Kalidasa is universally regarded not only as the greatest of the Sanskrit dramatists, but as one of the greatest Sanskrit poets.  In a few lyric poems and three plays, Kalidasa’s extant work represents the height of artistry in classical Sanskrit poetry and dramaturgy.

Nevertheless, Kalidasa’s dates are difficult to fix.  Given historical references in his own work and in the work of others that seems to refer to him, scholars speculate that Kalidasa wrote sometime between the third and the sixth centuries, CE.  It is thought by some that the identification of King Vikramaditya as the poet’s patron in the prologue of Shakuntala refers to Chandragupta II, which would locate Kalidasa in the Gupta empire near the end of the fourth century, CE.

Aside from circumstantial evidence and speculation, we have only a body of legends to account for Kalidasa’s life and work.  Some of these stories characterize the young Kalidasa as an illiterate bumpkin who is transformed into a poetic genius through a combination of court intrigue and his own deep devotion to the goddess Kali.  On the other hand, nothing in Kalidasa’s own work suggests an attachment to Kali.  Instead, he seems to have been a Shaivite, or devotee of Shiva, whose presence and person permeate the poems and plays.

Kalidasa’s work reveals an attachment, even if fanciful, to the region and city of Ujjayini, which is associated with contemporary Ujjain in the western part of Madhya Pradesh.

Kalidasa’s work falls into the following categories:

Group One: Poems

  1. Kumarasambhava
  2. Raghuvamsha
  3. Meghaduta

Group Two: Plays

  1. Malavikagnimitra (Malavika and Agnimitra)
  2. Vikramorvashiya (Urvashi Won by Valour)
  3. Abhijnanashakuntala (The Remembrance of Shakuntala)

Some scholars attribute a third collection of poems, under the title Ritusamhara, to Kalidasa.

Kalidasa’s plays exhibit familiarity with the world of pre-modern India and an insider’s understanding of court life.  The poet brings a cannonade of Indian myth and lore to bear on the plots of his plays, the stories of which move between palaces, cities, wilderness, the sky, and the abodes of gods.  He also seems to know how palaces and royalty operate.  Each of the three plays revolves around a king, and the action of each play is complicated by court maneuvers—among government officials and among the king’s own household.

Each play’s dramatization of the problems that arise from a king’s interaction at home with his royal retinue and outside the palace with mortals and divine beings examines the conflict between duty and desire, a theme that permeates Indian literature from Vedic times.  In each case, Kalidasa returns his king to his royal duty, not merely resigned to it, but re-committed to it by his excursion away from it.

Similarly, each play concerns a woman who seems to exist outside of the proper courtly circles, either literally (as in the case of Shakuntala, who lives in a forest hermitage) or practically (as in the case of Malavika in Malavikagnimitra, who lives in the palace as part of the Queen’s retinue, but is thought to be of second-class status).  The king’s romantic interest in each play, then, appears to be in conflict with his royal identity and responsibility.  However, each woman turns out to be of royal or divine identity.

Kalidasa’s plays chart their kings’ courses in a circle back to identities that are, really, unchanging, but which might be better understood after the action of the plays has been accomplished.


Further Reading

Miller, Barbara Stoller, ed. Theatre of Memory: The Plays of KalidasaNew York: Columbia University Press, 1984.