Kalidasa – the country’s ageless poet- laureate

Kalidasa is the all time national poet of India, and the country’s ageless poet- laureate. He is looked upon as Kavikulaguru, the Poet of Poets. He has written two long poems, the Ritusamhara and Meghaduta, two epics, the Kumarasambhava and the Raghuvamsa and three plays the Malvikagnimitra, Vikramorvasiya and the Saakuntalam.

         Ritusamhara (Collection of Seasons) and Meghaduta (The Cloud Messenger) are called Kalidasa’s lyric-poems expressing the poet’s own thoughts. Both are basically love poems and in the form of a lover addressing his beloved. In the ‘Seasons’, the poet himself assumes the role of a lover and in the first person, speaks to women he is in love with. He describes the six seasons into which the year is divided in India, in their proper sequence, and invites her to share with him the delights of each season. The seasons are greeshma (summer), varsha (rainy season), sharad (autumn), hemanta (the season of dew or early winter), sisira (mid-winter) and vasantha (spring). The poem is a celebration of life. In fact Kalidasa, more than any other world poet, celebrated life through all his works.

         ‘The Cloud Messenger’ is about the pain of separation a husband feels on being separated from his wife. The hero is a Yaksha, a semi-celestial being who has his home in Alaka, a city of unequalled beauty in the upper Himalayas. He is the service of his king, the king of Yakshas.

         The Yaksha is now living in exile, having been banished by his king for some lapse in the performance of his duty. He is exiled by the king for one year to Ramagiri, a distant place somewhere in central India. Fortunately for him it is a place of serene beauty with ‘abodes of sages among shady trees and sacred streams’.

         A few months of the exile are already over and now the rainy season is quite near. The thought of his wife has never for a moment left him with its attendant pain of separation. He sees a rain cloud high up in the sky. Monsoon clouds in India generally go northward in the direction of the Himalayas, where Alaka is situated. So he beseeches the cloud to carry his message of love and solace to his distraught wife. Kalidasa uses his Cloud Messenger to present a fleeting view of the India of his times. Its mythology, rivers and mountains, countryside and cities, people in their various moods like wives anxious for the return of their husbands from distant lands, maidens gathering flowers, courtesans, men given to drinking, evening worship in temples, are all focused momentarily.

         The epics Kumarasambhava (The birth of Kumara) and Raghuvamsa (The dynasty of Raghu) have their themes taken from Indian mythology. So also is the theme of the play Saakuntalam, which is the poet’s most celebrated work. All the three plays are centered in love like ‘Romeo and Juliet’, but unlike Shakespeare’s great tragedy, Kalidasa plays have happy endings.

         Kalidasa is the supreme nature poet. “Rarely has a man walked our earth who observed the phenomena of living nature as accurately as he, though his accuracy was of course that of the poet, not of the scientist,” says the great critic A.W. Ryder. “Much is lost to us who grow among other plants and animals; yet we can appreciate his ‘bee-black hair’, his ahoka tree ‘that sheds its blossoms in a rain of tears’, his river ‘wearing somber veil of mist’.”

         Though he is India’s icon of poetry, even his date and place of birth are still subjects of scholarly debate and research. The dates proposed vary from the second century BC to the third century AD. Claims for his place of birth also vary widely from Kashmir and Bengal to Kerala. His works suggest he has travelled widely and has a firsthand knowledge of the India of his time.

         His parentage is also shrouded in mystery. According to the most popular legend he was born a goatherd in the Malwa country. He was an unlettered boy tending goats, when he providentially received the gift of learning from Goddess Kali, fierce as well as compassionate. Judging by the knowledge of scriptures he displays in his works, some scholars hold the view that he was born of Brahmin parents. There is yet another school, who consider him of Greek origin. They base their argument from the bold freedom of his poetry in Ritusamhara.

         Kalidasa was, by all accounts, a legend in his own lifetime. He was one of the nine gems – navaratnas – in the court of an equally legendary ruler, King Vikramaditya of Ujjain. The many legends about him popular across India depict him a happy-go-lucky type of man, but a great scholar, living the luxurious life of a court-poet, respected and cherished by the king himself.




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