The “king of metaphors” (upamā Kālidasasya) has created a masterpiece Abhijnānaśākuntalam that earned him the recognition of ancient critics in the Kāvya tradition of Sanskrit. This nātak is unparalleled in poetic excellence, with much credit given to the fourth act wherein shringara rasa dominates. It has been considered by ancient critics, Orientalists as well as modern critics as representative of the highest refinement Indian poetry is capable of. In South Asia, this text finds itself translated and adapted into most major languages of classical and modern periods, as well as bolis and bhāshās like Braj bhāshā and Garhwali in India. There are three translations of this nātak in Persian, an unpublished one in Arabic, a classical translation in Tamil, modern translations in Urdu in both poetry and prose, lesser known translations in Manipuri, Garhwali, Braj, Punjabi, Gujarati, and many more. While some translations are modern like in Urdu, there are translations that have been accorded the classical status irrespective of the era in which they were translated. In South Asia, a major translation that recognizes and establishes the classical quotient of Kalidasa’s nātak is Laxmi Prasad Devkota’s Shākuntal Mahākāvya (1945).
In Nepali, there are eight other translations of Abhijnānaśākuntalam besides Devkota’s three versions. Devkota’s Shākuntal is far from being a simple translation or even an adaptation. It is, to use the words of P. Lal, a ‘transcreation’. Reading Devkota’s Shākuntal gives the sense of a sustained dialogue between two Māhakāvis of two distinct, but related, cultural and poetic traditions. Devkota’s Shākuntal is one of the three transcreations he undertook of Shakuntala – a smaller work called Dushyanta Shakuntalā Bhet and an English Shakuntalā. It is unparalleled in literary history to find a single poet creating three distinct renditions of the same work in two languages. Devkota is also the only poet in the world to write an original Shakuntalā in English, with a poetic structure and style totally different from the dramatic form of Kalidasa.
Devkota and Kalidasa are clearly engaged in a spiritual and poetic dialogue when they bring out the meaning of “re-cognition” (abhijnāna) of Shakuntala. The mystical symbolism and poetic rhythms of Kalidasa are perceptible only through suggestion (dhvani) and Devkota’s text captures the dhvanit meaning of Kalidasa subtly but surely. The opening lines of Devkota’s Shākuntal take the reader closer to Kalidasa’s Kumārasambhavam where the erotic tension between Shiva and Parvati is the cause of celebration and creation of the world:
“Chimli lochan dirghakal tapama kholera vasantika
Nachadi sundar talale pavanama dekhi phuleki lata
Birse jhai “bhana ko timi” yati bhani Gauri rulaikana
Muskayera phulyaunda Shiva diun kalyanako chumban”
The playfulness of Shiva is the basis of the entire universe as this play leads to the manifestation of the param tattva as the multiform universe. This view is upheld by Shaivism in general and Kashmir Shaivism in particular. Kalidasa’s text has multiple symbols of Kashmir Shaivism and as Devkota declares that he intends to recreate the great Indian epic in Nepali. It is obvious that he does not merely mean to recreate the epic poetry but epic symbolism of Kalidasa too. The closing lines of Devkota’s epic draw a full circle with the idea of kalyan as Shakuntala’s happiness. Even though Devkota does not recreate the dramatic form, yet he retains the sense and purpose of the nandisloka and bharatvakya in his epic. The nanadisloka in Sanskrit drama establishes the spiritual theme of the play and is a kind of invocation. In Devkota, the lines make it clear that it is an invocation to the purusha/prakriti or Shiva/Shakti principle that forms the basis of the cosmos. The closing lines are also similar to the bharatvakya wherein blessings are given in the form of prayer. To quote from Devkota:
“guna bhaye madhulitaharuko rasa
Vivasha chu na bhayera bhaye kasa
Tara jhare yadi ansu sukhipala
Sukhasangaye rahane cha Shakuntala”
As in Kalidasa, Shakuntala ceases to be a person or a character but becomes an embodiment of Shakti and her happiness is the fulfillment of the universe.
Devkota’s awareness seems to rest on the king of rasas-the shringara. The whole of Shakuntal Mahakavya is infused with the power of shringara with the vibhava, anubhava, vyabhichari and sthayi coming together to create explosions of shringara rasa. The long and elaborate description of the process of Menaka seducing Vishwamitra is poetically stunning in its deployment of the visual and aural sensual imagery. While in all the other translations of Kalidasa, the episode of the seduction is either obliquely referred to or assumed to be understood, it is only in Devkota that the poetic as well as symbolic significance of the seduction is focused upon. The birth of Shakuntala is seen as an extra ordinary event as it is the result of the tapas of Vishwamitra being incomplete. As Rabindranath Tagore was to point out to Shakuntala’s suffering in the text as her “tapas” to gain full knowledge of love, one can see her as continuing her father’s abated “tapas”. From the male to the female tapasvi, the “tapas” reaches fruition. While Vishwamitra was seduced under his non-awareness of Indra’s plan, Shakuntals’ suffering is a result of her lack of awareness upon Durvasa’s visit to the ashram. While Menaka abandons her child and leaves Vishwamaitra, it is Dushyanta who abandons his child (in the womb) and leaves (temporarily) Shakuntala. It is only in Devkota’s epic that the sense of continuity and poetic symmetry becomes clear.
The poetic innovation in Devkota is evident in his careful delineation of each “chhand” in each section and also his use of chhandas in more variety and detail than Kalidasa. Devkota declares in the introduction, his intent is to bring Nepali mahakavya to its excellence of which the reader finds ample evidence.
Devkota’s Shakuntala in English is a long poem in nine cantos with each canto marked with a theme from “Vishwamitra: the Terror of Heaven” (Canto I) to “Strife and Unity” (Canto IX). In this work, Devkota keeps his focus on Shakuntala in the manner of the Romantic theme of hero and the quest for self. Four cantos are named after Shakuntala: “Shakuntala’s Childhood”, “Shakuntala Pines”, “Shakuntala leaves her Forest Home”, “Shakuntala is Rejected”. The motif of “quest” with all its concomitant dangers, obstacles and final resolution are present in the English Shakuntala of Devkota.
In South Asian literary history, Devkota is a major poet for many reasons. His Shakuntalas testify to his genius and well deserved poetic respect. Any study of Kalidasa’s masterpiece would find its sense of completion in the poetic life of Devkota’s Shakuntala. The use of extensive meters, both classical and folk, the detailed refinement of shringara rasa, spectacular descriptions of events and subtle use of symbolism make Shakuntal Mahakavya a classic in modern times.