Malavika and Agnimitra is the earliest of Kalidasa’s three dramas, and probably his earliest work. This conclusion would be almost certain from the character of the play, but is put beyond doubt by the following speeches of the prologue:
Stage-director. The audience has asked us to present at this spring festival a drama called Malavika and Agnimitra, composed by Kalidasa. Let the music begin.
Assistant. No, no! Shall we neglect the works of such illustrious authors as Bhasa, Saumilla, and Kaviputra? Can the audience feel any respect for the work of a modern poet, a Kalidasa?
Stage-director. You are quite mistaken. Consider:
Not all is good that bears an ancient name,
Nor need we every modern poem blame:
Wise men approve the good, or new or old;
The foolish critic follows where he’s told.
Assistant. The responsibility rests with you, sir.
There is irony in the fact that the works of the illustrious authors mentioned have perished, that we should hardly know of their existence were it not for the tribute of their modest, youthful rival. But Kalidasa could not read the future. We can imagine his feelings of mingled pride and fear when his early work was presented at the spring festival before the court of King Vikramaditya, without doubt the most polished and critical audience that could at that hour have been gathered in any city on earth. The play which sought the approbation of this audience shows no originality of plot, no depth of passion. It is a light, graceful drama of court intrigue. The hero, King Agnimitra, is an historical character of the second century before Christ, and Kalidasa’s play gives us some information about him that history can seriously consider. The play represents Agnimitra’s father, the founder of the Sunga dynasty, as still living. As the seat of empire was in Patna on the Ganges, and as Agnimitra’s capital is Vidisha — the modern Bhilsa — it seems that he served as regent of certain provinces during his father’s lifetime. The war with the King of Vidarbha seems to be an historical occurrence, and the fight with the Greek cavalry force is an echo of the struggle with Menander, in which the Hindus were ultimately victorious. It was natural for Kalidasa to lay the scene of his play in Bhilsa rather than in the far-distant Patna, for it is probable that many in the audience were acquainted with the former city. It is to Bhilsa that the poet refers again in The Cloud-Messenger, where these words are addressed to the cloud:
At thine approach, Dasharna land is blest
With hedgerows where gay buds are all aglow,
With village trees alive with many a nest
Abuilding by the old familiar crow,
With lingering swans, with ripe rose-apples’ darker show.
There shalt thou see the royal city, known
Afar, and win the lover’s fee complete,
If thou subdue thy thunders to a tone
Of murmurous gentleness, and taste the sweet,
Love-rippling features of the river at thy feet.
Yet in Kalidasa’s day, the glories of the Sunga dynasty were long departed, nor can we see why the poet should have chosen his hero and his era as he did.
There follows an analysis of the plot and some slight criticism.
In addition to the stage-director and his assistant, who appear in the prologue, the characters of the play are these:
AGNIMITRA, king in Vidisha.
GAUTAMA, a clown, his friend.
DHARINI, the senior queen.
IRAVATI, the junior queen.
MALAVIKA, maid to Queen Dharini, later discovered to be a princess.
KAUSHIKI, a Buddhist nun.
BAKULAVALIKA, a maid, friend of Malavika.
NIPUNIKA, maid to Queen Iravati.
A counsellor, a chamberlain, a humpback, two court poets, maids, and mute attendants.
The scene is the palace and gardens of King Agnimitra, the time a few days.
ACT I. — After the usual prologue, the maid Bakulavalika appears with another maid. From their conversation we learn that King Agnimitra has seen in the palace picture-gallery a new painting of Queen Dharini with her attendants. So beautiful is one of these, Malavika, that the king is smitten with love, but is prevented by the jealous queen from viewing the original. At this point the dancing-master Ganadasa enters. From him Bakulavalika learns that Malavika is a wonderfully proficient pupil, while he learns from her that Malavika had been sent as a present to Queen Dharini by a general commanding a border fortress, the queen’s brother.
After this introductory scene, the king enters, and listens to a letter sent by the king of Vidarbha. The rival monarch had imprisoned a prince and princess, cousins of Agnimitra, and in response to Agnimitra’s demand that they be set free, he declares that the princess has escaped, but that the prince shall not be liberated except on certain conditions. This letter so angers Agnimitra that he despatches an army against the king of Vidarbha.
Gautama, the clown, informs Agnimitra that he has devised a plan for bringing Malavika into the king’s presence. He has stirred an envious rivalry in the bosoms of the two dancing-masters, who soon appear, each abusing the other vigorously, and claiming for himself the pre-eminence in their art. It is agreed that each shall exhibit his best pupil before the king, Queen Dharini, and the learned Buddhist nun, Kaushiki. The nun, who is in the secret of the king’s desire, is made mistress of ceremonies, and the queen’s jealous opposition is overborne.
ACT II. — The scene is laid in the concert-hall of the palace. The nun determines that Ganadasa shall present his pupil first. Malavika is thereupon introduced, dances, and sings a song which pretty plainly indicates her own love for the king. He is in turn quite ravished, finding her far more beautiful even than the picture. The clown manages to detain her some little time by starting a discussion as to her art, and when she is finally permitted to depart, both she and the king are deeply in love. The court poet announces the noon hour, and the exhibition of the other dancing-master is postponed.
ACT III. — The scene is laid in the palace garden. From the conversation of two maids it appears that a favourite ashoka-tree is late in blossoming. This kind of tree, so the belief runs, can be induced to put forth blossoms if touched by the foot of a beautiful woman in splendid garments.
When the girls depart, the king enters with the clown, his confidant. The clown, after listening to the king’s lovelorn confidences, reminds him that he has agreed to meet his young Queen Iravati in the garden, and swing with her. But before the queen’s arrival, Malavika enters, sent thither by Dharini to touch the ashoka-tree with her foot, and thus encourage it to blossom. The king and the clown hide in a thicket, to feast their eyes upon her. Presently the maid Bakulavalika appears, to adorn Malavika for the ceremony, and engages her in conversation about the king. But now a third pair enter, the young Queen Iravati, somewhat flushed with wine, and her maid Nipunika. They also conceal themselves to spy upon the young girls. Thus there are three groups upon the stage: the two girls believe themselves to be alone; the king and the clown are aware of the two girls, as are also the queen and her maid; but neither of these two pairs knows of the presence of the other. This situation gives rise to very entertaining dialogue, which changes its character when the king starts forward to express his love for Malavika. Another sudden change is brought about when Iravati, mad with jealousy, joins the group, sends the two girls away, and berates the king. He excuses himself as earnestly as a man may when caught in such a predicament, but cannot appease the young queen, who leaves him with words of bitter jealousy.
ACT IV. — The clown informs the king that Queen Dharini has locked Malavika and her friend in the cellar, and has given orders to the doorkeeper that they are to be released only upon presentation of her own signet-ring, engraved with the figure of a serpent. But he declares that he has devised a plan to set them free. He bids the king wait upon Queen Dharini, and presently rushes into their presence, showing his thumb marked with two scratches, and declaring that he has been bitten by a cobra. Imploring the king to care for his childless mother, he awakens genuine sympathy in the queen, who readily parts with her serpent-ring, supposed to be efficacious in charming away the effects of snake-poison. Needless to say, he uses the ring to procure the freedom of Malavika and her friend, and then brings about a meeting with Agnimitra in the summer-house. The love-scene which follows is again interrupted by Queen Iravati. This time the king is saved by the news that his little daughter has been frightened by a yellow monkey, and will be comforted only by him. The act ends with the announcement that the ashoka-tree has blossomed.
ACT V. — It now appears that Queen Dharini has relented and is willing to unite Malavika with the king; for she invites him to meet her under the ashoka-tree, and includes Malavika among her attendants. Word is brought that the army despatched against the king of Vidarbha has been completely successful, and that in the spoil are included two maids with remarkable powers of song. These maids are brought before the company gathered at the tree, where they surprise every one by falling on their faces before Malavika with the exclamation, “Our princess!” Here the Buddhist nun takes up the tale. She tells how her brother, the counsellor of the captive prince, had rescued her and Malavika from the king of Vidarbha, and had started for Agnimitra’s court.
On the way they had been overpowered by robbers, her brother killed, and she herself separated from Malavika. She had thereupon become a nun and made her way to Agnimitra’s court, and had there found Malavika, who had been taken from the robbers by Agnimitra’s general and sent as a present to Queen Dharini. She had not divulged the matter sooner, because of a prophecy that Malavika should be a servant for just one year before becoming a king’s bride. This recital removes any possible objection to a union of Malavika and Agnimitra. To complete the king’s happiness, there comes a letter announcing that his son by Dharini has won a victory over a force of Greek cavalry, and inviting the court to be present at the sacrifice which was to follow the victory. Thus every one is made happy except the jealous young Queen Iravati, now to be supplanted by Malavika; yet even she consents, though somewhat ungraciously, to the arrangements made.
Criticism of the large outlines of this plot would be quite unjust, for it is completely conventional. In dozens of plays we have the same story: the king who falls in love with a maid-servant, the jealousy of his harem, the eventual discovery that the maid is of royal birth, and the addition of another wife to a number already sufficiently large. In writing a play of this kind, the poet frankly accepts the conventions; his ingenuity is shown in the minor incidents, in stanzas of poetical description, and in giving abundant opportunity for graceful music and dancing. When the play is approached in this way, it is easy to see the griffe du lion in this, the earliest work of the greatest poet who ever sang repeatedly of love between man and woman, troubled for a time but eventually happy. For though there is in Agnimitra, as in all heroes of his type, something contemptible, there is in Malavika a sweetness, a delicacy, a purity, that make her no unworthy precursor of Sita, of Indumati, of the Yaksha’s bride, and of Shakuntala.
The second of the two inferior dramas may be conveniently called Urvashi, though the full title is The Tale of Urvashi won by Valour. When and where the play was first produced we do not know, for the prologue is silent as to these matters. It has been thought that it was the last work of Kalidasa, even that it was never produced in his lifetime. Some support is lent to this theory by the fact that the play is filled with reminiscences of Shakuntala, in small matters as well as in great; as if the poet’s imagination had grown weary, and he were willing to repeat himself. Yet Urvashi is a much more ambitious effort than Malavika, and invites a fuller criticism, after an outline of the plot has been given.
In addition to the stage-director and his assistant, who appear in the prologue, the characters of the play are these:
PURURAVAS, king in Pratishthana on the Ganges.
AYUS, his son.
MANAVAKA, a clown, his friend.
URVASHI, a heavenly nymph.
CHITRALEKHA, another nymph, her friend.
AUSHINARI, queen of Pururavas.
NIPUNIKA, her maid.
A charioteer, a chamberlain, a hermit-woman, various nymphs and other divine beings, and attendants.
The scene shifts as indicated in the following analysis. The time of the first four acts is a few days. Between acts four and five several years elapse.
ACT I. — The prologue only tells us that we may expect a new play of Kalidasa. A company of heavenly nymphs then appear upon Mount Gold-peak wailing and calling for help. Their cries are answered by King Pururavas, who rides in a chariot that flies through the air. In response to his inquiries, the nymphs inform him that two of their number, Urvashi and Chitralekha, have been carried into captivity by a demon. The king darts in pursuit, and presently returns, victorious, with the two nymphs. As soon as Urvashi recovers consciousness, and has rejoined her joyful friends, it is made plain that she and the king have been deeply impressed with each other’s attractions. The king is compelled to decline an invitation to visit Paradise, but he and Urvashi exchange loving glances before they part.
ACT II. — The act opens with a comic scene in the king’s palace. The clown appears, bursting with the secret of the king’s love for Urvashi, which has been confided to him. He is joined by the maid Nipunika, commissioned by the queen to discover what it is that occupies the king’s mind. She discovers the secret ingeniously, but without much difficulty, and gleefully departs.
The king and the clown then appear in the garden, and the king expresses at some length the depth and seeming hopelessness of his passion. The latter part of his lament is overheard by Urvashi herself, who, impelled by love for the king, has come down to earth with her friend Chitralekha, and now stands near, listening but invisible. When she has heard enough to satisfy her of the king’s passion, she writes a love-stanza on a birch-leaf, and lets it fall before him. His reception of this token is such that Urvashi throws aside the magic veil that renders her invisible, but as soon as she has greeted the king, she and her friend are called away to take their parts in a play that is being presented in Paradise.
The king and the clown hunt for Urvashi’s love-letter, which has been neglected during the past few minutes. But the leaf has blown away, only to be picked up and read by Nipunika, who at that moment enters with the queen. The queen can hardly be deceived by the lame excuses which the king makes, and after offering her ironical congratulations, jealously leaves him.
ACT III. — The act opens with a conversation between two minor personages in Paradise. It appears that Urvashi had taken the heroine’s part in the drama just presented there, and when asked, “On whom is your heart set?” had absentmindedly replied, “On Pururavas.” Heaven’s stage-director had thereupon cursed her to fall from Paradise, but this curse had been thus modified: that she was to live on earth with Pururavas until he should see a child born of her, and was then to return.
The scene shifts to Pururavas’ palace. In the early evening, the chamberlain brings the king a message, inviting him to meet the queen on a balcony bathed in the light of the rising moon. The king betakes himself thither with his friend, the clown. In the midst of a dialogue concerning moonlight and love, Urvashi and Chitralekha enter from Paradise, wearing as before veils of invisibility. Presently the queen appears and with humble dignity asks pardon of the king for her rudeness, adding that she will welcome any new queen whom he genuinely loves and who genuinely returns his love. When the queen departs, Urvashi creeps up behind the king and puts her hands over his eyes. Chitralekha departs after begging the king to make her friend forget Paradise.
ACT IV. — From a short dialogue in Paradise between Chitralekha and another nymph, we learn that a misfortune has befallen Pururavas and Urvashi. During their honeymoon in a delightful Himalayan forest, Urvashi, in a fit of jealousy, had left her husband, and had inadvertently entered a grove forbidden by an austere god to women. She was straightway transformed into a vine, while Pururavas is wandering through the forest in desolate anguish.
The scene of what follows is laid in the Himalayan forest. Pururavas enters, and in a long poetical soliloquy bewails his loss and seeks for traces of Urvashi. He vainly asks help of the creatures whom he meets: a peacock, a cuckoo, a swan, a ruddy goose, a bee, an elephant, a mountain-echo, a river, and an antelope. At last he finds a brilliant ruby in a cleft of the rocks, and when about to throw it away, is told by a hermit to preserve it: for this is the gem of reunion, and one who possesses it will soon be reunited with his love. With the gem in his hand, Pururavas comes to a vine which mysteriously reminds him of Urvashi, and when he embraces it, he finds his beloved in his arms. After she has explained to him the reason of her transformation, they determine to return to the king’s capital.
ACT V. — The scene of the concluding act is the king’s palace. Several years have passed in happy love, and Pururavas has only one sorrow — that he is childless.
One day a vulture snatches from a maid’s hand the treasured gem of reunion, which he takes to be a bit of bloody meat, and flies off with it, escaping before he can be killed. While the king and his companions lament the gem’s loss, the chamberlain enters, bringing the gem and an arrow with which the bird had been shot. On the arrow is written a verse declaring it to be the property of Ayus, son of Pururavas and Urvashi. A hermit-woman is then ushered in, who brings a lad with her. She explains that the lad had been entrusted to her as soon as born by Urvashi, and that it was he who had just shot the bird and recovered the gem. When Urvashi is summoned to explain why she had concealed her child, she reminds the king of heaven’s decree that she should return as soon as Pururavas should see the child to be born to them. She had therefore sacrificed maternal love to conjugal affection. Upon this, the king’s new-found joy gives way to gloom. He determines to give up his kingdom and spend the remainder of his life as a hermit in the forest. But the situation is saved by a messenger from Paradise, bearing heaven’s decree that Urvashi shall live with the king until his death. A troop of nymphs then enter and assist in the solemn consecration of Ayus as crown prince.
The tale of Pururavas and Urvashi, which Kalidasa has treated dramatically, is first made known to us in the Rigveda. It is thus one of the few tales that so caught the Hindu imagination as to survive the profound change which came over Indian thinking in the passage from Vedic to classical times. As might be expected from its history, it is told in many widely differing forms, of which the oldest and best may be summarised thus.
Pururavas, a mortal, sees and loves the nymph Urvashi. She consents to live with him on earth so long as he shall not break certain trivial conditions. Some time after the birth of a son, these conditions are broken, through no fault of the man, and she leaves him. He wanders disconsolate, finds her, and pleads with her, by her duty as a wife, by her love for her child, even by a threat of suicide. She rejects his entreaties, declaring that there can be no lasting love between mortal and immortal, even adding: “There are no friendships with women. Their hearts are the hearts of hyenas.” Though at last she comforts him with vague hopes of a future happiness, the story remains, as indeed it must remain, a tragedy — the tragedy of love between human and divine.
This splendid tragic story Kalidasa has ruined. He has made of it an ordinary tale of domestic intrigue, has changed the nymph of heaven into a member of an earthly harem. The more important changes made by Kalidasa in the traditional story, all have the tendency to remove the massive, godlike, austere features of the tale, and to substitute something graceful or even pretty. These principal changes are: the introduction of the queen, the clown, and the whole human paraphernalia of a court; the curse pronounced on Urvashi for her carelessness in the heavenly drama, and its modification; the invention of the gem of reunion; and the final removal of the curse, even as modified. It is true that the Indian theatre permits no tragedy, and we may well believe that no successor of Kalidasa could hope to present a tragedy on the stage. But might not Kalidasa, far overtopping his predecessors, have put on the stage a drama the story of which was already familiar to his audience as a tragic story? Perhaps not. If not, one can but wish that he had chosen another subject.
This violent twisting of an essentially tragic story has had a further ill consequence in weakening the individual characters. Pururavas is a mere conventional hero, in no way different from fifty others, in spite of his divine lineage and his successful wooing of a goddess. Urvashi is too much of a nymph to be a woman, and too much of a woman to be a nymph. The other characters are mere types.
Yet, in spite of these obvious objections, Hindu critical opinion has always rated the Urvashi very high, and I have long hesitated to make adverse comments upon it, for it is surely true that every nation is the best judge of its own literature. And indeed, if one could but forget plot and characters, he would find in Urvashi much to attract and charm. There is no lack of humour in the clever maid who worms the clown’s secret out of him. There is no lack of a certain shrewdness in the clown, as when he observes:
“Who wants heaven? It is nothing to eat or drink. It is just a place where they never shut their eyes — like fishes!”
Again, the play offers an opportunity for charming scenic display. The terrified nymphs gathered on the mountain, the palace balcony bathed in moonlight, the forest through which the king wanders in search of his lost darling, the concluding solemn consecration of the crown prince by heavenly beings — these scenes show that Kalidasa was no closet dramatist. And finally, there is here and there such poetry as only Kalidasa could write. The fourth act particularly, undramatic as it is, is full of a delicate beauty that defies transcription. It was a new and daring thought — to present on the stage a long lyrical monologue addressed to the creatures of the forest and inspired by despairing passion. Nor must it be forgotten that this play, like all Indian plays, is an opera. The music and the dancing are lost. We judge it perforce unfairly, for we judge it by the text alone. If, in spite of all, the Urvashi is a failure, it is a failure possible only to a serene and mighty poet.