Summary: Malavikagnimitra

This play may be an early work, preceding the poet’s better-known masterpiece Shakuntala.  Although Kalidasa’s plays, generally, are classified as natakas, this play is sometimes regarded as a prakarana.  The fine distinction rests in the protagonist, King Agnimitra.  While natakas necessarily concern heroically-historical characters, prakaranas concern themselves with purely fictional characters, and, unlike Shakuntala‘s King Duhshanta, who appears in the epic poem The Mahabharata, Malavikagnimitra‘s King Agnimitra does not have a heroic, mythic precedent.  The story of Malavikagnimitra, too, is invented, setting it apart from the stories of natakas, generally, which are not invented, but are borrowed and adapted from established historical and literary sources.  Besides, the protagonist king of Malavikagnimitra seems less heroic, more comical, than his counterparts in other Kalidasa plays.  Where Duhshanta, himself, fights demons and mad elephants during the action of Shakuntala, and King Pururavas personally (and single-handedly) rescues Urvashi from demons in Vikramorvashiya, Agnimitra, the hero of Malavikagnimitra, spends his time spying on Malavika through a cottage window while his generals are waging war on a neighboring state.

We find some themes and devices in this play that are common to Kalidasa’s dramatic work.  The lowly female protagonist turns out, in the end, to be royalty, after all.  The king frets over the resistance of the other women in his retinue to his interest in a new woman.  Kalidasa’s most compelling theme, the permeable line between representation and reality, also features prominently in Malavikagnimitra.  Kalidasa’s characters often mistake visual representations for the things they represent.  In Shakuntala, King Duhshanta regards a painting of Shakuntala as Shakuntala herself.  In Malavikagnimitra, the king’s interest in Malavika is first piqued by a painting of her, and, later in the play, Malavika becomes mesmerized by a painting of the king, to the extent that when the king, hiding outside the cottage window, speaks to her, she responds to the painting.

Somewhat unusual in this play are the women characters.  For one thing, between Dharini, Iravati, the nun, Malavika, the gardener, and several other attendants and retainers, there are more female characters in this play than in other plays.  Besides this, the female characters in this play are unusually self-possessed.  Iravati, for example, more than once in the play flies into a rage that terrifies everyone around her.  Until the very end of the play, Queen Dharini’s interests largely govern King Agnimitra’s behavior.  Most peculiar is the nun, who is one of the very few female characters in classical Sanskrit drama who speaks Sanskrit (as opposed to Prakrit).



Director: the director of the play, who appears only to introduce the play in the prologue
Assistant: the director’s assistant, who appears only in the prologue

Agnimitra: king of Vidisa
Gautama: the play’s vidushaka (clown), a brahman advisor to the king

Malavika: a slave-attendant to Queen Dharini

Dharini: Agnimitra’s first queen
Iravati: one of Agnimitra’s lesser queens
Nun: attendant to Queen Dharini (in actuality, named Kausiki)

Vahataka: Agnimitra’s chief minister
Maudgalya: Agnimitra’s chamberlain

Jayasena: one of Agnimitra’s female palace officers
Ganadasa: Malavika’s dance instructor, as employed by Queen Dharini
Haradatta: a second dance instructor, employed by King Agnimitra

Bakulavalika: Malavika’s friend
Kaumudika: attendant to Queen Dharini
Nipunika: attendant to Queen Iravati
Madhukarika: Agnimitra’s gardener
Samahitika: attendant to the nun

Jyotsnika: a singer, sent to Agnimitra
Rajanika: a singer, sent to Agnimitra

Sarasaka: male attendant to Queen Dharini



Act One: In a dramatic prologue, the director and his assistant argue over what play to present.  The director advocates presenting a new play by an unestablished poet named Kalidasa.

In conversation with each other, Kaumudika and Bakulavalika reveal that King Agnimitra has inquired after the girl Malavika, whom he happened to see in a painting of Queen Dharini and her retinue.  Malavika is a promising student of the dance teacher Ganadasa.

The king’s steward Vahataka informs the king that Vidarbha, a vassal king, has kidnapped the king’s own cousin, Prince Madhavasena, and demands that King Agnimitra release Vidarbha’s brother-in-law in exchange from Madhavasena.  King Agnimitra orders a military campaign against Vidarbha.

Gautama, a clownish, brahman advisor to the king, devises a plan to help Agnimitra get a look at the real Malavika, in spite of Queen Dharini.  Gautama stirs up a rivalry between the palace dance teachers, Ganadasa and Haradatta, and maneuvers to have the matter settled through a dance competition featuring their most promising students.  A nun in Queen Dharini’s retinue is enlisted as judge.

Act Two: Malavika competes for Ganadasa.  To the king, her performance insinuates her interest in him.  He postpones the second performance to the next day.  King Agnimitra enjoins Gautama to arrange a personal meeting between himself and Malavika.

Act Three: In an ‘interlude’, the nun’s attendant Samahitika and the gardener Madhukarika reveal that Malavika won the dance competition for her teacher Ganadasa.

King Agnimitra and Gautama come to the garden at Queen Dharini’s invitation.  As the king laments how miserable he is for Malavika, she comes to the garden to take Queen Dharini’s place in a ceremony related to a young ashoka tree.  The king and Gautama watch from hiding as Bakulavalika dresses Malavika for the ceremony.

Queen Iravati enters, drunk, and both surprised and vexed to find Malavika taking Queen Dharini’s place in the ceremony.  Surreptitiously, Iravati watches Malavika, unaware of King Agnimitra’s presence, as he is unaware of Iravati.  Unaware that anyone is spying on her, Malavika goes about the business of the ceremony.  When the king reveals himself, Iravati also bursts from hiding, shouting spitefully about what appears to be the king’s disrespect towards Queen Dharini (and towards Iravati, herself).  Malavika and Bakulavalika run away in fear.  The king protests that he was only passing time while waiting for Iravati, herself.  Iravati exits in a huff.

Act Four: Gautama reveals to Agnimistra that, upon learning what has happened in the garden, Queen Dharini has imprisoned Malavika.  Gautama develops a plan.  The king goes to Queen Dharini.  Gautama enters suddenly, shouting that he has been bitten by a snake.  Attendants carry Gautama off to a doctor, and a message comes back that the doctor requires an item on which is the image of a snake.  Queen Dharini sends her signet ring.  When the queen and her attendants have gone, Gautama returns to report that, showing the queen’s ring to her guards, he has had Malavika released.

The king goes to a cottage in the garden to meet Malavika.  He watches her through a window as she talks to a painting of him.  He joins her in the cottage and sets Gautama outside as a guard.  Gautama falls asleep.  Iravati and Nipunika enter.  Ever suspicious, they wake Gautama with a stick that looks like a snake.  Gautama shouts, the king comes running, and Iravati discovers the whole arrangement.  Iravati flies into a rage.

King Agnimitra and Gautama take advantage of news of a child frightened by a monkey to escape.  Iravati follows.  Left with Bakulavalika, Malavika feels hopeless.  Then, at the sound of the gardener’s voice, is hopeful again.

Act Five: Madhukarika, the gardener, and Sarasaka reveal that the king’s army has conquered Vidarbha and freed Madhuvasena.

The king and Gautama enter the garden to participate in another ashoka tree ceremony.  Gautama reports that he has heard that Queen Dharini has had Malavika dressed up in marriage ornaments for the ceremony.  Queen Dharini and attendants, including Malavika, arrive for the ceremony.

Maudgalya, the chamberlain, brings two girls, singers, sent as tribute by Vidarbha.  The girls identify Malavika as a princess.  Revealing herself as Kausiki, the wife of Sumati, one of Madhavasena’s ministers, the nun in Queen Dharini’s retinue tell the story: When Madhavasena was captured by Vidarbha, she and Sumati escaped with Madhavasena’s sister Malavika.  They joined a caravan bound for King Agnimitra’s lands.  Thieves scattered the caravan and killed Sumati.  Kausiki lost track of Malavika, dressed herself as a nun, and came to Agnimitra’s court to join Queen Dharini’s attendants.  When Malavika arrived in the palace, Kausiki did not reveal her identity because of a prophecy that Malavika would find a worthy husband after serving as a slave for a year.

The king receives a letter from his general Pushpamitra.  The letter reveals that a certain Vasumitra, who had been appointed to watch over a horse that had been turned loose to wander as part of a horse sacrifice, fought off a band of Greeks who tried to take the horse.

Queen Dharini sends word of Malavika’s royal identity to Iravati and then endorses a marriage between Agnimitra and Malavika.  Iravati sends back a conciliatory message.  Kausiki leaves to join Madhuvasena.