The genius of Shakuntalā in Nepali

Laxmi Prasad Devkota’s 110th birth anniversary is being marked on Sunday 27 October. Photo: KAMAL DIXIT

Kalidasa’s Sanskrit masterpiece Abhijnanasakuntalam based on the story of Shakuntala in the Mahabharata was written nearly 1,500 years ago. It was first translated into English in 1789 and later into 12 European languages. But among the many translations into South Asian languages, the one that stands out is its adaptation into Nepali by Laxmi Prasad Devkota, whose 110th birth anniversary falls on Sunday, 27 October.

Devkota’s Shākuntal Mahākāvya (1945) is the most accurate in retaining the original shrigara ras classical poetic style in Nepali. Experts have said Devkota’s Shākuntal is neither a translation nor an adaptation, but a ‘transcreation’.

Devkota’s Shakuntal is one of the three versions he undertook -- a smaller work called Dushyanta Shakuntala Bhet and an English Shakuntala. It is extraordinary that a poet creates three distinct renditions of the same work in two languages. Devkota, who died in 1959, is also the only poet to write an English Shakuntala with a poetic structure and style totally different from Kalidasa’ dramatic form.

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The ancient epic has been translated into Persian, Arabic, classical Tamil, and modern translations in Urdu in both poetry and prose, and other regional Indian languages. In Nepali, there are eight other translations of Abhijnanasakuntalam besides Devkota’s three versions.

Reading Devkota’s Shakuntal Mahakavya gives the sense that there is two-way communication going on between two great poets of two distinct, but related cultural and poetic traditions, separated by many centuries.

Devkota and Kalidasa engage in a spiritual and poetic dialogue when they bring out the meaning of ‘re-cognition’ (abhijnana) of Shakuntala. The mystical symbolism and poetic rhythms of Kalidasa are perceptible only through suggestion (dhvani) and Devkota’s text captures this subtly but surely.

Kalidasa’s epic describes Shakuntala’s birth as the abandoned daughter of the sage Vishwamitra and the celestial singer Menaka. The king of Hastinapur meets her in the forest, and leaves her with his ring to be presented when she comes to his palace. Vishwamitra is made to forget the pregnant Shakuntala, and she loses the ring enroute to the palace.

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The opening lines of Devkota’s Shakuntal take the reader closer to Kalidasa’s Kumarasambhavam where the erotic tension between Shiva and Parvati is the cause of celebration and creation of the world.

Kalidasa’s text has multiple symbols of Shaivism which Devkota did not just recreate it Nepali, but also imbued it with the symbolism of the original epic. The closing lines of Devkota’s rendition comes a full circle with the idea of ‘kalyan’ as Shakuntala’s happiness.

Even though Devkota does not recreate the dramatic form, he retains the sense and purpose of the original with his invocation to the Shiva/Shakti principle that forms the basis of the cosmos. As in Kalidasa, Devkota’s 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 Shakuntal Mahakavya is infused with the power of the shringara style with its various elements coming together in explosions of creativity. 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 Devkota who focuses on both the poetic and symbolic significance of the scene.

The birth of Shakuntala is seen as an extraordinary cosmic event as it is the result of the Vishwamitra’s incomplete tapas. It was Rabindranath Tagore who referred to Shakuntala’s suffering as her own attempt to gain full knowledge of love by continuing her father’s interrupted meditation.

From the male to the female tapasvi, the meditation reaches its climax. While Vishwamitra was seduced by not being aware of Indra’s plan, Shakuntala’s suffering is a result of her being in the dark about 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 temporarily leaves Shakuntala. It is only in Devkota’s Nepali version that this sense of continuity and poetic symmetry become clear.

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Devkota’s genius lies in his careful delineation of different chhanda for each section which actually has more variety and detail than Kalidasa’s original. Devkota declares in the introduction that his intent is to bring Nepali mahakavya to a higher level of excellence, and he succeeds in doing this.

Devkota’s English Shakuntala is a long poem in nine cantos with each marked with a theme: from ‘Vishwamitra: the Terror of Heaven’ to ‘Strife and Unity’. In this work, Devkota keeps his focus on Shakuntala in the manner of the Romantic theme of hero and the quest for self.

Devkota is a major South Asian poet for many reasons, but it is his version of Shakuntala that testify to his genius. He actually completes Kalidasa’s masterpiece with 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.

Namrata Chaturvedi, PhD, teaches English in SRM University in Sikkim, India and is editor of a forthcoming volume of critical essays on Abhijnanasakuntalam. 

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