Summary: Vikramorvashiya

The premise of this play is as old as India’s oldest literature, the Rg Veda, hymn 10.95 of which alludes cryptically to a relationship between a certain Pururavas, who seems to be a mortal man, and a certain Urvashi, who seems to be divine.  In the Vedic hymn, Pururavas laments Urvashi’s absence, especially because she seems to have been the source of his authority and power.  In the Vedic iteration of the story, Urvashi is gone.  There is no triumphant reunion.  Pururavas can only  rage against the pitiless quality of the universe that has parted them.

The Vedic story shows that the theme of the anguish of the separation of lovers is a very old and often-treated theme in South Asian literature.  The theme is central to all of Kalidasa’s plays, though it is more indulgently treated in Shakuntala and in Vikramorvashiya than in Malavikagnimitra, in which the lovers only move toward union, and do not unite only to be separated, subsequently.

In this play, the mortal king Pururavas saves the semi-divine Urvashi from demons, falls in love with her, and marries her, only to lose her to thoroughly bewildering forces.  Under Kalidasa’s pen, Pururavas spends most of Act Four wailing over Urvashi’s absence.  He also wanders aimlessly through the forest, and, in seeing, or seeming to see, Urvashi’s form in every flower, rock, and wood-chuck, gives expression to Kalidasa’s persistence interest in the reality that inhabits representation.  As in Shakuntala, in which the distraught King Duhshanta seems to mistake a painting of Shakuntala for Shakuntala herself, in this play Pururavas’ passion inspires his experience of her presence in every suggestion of her form around him.

 

CHARACTERS

Director: the play’s director, who appears only in the prologue
Marisha: an actor in the director’s troupe, who appears only in the prologue

Pururavas: King of Pratishthana
Manavaka: the play’s vidushaka (clown) character, a brahman advisor to the king
Latavya: the king’s chamberlain

Urvashi: a semi-divine dancer in the court of Indra, chief of the gods
Citralekha: semi-divine companion of Urvashi
Rambha: semi-divine companion of Urvashi
Menaka: semi-divine companion of Urvashi
Sahajanya: semi-divine companion of Urvashi

Ausinari: Pururavas’ first queen
Nipunika: attendant to Queen Ausinari

Pallava: a student-actor of Bharata, the acknowledged creator of theatre
Galava: a student-actor of Bharata, the acknowledged creator of theatre

Satyavati: hermit woman, enlisted to raise Prince Ayus
Ayus: Pururavas’ and Urvashi’s son

Narada: a divine sage

A Charioteer
A Huntress
A Bow-Bearer

Various Offstage Voices: including singers, a divine messenger, a sage, and a female servant

 

SUMMARY OF THE PLAY

Act One: In the prologue, the play’s director informs an actor that the troupe will perform a new play, and enjoins the audience to pay attention to this work by Kalidasa.  When shouts of alarm are heard from offstage, the director sees that Urvashi has been kidnapped by demons.  He rushes off.

Several nymphs appear in distress.  The tell King Pururavas that demons have carried off their friends Urvashi and Citralekha.  Pururavas rushes off in a chariot, rescues them, and brings them back.  Pururavas and Urvashi are smitten by each other.  Urvashi returns to Indra’s heavenly realm.

Act Two: The clownish brahman Manavaka accidently reveals to Nipunika, one of Queen Ausinari’s attendants, that the king has fallen for Urvashi.  King Pururavas and Manavaka go to a forest grove to pine.  Urvashi and Citralekha come upon the king and the brahman in the grove, and make themselves invisible in order to watch them, surreptitiously.  Still invisible, Urvashi drops a note written on tree bark near the king.  The note indicates her interest in him.  The king gives the letter to Manavaka’s care when Urvashi finally reveals herself.  Urvashi is called away to dance for Indra.  Manavaka drops the tree-bark letter.

Queen Ausinari finds the tree-bark letter.  She confronts Pururavas.  The queen leaves in a huff.

Act Three: In an interlude, Pallava and Galava report on Urvashi’s performance in a play produced by Bharata.  So distracted by her love for Pururavas, she accidentally spoke his name during the play.  Bharata expelled her from the heavenly realm, but Indra stepped in to ameliorate Bharata’s curse.  By Indra’s decree, Urvashi can stay on earth with Pururavas until he has a son.

Latavya reveals that the queen has proclaimed that she will undertake a ceremony for the king’s welfare.  The king and Manavaka go to the palace rooftop to join the queen for the ceremony.  Urvashi and Citralekha arrive, invisible, on the rooftop.  The queen arrives before Urvashi reveals herself.  The queen performs the ceremony and leaves.  Urvashi reveals herself.  Citralekha returns to the heavenly realm.  Urvashi and Pururavas moon over each other.

Act Four: In an interlude, Citralekha and Sahajanya discuss Pururavas and Urvashi.  They reveal that Pururavas looked at another woman.  In a tantrum, Urvashi unwittingly stepped into Kumara’s grove—forbidden to women—and was transformed immediately into a vine.

Pururavas goes mad in separation from Urvashi.  He wanders in the forest.  He fights imaginary demons.  He sees Urvashi in landforms and animals.  He stumbles across a curious, ruby-like stone.  A voice tells him the stone is special.  He keeps the stone and sees the vine.  Siezed by his mad desire, he clings to the vine, which transforms back into Urvashi.  She explains to him how she was transformed.

Act Five: A vulture steals the ruby-like stone from one of Urvashi’s attendants.  King Pururavas orders a hunt.  The chamberlain brings the vulture’s carcass, pierced by an arrow that is marked as belonging to Urvashi’s son.

Satyavati, a hermitess, appears with a boy, whom the king perceives must be his own son, though he doesn’t know how.  Satyavati reveals that the sage of the hermitage has expelled the boy for killing a vulture.  Urvashi arrives and acknowledges the boy as her own.  Urvashi then remembers that she must return to Indra, and explains that, given the curse she lives under, she hid the boy in order to prolong her time with the king.

Urvashi resolves to go.  Pururavas resolves to abandon the throne.  The divine sage Narada brings news that Indra has decided that Pururavas and Urvashi can live together.  Their son Ayus is crowned king.