanta remembered that he really did marry Shakuntala and “rejected her out of sheer delusion. And ever since, he has been mortified by regret” and depressed. Thus Sanumati learns of the King’s catastrophe.

Sanumati observes invisibly the King dressed as a penitent and wasted with remorse. She notes that Shakuntala feels the same grief. Vidusaka, looking on, calls the king’s illness “Shakuntala fever.”

The devastated King decides to refrain from court engagements and goes to the garden on the advice of Vidusaka. The remorse of the King gets reflected in the surrounding natural environment. Vidusaka tries to cheer the King with his sweet advices. His words here highlight the importance of supernatural influence on human life and demonstrate how divine plans can even be a comfort to mortals.

Then a maidservant, Caturika, enters, carrying a portrait of Shakuntala painted by the King. As Duhsanta resumes work on the painting, he laments that he rejected the living woman and must now obsess over her mere image. He notices a bee in the painting and warns it not to harm his beloved. The bee recalls Duhsanta’s first meeting with Shakuntala.

The case of a great childless merchant being lost at sea, and his wealth going to the King as brought before the King makes him realize “How terrible to be childless!” The wealth of Dusyanta’s own family will undergo a similar fate when he’s gone, because he abandoned his “fruitful wife” for no good reason. He wonders who will feed his ancestors in the afterlife. Sanumati wishes to console the king, but remembers that Indra’s queen plans to “maneuver matters” such that husband and wife will soon reunite; she must wait until the time is right. Childlessness was a failure to fulfill one’s duty to one’s ancestors, since one couldn’t guarantee offspring to continue paying homage to their forebears in future generations.

Just then, offstage, Vidusaka yells for help in a strangled voice. The doorkeeper runs in, explaining that an invisible spirit has seized Vidusaka and dragged him onto the palace roof. Duhsanta rushes to his aid, but can’t see his friend. Just as he’s about to shoot an arrow anyway, Indra’s charioteer, Matali, materializes. Matali explains that there’s a near-invincible brood of demons that Duhsanta must face. He threatened Vidusaka to try to rouse Duhsanta from his depression by making him angry. Duhsanta agrees to mount Indra’s chariot and fulfill his duty of protecting the realm.

Act VII

On his way back from heaven fighting the demons, the King while visiting Marica’s garden meets Sarvadamana- a little boy with marks of a world ruler. Duhsanta’s family gets united and is bid farewell by Marica.

Six years have passed. Duhsanta has successfully destroyed the demons. He and Matali are returning to earth in the chariot. The king’s mind, body, and soul are calm, and he admires the beauty of the earth below. They see the Golden Peak, “the mountain of the demigods, where asceticism ends in perfect success.” The king wishes to descend to honor its sage, Marica, Indra’s father.

While Duhsanta waits for an audience with Marica, he is distracted by the arrival of a little boy bearing the marks of a world ruler, (who later turns out to be Sarvadamana), playing with a lion cub and accompanied by two female ascetics. He is told that the boy’s mother is the daughter of a nymph and he belongs to the King’s dynasty. When the boy drops his protective amulet, Duhsanta picks it up unharmed making the ascetics shocked, because the amulet cannot be picked up by anyone except for the boy’s parents and the boy himself. The king at last realizes that he has “his heart’s desire.” It thus confirms that the boy is his son and that Shakuntala is near.

Shakuntala enters. The King recognizes her at once. Shakuntala doesn’t recognize the King instantly, but she quickly recognizes that her fate has been reversed. He offers back the signet ring—“let the vine take this flower back as a sign of her reunion with spring”—but Shakuntala, no longer trusting it, tells him to wear it instead. She no longer wants to wear the symbol of their youthful love—besides seeming untrustworthy, it also seems not to fit the maturity of their marriage.

The family of three goes together to see Marica. Marica and his wife, Aditi greet and bless Duhsanta and Shakuntala: “Fortune unites faith, wealth, and order: / Shakuntala the pure, her noble son, the king.” At that occasion the sages are briefed about the fate of the couple. Marica reveals the account of Durvasa’s curse while mediating their union.

Ultimately the couple is brought together stronger and more purified. Marica confirms that their son, Sarvadamana, will be a universal emperor who will later be called Bharata, “Sustainer.” One of Marica’s pupils is sent to tell Kanva the happy news of the broken curse and the reunited family. Marica bids farewell to the King along with his family. The play ends with the King’s prayer for freedom from rebirth and death forever.

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