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KĀLIDĀSA, fifth-century Indian dramatist and poet Kālidāsa, considered to be the premier literary figure of the Sanskrit tradition, set the standard for classical Indian poetry and drama in his widely celebrated works. The poet's vibrantly evocative landscapes (particularly around the North Indian region of Ujjayinī), detailed urban settings, and apparent knowledge of court life suggest an association with Chandragupta II, who ruled most of North India from 375 to 415. Inscriptions at Aihole, praising the poet's abilities, clearly date his works to before 634, but more specific historical information is lacking.

Kālidāsa's literary legacy is based on seven surviving works. The Meghadūta (Cloud messenger) is a spell-binding lyrical tour de force in which a cloud is asked to voyage through a myth-laden landscape of India and carry a message to the protagonist's beloved. Two longer poems (mahākāvyas), derived from earlier epic sources, combine heroic narratives with breathtaking natural descriptions. The Raghuvansha (Lineage of Raghu) depicts the great solar race of warrior kings, into which Rāma, an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, is born. The Kumārasanbhava (Birth of the war god Kumāra) narrates the divine emergence of the son of Shiva for the restoration of cosmic order.

Kālidāsa's plays, employing both Sanskrit and Prakrit languages, affirm profound levels of cosmic unity, reconciling life's inevitable conflicts through a union of the hero and heroine, echoing the ritual sacrifice of Vedic literatures. Mālavikāgnimitra (Mālavikā and Agnimitra), generally classified as a secular romance in which the characters are "invented" as opposed to being taken from epic sources, depicts the love between King Agnimitra and an exiled servant Mālavikā, who turns out to be a princess. Vikramorvashīya (Urvashī won by valor) retells the Vedic and epic legend of love between the mortal king Purūravas and the immortal nymph Urvashī and explores the sentiments of love in union and separation. The poet's best-known work, Abhijñānashākuntala (Shakuntalā and the ring of recollection), often referred to as Shākuntala, is also based on an epic narrative and is hence characterized as a heroic romance. It tells of King Dushyanta's fateful meeting with the daughter of a royal sage and a celestial nymph, Shakuntalā, in her adopted father's hermitage. Although the king marries her in secret, he is cursed to forget about the union until the ring he had given her is found in the belly of a fish. When the king's memory is restored, he reunites with Shakuntalā as the tension between desire (kāma) and duty (dharma) is reconciled through a blending of erotic and heroic sentiments. This elevated aesthetic mood, or rasa, in which divisions between the audience, actors, and author were said to dissolve, was the expressed goal of the literary work of art, and Kālidāsa's ability to inculcate the distilled and universalized emotional essence of rasa is unparalleled in the Sanskrit literary tradition. His rapt imagery, aesthetic sensitivity, and dazzling landscapes, infused with the presence of Shiva and the Goddess, reveal the divine presence in all things.

Rick Jarow


Abhijñānashākuntala. Devanagari recension with commentary of Rāghavabhatta. 12th ed., edited by N. R. Acharya. Mumabai: Nirnaya Sagar Press, 1958.

Mālavikāgnimitra, edited by K. A. Subramania Iyer. New Delhi: Shitya Akademi, 1978.

Meghadūta, edited by S. K. De. Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1957.

Raghuvansha, with Mallinātha's commentary, ed. and trans. G. N. Nandargikar. Reprint, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1982.


Ānandavardhana. The Dhvanyāloka of Ānandavardhana. With the "Locana" of Abhinavagupta. Translated by Daniel H. H. Ingalls, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, and M. V. Partwardhan. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990.

Baumer, Rachel van M., and James R. Brandon, eds. Sanskrit Drama in Performance. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1981.

Dimock, Edward Cameron, et al. The Literatures of India: An Introduction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.

Miller, Barbara Stoler, et al. Theater of Memory: The Plays of Kālidāsa. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.


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Kalidasa (active late 4th-early 5th century) was classical India's master poet and dramatist. He demonstrated the expressive and suggestive heights of which the Sanskrit language is capable and revealed the very essence of an entire civilization.

Nothing is known with certainty about the life of Kalidasa. Clearly later than the great Buddhist poet Asvaghosha (1st century), Kalidasa was celebrated as a major literary figure in the first half of the 7th century (the Aihole inscription, 634). The scholarly consensus outside India is that Kalidasa flourished in the time of Chandragupta II (reigned 380-413). A traditional Indian view would have it that he adorned Vikramaditya's court in the 1st century B.C. Although he was especially fond of the Gupta capital city, Ujjain (about 30 miles north of Indore in west-central India), there is no proof that he was born there. Kalidasa was a devotee of Siva, but there is no trace of sectarian narrowness in his writings.

Just as it is impossible to write Kalidasa's biography, it is impossible to establish the order in which his works were composed or to show development therein. Six major works are important. The epic poem Kumarasambhava (Birth of Kumara; Kumara, the Prince, was the war-god son of Siva) boldly recounts the divine romance that led to the birth of Siva's son. Another epic poem, the Raghuvamsa, praises the origins and life of Rama. The cantos devoted to Rama show Kalidasa's brilliant condensation and modulation of the Valmiki Ramayana. A comparison of the two poets is inevitable, and Kalidasa does not suffer. His Rama exhibits a depth of near-tragic heroism unparalleled in Sanskrit literature.

The lyric "elegy" Meghaduta (Cloud Messenger) is a short but striking work displaying another dimension of Kalidasa's genius. This masterpiece tells of an exiled demidivinity who, in his anguish for the well-being of his bride, commissions a monsoon thunderhead to carry news of his safety to her in the north. This work is the fount of an enormously productive genre in Sanskrit and related Indic literatures. (The Meghaduta alone drew 45 commentaries, more than any other Sanskrit composition.)

As love stories, Kalidasa's three dramas are not unusual, but the author's control of dialogue, situation, and detail is masterly. Though the Malavikagnimitrais assumed to be the earliest of Kalidasa's dramas, it is not an immature work. It is less satisfying than the other two because of its story. The Vikramorvasiya's theme of the love of the human king and the divine nymph has greater potential for high pathos and even tragedy, and, for the most part, Kalidasa again takes advantage of the subject matter. The king's love-madness in Act IV is depicted with unsurpassed lyric brilliance. Some critics have been offended that the play carries beyond the "natural tragic climax" to a happy ending; but it is in the poetry that its true grandeur lies.

Sakuntala in the Abhijnanasakuntalam is India's most famous heroine. The prototype is found in the Mahabharata, but the great Sakuntala is the creature of Kalidasa. This drama is justly the most renowned of Kalidasa's, for here poetry and drama become indissolubly one. There is order, delicacy, serenity, cohesion, and balance. It is appropriate that this was the literary work that first introduced India to Europe in modern times. All that Sanskritic culture was, its celebration of the real, and its conception of itself were epitomized in this drama fashioned by the culture's greatest spokesman and poet.

Further Reading

There are many translations of Kalidasa's works. The most convenient is Kalidasa: Shakuntala and Other Writings, translated by Arthur W. Ryder (1912). The complete translation of the Meghaduta, with accompanying Sanskrit text, is Franklin and Eleanor Edgerton, The Cloud Messenger (1964). The famous translation of the Sakuntala by Sir William Jones (1796) is a classic. Various arguments concerning the dates of Kalidasa and other biographical points are examined critically in Arthur Berriedale Keith's two works, The Sanskrit Drama in Its Origin, Development, Theory and Practice (1924) and A History of Sanskrit Literature (1928), whose critical commentary on the poetry and drama is still of interest. An excellent essay is the chapter on Kalidasa in Surendra N. Dasgupta and S. K. De, A History of Sanskrit Literature, vol. 1 (1962), which also includes other valuable material on Kalidasa. □


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Kālidāsa. A Hindu poet and dramatist. Nothing certain is known about his life and family. It is possible that he lived, between 350 and 460 CE. This period is suggested from internal evidence found in his books Meghadūta and Kumārasambhava. His most celebrated works are the three plays Śakuntalā (Abhijñanaśakuntala, ‘The Recognition of Śakuntalā’), Vikramorvashīyam, and Mālavikāgnimitra. His epic compositions, Raghuvaṃsha and Kumārasambhava, are unsurpassed in Skt. poetry, and his genius is equally evident in Rṛtusamhāra.


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Śakuntalā. The title character of the play Abhijñānaśakuntala (Śakuntalā Recognized), by the Indian poet and playwright Kālidāsa, probably of the Gupta period (3rd cent. CE). The play is often called simply Śakuntalā. The story is taken from the first book of the Mahābhārata.