Kalidasa (Devanāgarī: कालिदास "servant of Kali") was a renowned Classical Sanskrit writer, widely regarded as the greatest poet and dramatist in the Sanskrit language. His floruit cannot be dated with precision, but most likely falls within 4th Century AD.
His plays and poetry are primarily based on Hindu Puranas and philosophy.
Nothing apart from his works is known with certainty about the life of Kālidāsa, such as his period or where he lived. Little is known about Kālidāsa's life. According to legend, he was known for his beauty, which brought him to the attention of Princess Vidyottama and she married him. However, as legend has it, Kālidāsa had grown up without much education, and the princess was ashamed of his ignorance and coarseness. A devoted worshipper of Kali (by other accounts of Saraswati), Kālidāsa is said to have called upon his goddess for help when he was going to commit suicide in a well after he was humiliated by his wife, and was rewarded with a sudden and extraordinary gift of wit. He is then said to have become the most brilliant of the "nine gems" at the court of the king Vikramaditya of Ujjain. Legend also has it that he was murdered by a courtesan in Sri Lanka during the reign of Kumaradasa.
A terminus ante quem is given by the Aihole Prashasti of 634 AD, which has a reference to his skills; and a terminus post quem can be presumed from his play Mālavikāgnimitra in as much as the hero, King Agnimitra of the Shunga dynasty, assumed the throne of Magadha in 152 BC. The linguistic features of the Prakrit dialects used by some of the minor characters in his plays have been adduced to suggest that he could not have lived before the 3rd century AD. There has been great ambiguity regarding the exact date of Kālidāsa but in 1986, Sanskrit scholar Ramchandra Tiwari of Bhopal claims to have conducted a thorough research on Kalidasa and after analysing 627 archaeological evidences which included 104 sculptures, 30 pictures and 493 scriptural words determined that Kalidasa lived in the period 370-450AD.
In his works, Kālidāsa did not mention any king as his patron, or any dynasty other than the Shunga dynasty, but several historians have credited the traditional account of Kālidāsa as one of the "nine gems" at the court of a king named Vikramāditya. There were, however, several kings in ancient India by that name. One among them was the emperor Vikramaditya of Ujjain who founded the Vikrama Samvat following his victory over the Sakas in 56 BCE. Scholars have noted other possible associations with the Gupta dynasty, which would put his date in the range of 300-470 AD:
* His play about a couple in Vedic Puranas, Pururavas and Urvashi, being titled Vikramorvashīya, with "Vikram" for "Pururavas", could be an indirect tribute to a patron possibly named Vikramāditya.
* Kumār Gupta I was the son of Chandragupta II Vikramāditya. The title of Kālidāsa's epic poem, Kumārasambhava, about the begetting of Kartikeya, the god of war who was the son of Siva and Pārvati, could be an indirect tribute to either of these royal patrons.
* The mention of Huns in his epic poem, Raghuvaṃśa, could be a veiled reference to the victory over them in 455 of Kumāragupta's son and successor, Skandagupta. Alternatively, the campaign of Raghu in this poem may have been modeled on the celebrated campaigns of Chandragupta II Vikramāditya's father, Samudragupta.
M R Kale in the introduction of his translation of Kumarasambhava and Saradaranjan Ray in his introduction to the translation of Abhijnana Sakunthalam places the date of Kalidasa to be about 56 BC or earlier. The main evidence comes from the works of philosopher-poet Aśvaghoṣa whose date is in 1st century AD. Aśvaghoṣa has used many passages similar to that of Kalidasa. Since Kalidasa was an original poet, it is extremely unlikely that he borrowed from Asvaghosha being a philosopher and mostly considered an artificial poet, and with a much more chance would have done so. Kale also adds that some aspects of language used by Asvaghosa seem to be later and the similarities in the styles suggest that their dates are not widely separated. Kale also gives much additional evidence that can be found internally from Kalidasa's works to substantiate his claims. These claims, together with the facts of king Vikrama, Kalidasa's love and knowledge of the city of Ujjain, suggests that Kalidasa was probably with Vikramaditya of 1st century BCE.
Scholars have speculated that Kālidāsa may have lived either near the Himalayas or in the vicinity of Ujjain or in Kalinga. The three speculations are based respectively on Kālidāsa's detailed description of the Himalayas in his Kumārasambhava, the display of his love for Ujjain in Meghadūta and his highly eulogistic quotes for Kalingan emperor Hemāngada in Raghuvaṃśa (sixth sarga).
Kālidāsa wrote three plays. Among them, Abhijñānaśākuntalam ("Of Shakuntala recognised by a token") is generally regarded as a masterpiece. It was among the first Sanskrit works to be translated into English, and has since been translated into many languages.
Mālavikāgnimitram ("Mālavikā and Agnimitra") tells the story of King Agnimitra, who falls in love with the picture of an exiled servant girl named Mālavikā. When the queen discovers her husband's passion for this girl, she becomes infuriated and has Mālavikā imprisoned, but as fate would have it, Mālavikā is in fact a true-born princess, thus legitimizing the affair.
Abhijñānaśākuntalam ("Of Shakuntala recognised by a token") tells the story of King Dushyanta who, while on a hunting trip, meets Shakuntalā, the adopted daughter of a sage, and marries her. A mishap befalls them when he is summoned back to court: Shakuntala, pregnant with their child, inadvertently offends a visiting sage and incurs a curse, by which Dushyanta will forget her completely until he sees the ring he has left with her. On her trip to Dushyanta's court in an advanced state of pregnancy, she loses the ring, and has to come away unrecognized. The ring is found by a fisherman who recognizes the royal seal and returns it to Dushyanta, who regains his memory of Shakuntala and sets out to find her. After more travails, they are finally reunited.
Vikramōrvaśīyam ("Pertaining to Vikrama and Urvashi") tells the story of mortal King Pururavas and celestial nymph Urvashi who fall in love. As an immortal, she has to return to the heavens, where an unfortunate accident causes her to be sent back to the earth as a mortal with the curse that she will die (and thus return to heaven) the moment her lover lays his eyes on the child which she will bear him. After a series of mishaps, including Urvashi's temporary transformation into a vine, the curse is lifted, and the lovers are allowed to remain together on the earth.
Kālidāsa is the author of two epic poems, Raghuvaṃśa ("Dynasty of Raghu") and Kumārasambhava ("Birth of Kumāra"). Among his lyric poems are Meghadūta ("Cloud Messenger") and Ṛtusaṃhāra ("The Exposition on the Seasons").
* Raghuvaṃśa is an epic poem about the kings of the Raghu dynasty.
* Kumārasambhava is an epic poem which narrates the birth of Kartikeya, Parvati being sent by her father to serve the meditating Siva, Manmadha attempting to create love in Siva for Parvati, Siva destroying Manmadha in his fury, Parvati's penance for Siva, Siva agreeing to marry Parvati, Siva and Parvati living in marital bliss, etc.
* Ṛtusaṃhāra describes the six seasons by narrating the experiences of two lovers in each of the seasons.
* Meghadūta or Meghasāndesa is the story of a Yaksha trying to send a message to his lover through a cloud. Kalidasa set this poem to the 'mandākrānta' meter known for its lyrical sweetness. It is one of Kalidasa's most popular poems and numerous commentaries on the work have been written.
Kālidāsa's poetry is celebrated for its beautiful imagery and use of similes. The following are some specimen verses from his works.
One celebrated example occurs in the Kumārasambhava. Umā (Parvati) has been meditating even throughout the summer, and as the monsoon arrives, the first raindrop falls on her:
"Nikāmataptā vividhena vahninā
nabhaścareṇendhanasaṃbhṛtena ca ।
tapātyaye vāribhir ukṣitā navair
bhuvā sahoṣmāṇam amuñcad ūrdhvagam ॥
Sthitāḥ kṣaṇaṃ pakṣmasu tāḍitādharāḥ
valīṣu tasyāḥ skhalitāḥ prapedire
cireṇa nābhiṃ prathamodabindavaḥ ॥"
— Kumārasambhava 5.23–24
"Still sat Umā though scorched by various flame
Of solar fire and fires of kindled birth,
Until at summer's end the waters came.
Steam rose from her body as it rose from earth.
With momentary pause the first drops rest
Upon her lash then strike her nether lip,
Fracture upon the highland of her breast,
Across the ladder of her waist then trip
And slowly at her navel come to rest."
— translation by Ingalls
The beauty of this verse is held to result from "the association through suggestion of numerous harmonious ideas". Firstly (as described in Mallinatha's commentary), the description suggests signs of her physical beauty: long eyelashes, pouting lower lip, hard breasts large enough to touch each other, deep navel, and so on. Secondly (as described in Appayya Dikshita's commentary), it suggests her pose as a perfect yoginī: her motionlessness through pain and pleasure, her posture, and so on. Finally, and more subtly, in comparing the mother goddess to the mother earth, and the rain coursing down her as it courses over the surface of the earth, it suggests earthly fertility. Thus the verse harmoniously brings to mind beauty, self-restraint, and fertility.
In another work, King Aja grieves over the death of Indumati and is consoled by a hermit:
"na pṛthagjanavac chuco vaśaṃ vaśinām uttama gantum arhasi ।
drumasānumatāṃ kim antaraṃ yadi vāyau dvitaye 'pi te calāḥ ॥"
"O king! you are the finest among men with self-control. It is not fit of you to be struck by sorrow like the ordinary folk. If a great wind can move a tree and a mountain equally, how is the mountain better?"
Dushyanta describes Shakuntala to his friend:
"anāghrātaṃ puṣpaṃ kisalayam alūnaṃ kara-ruhair
anāviddhaṃ ratnaṃ madhu navam anāsvādita-rasam।
akhaṇḍaṃ puṣyānāṃ phalam iva ca tad-rūpam anaghaṃ
na jāne bhoktāraṃ kam iha samupasthāsyati vidhiḥ॥"
— Abhijñānaśākuntalam 2.10
"She seems a flower whose fragrance none has tasted,
A gem uncut by workman's tool,
A branch no desecrating hands have wasted,
Fresh honey, beautifully cool.
No man on earth deserves to taste her beauty,
Her blameless loveliness and worth,
Unless he has fulfilled man's perfect duty—
And is there such a one on earth?"
— translation by Arthur W. Ryder
At Indumati's swayamvara, princes are downcast as she passes by without showing interest:
"saṃcāriṇī dīpaśikheva rātrau
yaṃ yaṃ vyatīyāya patiṃvarā sā।
narendramārgāṭṭa iva prapede
vivarṇabhāvaṃ sa sa bhūmipālaḥ ॥"
— Raghuvaṃśa 6.67
As Indumati walked past each king and went to the next king (in a ceremony of choosing her husband), the king's face would turn bright and then pale. It was like watching a line of houses in the night as a dazzling lamp passed by.
— literal translation
And every prince rejected while she sought
A husband, darkly frowned, as turrets, bright
One moment with the flame from torches caught,
Frown gloomily again and sink in night.
api turagasamīpād utpatantaṃ mayūraṃ
na sa rucirakalāpaṃ bāṇalakṣyī cakāra।
sapadi gatamanaskaś citramālyānukīrṇe
rativigalitabandhe keśapāśe priyāyāḥ॥
Dasaratha saw many beasts as he was hunting. Although he saw a peacock fly very close to his chariot, he did not shoot his arrow. For, as the peacock spread its tail feathers before him, it reminded him of his wife's hair adorned with flowers of different kinds and how it would become disarranged during their lovemaking.
Rama's coronation is announced:
sā paurān paurakāntasya rāmasyābhyudayaśrutiḥ।
pratyekaṃ hlādayāṃ cakre kulyevodyānapādapān॥
— Raghuvaṃśa 2.13
The news of the beloved Rama being crowned as king gave special joy to every citizen, like a stream that wets every tree in a garden.
The loveliest verses of Kalidasa, are found in Meghadūta, which are given as follows -
"twāmālikhyat pranayakŭpitā dhāturāgai shilāyāha।
mātmānm te charanapatitam yavdichhami kartum।
astraistravanmuhu upchitairdrushtirālŭpyate me।
krurastasminnapi na sahate sangamam naŭ krutantāh॥"
when I try to draw your picture and show in it that I am bowing at your feet, with a 'kawa-a type of chalk', on the rock; due to emotional outbreak, my eyes get wet. The 'Krutāntā or Yama' himself does not wish to have our meet in the picture itself...
Similarly the beauty-symbols of a woman has been so beautifully shown in a verse of Kalidasa's Meghadūta as follows -
"tanvi shyamā shikhari dashanā pakwabimbādharóshthi।
madhye kshāmā chakithariniprekshanā nimnanābhi।
shronibhārāt alasagamanā stoknamrā stanābhyām।
yā tatrasyatdyŭvati vishaye srushtirādyev dhatooh॥"
This verse is as such that its meaning can only be understood word-wise, given as follows -
tanvi - slim shyamā - 'aprasuta bhavet shyama, tanvi ch navayauvana - comment' - a grownup woman who has not yet enjoyed the sex with some male and thus has not yet any experience of pregnancy and the like...
shikhari dashanā - a woman having, well arranged clean white teeth
pakwabimbādharóshthi - having the color of her lips like the color of a morning reddish Sun
kshāmā - having her waist so short
chakithariniprekshanā - having the glimpse of a frightened deer
nimnanābhi - having a deep navel
shronibhārāt alasagamanā - a slow walker, due to heavy hips
stoknamrā stanābhyām - slightly bent forward, due to good enough weight of her grown up breasts
and for the last line the meaning is: such a woman is the idol of beauty for any woman.
Kālidāsa in Later Culture
Many scholars have written commentaries on the works of Kālidāsa. Among the most studied commentaries are those by Kolāchala Mallinātha Suri, which were written in the 15th century during the reign of the Vijayanagar king, Deva Rāya II. The earliest surviving commentaries appear to be those of the 10th-century Kashmirian scholar Vallabhadeva. Eminent Sanskrit poets like Bāṇabhaṭṭa, Jayadeva and Rajasekhara have lavished praise on Kālidāsa in their tributes. A well-known Sanskrit verse ("Upamā Kālidāsasya…") praises his skill at upamā, or similes. Anandavardhana, a highly revered critic, considered Kālidāsa to be one of the greatest Sanskrit poets ever. Of the hundreds of pre-modern Sanskrit commentaries on Kālidāsa's works, only a fraction have been contemporarily published. Such commentaries show signs of Kālidāsa's poetry being changed from its original state through centuries of manual copying, and possibly through competing oral traditions which ran alongside the written tradition.
Kālidāsa's Abhijñānaśākuntalam was one of the first works of Indian literature to become known in Europe. It was first translated to English and then from English to German, where it was received with wonder and fascination by a group of eminent poets, which included Herder and Goethe.
Willst du die Blüthe des frühen, die Früchte des späteren Jahres,
Willst du, was reizt und entzückt, willst du was sättigt und nährt,
Willst du den Himmel, die Erde, mit Einem Namen begreifen;
Nenn’ ich, Sakuntala, Dich, and so ist Alles gesagt.
Wouldst thou the young year's blossoms and the fruits of its decline
And all by which the soul is charmed, enraptured, feasted, fed,
Wouldst thou the earth and heaven itself in one sole name combine?
I name thee, O Sakuntala! and all at once is said.
—translation by E. B. Eastwick
"Here the poet seems to be in the height of his talent in representation of the natural order, of the finest mode of life, of the purest moral endeavor, of the most worthy sovereign, and of the most sober divine meditation; still he remains in such a manner the lord and master of his creation."
—Goethe, quoted in Winternitz
Kālidāsa's work continued to evoke inspiration among the artistic circles of Europe during the late 19th century and early 20th century, as evidenced by Camille Claudel's sculpture Shakuntala.
Koodiyattam artist and Natya shastra scholar Māni Mādhava Chākyār (1899–1990) choreographed and performed popular Kālidāsā plays including Abhijñānaśākuntala, Vikramorvaśīya and Mālavikāgnimitra.
Mohan Rakesh's play in Hindi, Āshad ka ek din (1958), tries to capture the conflict between the ethereal beauty repeatedly portrayed in Kālidāsa's works and the harsh realities of his time.
The Kannada films namely Mahakavi Kalidasa (1955), featuring Honnappa Bagavatar, B. Sarojadevi and later Kaviratna Kalidasa (1983), featuring Rajkumar, were made. V. Shantaram made the Hindi movie Stree (1961) based on Kālidāsa's Shakuntala. R.R. Chandran made the Tamil movie Mahakavi Kalidas (1966) based on Kālidāsa's life. Chevalier Nadigar Thilagam Sivaji Ganesan played the part of the poet himself.
Surendra Verma's Hindi play Athavan Sarga, published in 1976, is based on the legend that Kālidāsa could not complete his epic Kumārasambhava because he was cursed by the goddess Pārvati, for obscene descriptions of her conjugal life with Lord Shiva in the eighth canto. The play depicts Kālidāsa as a court poet of Chandragupta who faces a trial on the insistence of a priest and some other moralists of his time.
Asti Kashchid Vagarthiyam is a five act Sanskrit play written by Krishna Kumar in 1984. The story is a variation of the popular legend that Kālidāsa was mentally challenged at one time and that his wife was responsible for his transformation. Kālidāsā, a mentally challenged shepard, is married to Vidyottamā, a learned princess, through a conspiracy. On discovering that she has been tricked, Vidyottamā banishes Kālidāsa asking him to acquire scholarship and fame if he desires to continue their relationship. She further stipulates that on his return he will have to answer the question, Asti Kashchid Vāgārthah" ("Is there anything special in expression?"), to her satisfaction. In due course, Kālidāsa attains knowledge and fame as a poet. Kālidāsa begins Kumārsambhava, Raghuvaṃśa and Meghaduta with the words Asti ("there is"), Kashchit ("something") and Vāk ("speech.")
Dr. Bishnupada Bhattacharya's "Kalidas o Robindronath" is a comparative study of Kalidasa and the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, Mahakavi Kalidasu (Telugu, 1960) featuring Akkineni Nageswara Rao were based on the Kālidāsa legendary life and work.