Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

Kalidasa’s Artistic Vigilance

K. Chandrasekharan

Poet Rabindranath Tagore posed a question which he answered himself. ‘What is Art?’ was the question, and his answer was as follows: “Should we begin with a definition? Definition of a thing which has life-growth is really limiting one’s own vision in order to be able to see clearly. And clearness is not the only or the most important aspect of truth. A bull’s-eye lantern view is a clear view, but not a complete view. If we are to know a wheel in motion, we need not mind if all its spokes cannot be counted. In our zeal for definition we may lop off branches and roots of a tree to turn it into a log which is easier to roll about from classroom to classroom and, therefore, suitable for a text-book. But, because it allows a nakedly clear view of itself, it cannot be said that a log gives a truer view of a tree as whole”.

To say, therefore, that Kalidasa’s poetic output followed a particular mode or pattern of artistry would be confining his personality within a narrow compass. The main aim of all great art being the expression of personality, and not of anything abstract or analytical, it necessarily resorts to the language of picture and music in the process of self-expression. Maybe the result often is beauty. Still, we should not imagine that the creation of beauty is the object of art, because it can only be the instrument, and not its complete or ultimate significance. So Kalidasa’s culture and mind, more than his poetry, needs our careful study. No doubt, it is only through his poetry that we can realise it. It must be an education to realise it and seriously apply ourselves to it. By our sympathy and understanding of the poet we can accomplish a state of harmony with what he created. We will thus have achieved the highest education, which does not merely provide us with information of him and his achievements, but makes us one with him, and one with the path of wisdom, which, for him, lay in the harmonious pursuit of the different aims of life and the development of an integrated personality.

Being a poet first and last, Kalidasa has no use for the obvious and the commonplace in life. In his art we get the selection of things without which life would be defective in its sumptuousness and its vision. But sumptuousness does not connote for him mere prodigality. Nature is prodigal, but art does not merely copy it. The technique of all the arts is only the process of selection and elimination. Luxuriance is not art; the jungle is luxuriant. The more refined and vigilant the artist, the fewer things he needs for his effects. The results are judged by the economy of the means employed.

A poet of the genuine order never sets out to imitate nature in the literal sense. For him art and nature are incommensurables, and there can be no one-to-one correspondence between them. By an arduous effort at contemplation, and of concentration, the poet does in fact free, himself from nature. In order to gain some measure of expressiveness and effectiveness for the vision he wishes to convey, he may deliberately use his liberty to distort or even misdraw objects which he sees around.

Now Kalidasa is known as a supreme poet of love. No doubt his treatment of Sringarahas earned for him the widest popularity. Further, the theme of love has a natural appeal to a wider audience. Because of its general appeal, love should hardly be deemed an easy or unexacting study for anybody to suceeed in. Music as an analogy will be quite to the point. In spite of its universal appeal, it has never been to its votary a matter of ordinary effort at mastery. On the other hand, it is in the field of music that there is an insistent demand that its adherence to strict standards should be maintained, with its wider appreciation and greater popularity. Sringara Rasa, it is needless to add, has met with a similar fate, with its indiscriminate treatment by all and sundry, down the ages. Either the sentiment is debased into lewdness and sexiness, or its physical aspect alone gets portrayed through elaborate description. Indeed, many a poet of renown has indulged in it to the verge of depriving himself and the reader of all sensitiveness to suggestion, which is the hallmark of true art. Kalidasa alone among the classical poets in Sanskrit maintained a poise, even when absorbed in setting out love’s amours or displaying eroticism. In a way he alone touched the heart of intensity while being vigilant to restrain the mind from wallowing in sensuousness. His culture and traditional upbringing in the epics taught him that the supreme merit of love lay not in its physical attraction but in its sublimation. Otherwise, his Sakuntala should have remained unredeemed of her dishonour consequent upon her passionate yielding to the King’s offer of marriage. That which was not lasting as long as it was only physical became purified and serene when burnt of all its dross, passing through the fire of separation when rejected by the King. Suffering and sorrow are the twin tokens of God’s benediction upon humanity in its upward march.

Parvati’s beauty of form is spurned by the God, but the winsome constancy of her heart lays the foundation for an everlasting share both in the body and the spirit of that same God. The poem Kumara Sambhava has, even in its narration, limitless marks of dramatic art so as to justify the Drisye-Kavya’squality pervading that of a Sravya-Kavya. It is said of the Ramayana that  however to the past its episodes belong, in the present they seem to live. The art of Kalidasa, especially in the scene of Uma’s approach to God Siva, after his relaxation from austerities, is resplendent with not only the graphic pictorial representation of the whole drama in the magic of colours but with liquid sounds woven into an ensnaring melody that soothes the ear and intoxicates the heart by turns:


(God Hara lost a wee bit of His balance of mind as He gazed at the bimba-fruit-like nether lip of Uma. Even as the sea heaves at the sight of the rise of the full moon, His heart expanded.

The mountain-born also, by her movements and gestures, became more expressive of her agitation. With down-cast eyes she stood, turning away with her arched neck rendered more beautiful in that act.)

The moment the attraction of the body gained a place in His heart, the God became wary, and regained his normality, even as the poet seeks to restore in us our equipoise which temporarily yielded to the phantom of delight visible in the approaching of Uma towards Parameswara. The beautiful drama to be enacted, with love’s inevitably unsmooth course, seemed almost on the brink of accomplishment. With similar dramatic effect, the poet stops the music of itall only to plunge us into the echoes of sorrow’s wail over the death of Love.

In the Scene in the Sakuntalamwhere the King finds, to his heart’s fulfilment, Sakuntala left alone with him by her friends, the reader’s anxiety to witness the intimacy of love in itsmoodof abandon receives a check, as it were, when Sakuntala herself warns the lover in his approaches:


(King of Pururace! restrain yourself; love-smitten as I am, I am not free yet to give myself to you.)

Love’s sublimation in Kalidasa’s treatment has few parallels elsewhere. However much twoloving hearts may seek union and keep us expectant all the time to witness the consummation of their natural inclination, the poet iscareful to remind the reader that the culture of India has been always distinguished by the superior quality of restraint in her women. This is tellingly expressed in his Kumara Sambhava. After Siva has been won over by the steadfastness of Parvati’s penances to attain Him, he exclaims his readiness to espouse her:


(I am your slave from now onwards.)

But Parvati, true to her inborn culture, sends word in private to him:


(To Him, the soul of the Universe, Gowri through her companion sent word in private: “My father, the King of mountains, must offer me. So let him be sought”.)


Again, Kalidasa’s conception of true love as transcending an other considerations for those imbued with the highest ideals is un-mistakably brought out in the Sakuntalam. Marichi explains to Dushyanta why the latter had to suffer a temporary loss of memory at the time of Sakuntala’s arrival at his court. Only a few moments Sakuntala’s heart was disturbed by the offer of the King to restore her lost ring. Her love could not brook such a flimsy token of love, especially when its loss resulted in the King’s loss of memory:


(I cannot be sure of this ring. Let my lord himself wear it.)

After Marichi revealed that the curse of Durvasa was the chief cause of the King’s unfortunate blankness of memory, Sakuntala feels a heavy burden lifted from her heart as she says to herself:


(Thank God, My Lord has not been without real reason for his rejection of me.)

The sigh she heaves indicates that her love cannot be satisfied with anything short of utter sincerity and truth. This dialogue is introduced by the poet so skilfully, only to reassure us of the sublimity of her love. Hence also his artistic vigilance not to ignore one of the enduring messages of this great drama.

Apart from scenes of restrained love and suggestive amours, there are descriptions of lustful meetings of lovers, as in the nineteenth sargaof Raghuvamsawhere ‘Agnivarna’s love-pranks demonstrate the poet’s powers of realism. The requisite atmosphere is created for such an extravagant outburst of eroticism. Still, it is in the very middle of such an orgy of sensuousness that we come across a passage which Suddenly brings him, and us as well, to a sense of normality and rectitude:


(The King himself played on the drum with his dangling garlands and moving armlets, while the denseuses, having been drawn away to him, transgressed the rules of gestural art, with the result that they had to hang their heads in shame before their masters sitting on the sides.)

The poet’s conception of the highly spiritual quality of the art of dance in India being what it is, any slight deviation caused through physical appeal, evokes his criticism. The masters (Nattuvanars), sitting on the side of the dancers, would not, even for the sake of a king, lower the standards of their glorious art. Hence their disapproval, and the consequent sense of shame of the danseuses. The vigilance of art speaks for itself in unequivocal language here.

While Sringarais the poet’s main interest, he is attentive to the other rasaswhenever they claimed him. Shoka, Hasya and Adbhutahave all received their due recognition in his poems and dramas. Perhaps no other poet has employed the Viyogini vrittam to better effect than Kalidasa, and yet none else has so marvellously restrained himself from utter surrender to the mood induced by it. The sidelights and observations emanating from him during the long wails of Aja and Rati relieve the tedium born of unending tears.

If the Viyoginihas distinguished Kalidasa from the rest of poets, the Mandakrantahas raised him to lofty heights. The murmur of metre has only to be listened to with close-shut eyes. The music inherent in its elongated lines has been rendered richer in symphony by the love-anguish of the separated lovers. Kalidasa has made a cloud’s progress through the vast country of India almost a travel diary, with the additional attraction of its being transformed into a love-song. He has invested it with all the delicacies of sight and Sound; and its place in literature is still unique, despite many an imitation of it in the succeeding ages after Kalidasa. Within a hundred and ten stanzas of exquisitely finished workmanship, the historical anecdotes and geography of the places have been beautifully indicated. Artistic vigilance is so pronounced in him that, even for the sake of poetic effect, precision is not sacrificed. He is careful to say that Ujjain is not exactly on the route followed by the cloud;


Just for a diversion, let us look at Kalidasa’s sense of humour which rarely rouses laughter but creeps gently into our hearts so that we enjoy its delicacy and softness in the silence of our inner thoughts. In the Raghuvamsa, Rama abandons Sita to the forest while she is in an advanced state of pregnancy. He calls Lakshmana to his side and orders him to carry out his command. Lakshmana’s generous nature would not let him do the slightest harm to Sita so long as it was within his power to avoid it. To save Sita from discomfort while travelling in the chariot, he yokes horses “not of a turbulent nature” to it.  The poet thus makes us realise the paradox of the situation; The resultant humour, especially as Sita’s exile is imminent, is greater because of Lakshmana’s attempt to save her from bodily discomfort in the face of the impending catastrophe. There is also deep pathos in the situation. What poor satisfaction to Lakshmana this, when he has been commanded to execute the cruellest of orders!

Another humorous situation, very suggestive, is that of Matali, Indra’s charioteer answering King Dushyanta who wonders why the wheels of the aerial car of Indra do not touch the earth when decending. He says:


(This is the only difference between your honoured self and Indra.) He means to elevate Dushyanta, in courtier fashion, so as to make him feel no embarrassment by the difference in status between him and Indra. On the other hand, the reader is aware that Dushyanta’s powerful aid had been sought by Indra, when the vanquishment of his enemies had to be effected. In the present context of the king’s return after a great victory over Indra’s foes, Indra’s prowess could not be deemed greater than the King’s. It is an innocent joke of Kalidasa at the expense of the heavenly lords. Normally this little piece of humour may escape notice unless scanned carefully.

Sanskrit poets have employed upamaor simile to such a great extent that not only has it not shown off to attraction but often as an adornment or figure of speech it has become superfluous or redundant the way it is employed indiscriminately. Kalidasa, on the contrary, is justly famous for his similes which not only impress us by their appositeness but also by their power of elucidation and illumination of the upameya. Speaking of one of the scions of the Raghu race, Aditi, whose welfare projects for his subjects were all worked out to perfection without any publicity whatever, the poet compares his works to the developing grain inside the corn though the world never notices its silent process of growth:

(The king’s strivings, with circumspection, after good works for his subjects bore fruit, as grain within corn ripening, though all the while unnoticed by others.)

By a tiny simile, much more effective elucidation of the subject is achieved than by an elaborate explanation. One of Tagore’s ‘Kshanika’ lines contains a similar thought. He says: “The night opens the flower and allows the day to get thanks.” Really genuine workers do not care for any advertisement of themselves. They always silently finish their labours without ever informing the rest of the world what they had performed for the gain of others.

The poet’s care and skill in employing Alankarasmay by themselves engage our serious study. Space and time forbid any lengthy or exhaustive survey of them. Kalidasa never tires us out, nor does he try our patience in any manner. Brevity and wit go hand in hand to sustain our unflagging interest even in his narration of an epic like the Ramayana. In Compressing within five sargasthe entire Ramayana, he arrests our attention by his wonderful compactness as well as selection of incidents.


(Old age, through the appearance of grey hairs at the temples, seemed careful to avoid being overheard by Kaikeyi as it whispered into the King’s ears: “Make Rama the ruler!”)

The story of the frustrated coronation of Rama as Yuvaraja is hit off so effectively with all the implications of court intrigue. The re-telling of an elaborately detailed episode from the epic in the astoundingly short span of a verse (sloka) convinces us of the power of the poet’s control of material and his sense of proportion in presentation.

Unless a poet knows restraint, his art must suffer from lack of distinction in content and form. Where one would write more, a single epithet or phrase or picture or imagery does the work, with the enhanced value of gain in suggestion:


(While the sage of the Devas spoke to her father, Parvati standing near her father began with downcast eyes counting the petals of a lotus flower she had brought for play.)

Without saying in so many words how Parvati’s heart was speedily collecting its own thoughts copcerning her marriage with Siva, her preoccupation has been more expressively portrayed by the picture of her counting listlessly the petals of a lotus. This particular piece it has attained immortality at the hands of that arch-priest of Alankarikas, Anandavardhana, as an undying example of Bhava-dhvani.
Leaf and flower, dewdrop and glow-worm, lightning and rushing waters, deer and peacock, have all invested the poet’s heart with a peculiar affinity with all God’s creation; and his poems and dramas are replete with the frequency of their appearances even as that of human characters. A truer Advaitin than he has not trodden this land of ours. His natural claim of kinship with-them makes no distinction between the tiniest, lowest or highest. If he turns his eyes to the wavelets in the river, he cannot but fondly trace their close relationship with the intermittently throbbing eyebrows of a sweetheart. If he admires the heavy burden of a peacock’s feathers trailing on the ground, his immediate reaction conjures up for him the dark flowing tresses of a damsel. If Sakuntala approaches a creeper and seeks a parting embrace from its encircling arms, she does it in no patronising manner but quite as it behoves an intimate companion:


In the anguished tidings of the Yaksha to the cloud-messenger, he scarcely forgets the tender Mandara tree.


(Where in the garden you will find the young Mandara tree, reared like a foster-child by my Beloved, which, on account of clusters of flowers bending the boughs, is easily reached by our hands).

Forest trees and garden creepers equally share the poet’s attention even as the Neelakanta (peacock) and the pet parrot. They have their definite places in the scheme of Kalidasa’s universe.

Arts and sciences too make their welcome entry into his comprehensive ken. Music, both vocal and instrumental, enthuses him. The Veena and the Mridanga are recognised by him as unrivalled for their charm. Dance and painting are his constant rejuvenators. Especially the latter’s summation is reached in the unfolding of an entire play devoted to the message of love through the most expressive of languages, the Abhinaya. The arts are not merely drawn upon as aids to his fancy, but as very potential factors in their interplay on life. Kings and sages, merchants and soldiers, danseuses and love-messengers, house-holders and children, foresters and fishermen,–all move about functioning naturally in his world. They subserve the very purpose of a rich and complete life which the poet envisages for one and all. He draws upon them all to get life on earth knit to Life Supreme.

Valmiki and Vyasa, no doubt, are great artists, with material as extensive and varied as the universe itself. Yet they comprehend everything, not with a look that holds and guards this, that, or the other detail or scene, but which from first to last remains pure contemplation,    Kalidasa comes very near them in his vision of life always as whole and never compartmental. His poetry, like theirs, is Bharata-Varsha. It is the ripe fruit of his devotion to Indian culture and age-long tradition. It is the soul of a great people, not merely the emotion of a single individual. It is a systematic view of life, not merely a poetic mood. It is an enveloping culture, not merely a tune. It is an immortalising theme in humility, never a mere poetic interpretation.

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