Shakuntala (play)

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Abhijnanashakuntalam (Devanagari: अभिज्ञानशकुन्तलम्, IAST: Abhijñānaśākuntalam), also known as Shakuntala, The Recognition of Shakuntala, The Sign of Shakuntala, and many other variants, is a Sanskrit play by the ancient Indian poet Kālidāsa, dramatizing the story of Śakuntalā told in the epic Mahābhārata and regarded as best of Kālidāsa's works.[1] Its exact date is uncertain, but Kālidāsa is often placed in the 4th century CE.[2]

Śakuntalā Looking Back to Glimpse Duṣyanta, scene from Shakuntala painted by Raja Ravi Varma.

Origin of Kālidāsa's playEdit

Plots similar to the play appear in earlier texts. There is a story mentioned in the Mahābhārata. A story of similar plot appear in the buddhist Jātaka tales as well. In the Mahābhārata the story appears as a precursor to the Pāṇḍava and Kaurava lineages. In the story King Duṣyanta and Śakuntalā meet in the forest and get estranged and ultimately reunited. Their son Bharata is said to have laid the foundation of the dynasty that ultimately led to Kauravas and Pāṇḍavas.[3][4][5][6]


Manuscripts differ on what its exact title is. Usual variants are Abhijñānaśakuntalā, Abhijñānaśākuntala, Abhijñānaśakuntalam and the "grammatically indefensible" Abhijñānaśākuntalam.[7] The Sanskrit title means pertaining to the recognition of Shakuntala, so a literal translation could be Of Śakuntalā who is recognized. The title is sometimes translated as The token-for-recognition of Śakuntalā or The Sign of Śakuntalā.[citation needed] Titles of the play in published translations include Sacontalá or The Fatal Ring and Śakoontalá or The Lost Ring.[8][9] A more recent translation by Barbara Stoler Miller (1984) was entitled Sakuntala and the Ring of Recollection.


Crying of Shakuntala

The protagonist is Śakuntalā, daughter of the sage Viśvāmitra and the apsara Menakā. Abandoned at birth by her parents, Śakuntalā is reared in the secluded hermitage of the sage Kaṇva, and grows up a comely but innocent maiden.

While Kaṇva and the other elders of the hermitage are away on a pilgrimage, Duṣyanta, king of Hastināpura, comes hunting in the forest. Just as he was about to slay a deer, Vaikhānasa, a sage obstructs him saying that the deer was from the hermitage and must not be slayed. He politely requests the king to take his arrow back, to which the king complies. The sage then informs him that they are going to collect firewood for the sacrificial fire and asks him to join them. They then spot the hermitage of Sage Kaṇva and decide to pay the hermits a visit. However the king decides to go to this penance grove dressed up as a commoner. He also stops the chariot farther away to not disturb the hermits. The moment he enters the hermitage and spots Śakuntalā, he is captivated by her, courts her in royal style, and marries her. Soon, he has to leave to take care of affairs in the capital. The king gives her a ring which, as it turns out, will eventually have to be presented to him when she appears in his court to claim her place as queen.

One day, the anger-prone sage Durvāsa arrives when Śakuntala is lost in her thoughts, and when she fails to attend to him, he curses her by bewitching Duṣyanta into forgetting her existence. The only cure is for Śakuntala to show the king the signet ring that he gave her.

She later travels to meet him, and has to cross a river. The ring is lost when it slips off her hand as she dips it in the water playfully. On arrival the king is unable to recognize the person he married and therefore refuses to acknowledge her. Śakuntala is abandoned by her companions who declare that she should remain with her husband. They then return to the hermitage.

Fortunately, the ring is discovered by a fisherman in the belly of a fish, and presents it in the king's court. Duṣyanta realizes his mistake - too late. The newly wise Duṣyanta is asked to defeat an army of Asuras, and is rewarded by Indra with a journey through heaven. After returning to Earth years later, Duṣyanta finds Śakuntala and their son by chance, and recognizes them.

In other versions, especially the one found in the 'Mahābhārata', Śakuntala is not reunited until their son Bharata is born, and found by the king playing with lion cubs. Duṣyanta meets young Bharata and enquires about his parents, and finds out that Bharata is indeed his son. Bharata is an ancestor of the lineages of the Kauravas and Pāṇḍavas, who fought the epic war of the Mahābhārata. It is after this Bharata that India was given the name "Bhāratavarsha", the 'Land of Bharata'.[10]


By the 18th century, Western poets were beginning to get acquainted with works of Indian literature and philosophy.[citation needed] Shakuntala was the first Indian drama to be translated into a Western language, by Sir William Jones in 1789. In the next 100 years, there were at least 46 translations in twelve European languages.[11]

Sanskrit literatureEdit

Introduction in the WestEdit

Sacontalá or The Fatal Ring, Sir William Jones' translation of Kālidāsa's play, was first published in Calcutta, followed by European republications in 1790, 1792 and 1796.[8][12] A German (by Georg Forster) and a French version of Jones' translation were published in 1791 and 1803 respectively.[12][13][14] Goethe published an epigram about Shakuntala in 1791, and in his Faust he adopted a theatrical convention from the prologue of Kālidāsa's play.[12] Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel's plan to translate the work into German never materialised, but he did however publish a translation of the Mahābhārata version of Śakuntalā's story in 1808.[15] Goethe's epigram goes like this:[16]

Wilt thou the blossoms of spring and the fruits that are later in season,
Wilt thou have charms and delights, wilt thou have strength and support,
Wilt thou with one short word encompass the earth and the heaven,
All is said if I name only, [Shakuntala], thee.

Education in British IndiaEdit

Shakuntala was disapproved of as a text for school and college students in the British Raj in the 19th century, as popular Indian literature was deemed, in the words of Charles Trevelyan, to be "marked with the greatest immorality and impurity", and Indian students were thought by colonial administrators to be insufficiently morally and intellectually advanced to read the Indian texts that were taught and praised in Britain.[17]

Unfinished opera projectsEdit

When Leopold Schefer became a student of Antonio Salieri in September 1816, he had been working on an opera about Shakuntala for at least a decade, a project which he did however never complete.[18] Franz Schubert, who had been a student of Salieri until at least December of the same year, started composing his Sakuntala opera, D 701, in October 1820.[18][19] Johann Philipp Neumann based the libretto for this opera on Kālidāsa's play, which he probably knew through one or more of the three German translations that had been published by that time.[20] Schubert abandoned the work in April 1821 at the latest.[18] A short extract of the unfinished score was published in 1829.[20] Also Václav Tomášek left an incomplete Sakuntala opera.[21]

New adaptations and editionsEdit

Kālidāsa's Śakuntalā was the model for the libretto of Karl von Perfall [de]'s first opera, which premièred in 1853.[22] In 1853 Monier Monier-Williams published the Sanskrit text of the play.[23] Two years later he published an English translation of the play, under the title: Śakoontalá or The Lost Ring.[9] A ballet version of Kālidāsa's play, Sacountalâ, on a libretto by Théophile Gautier and with music by Ernest Reyer, was first performed in Paris in 1858.[21][24] A plot summary of the play was printed in the score edition of Karl Goldmark's Overture to Sakuntala, Op. 13 (1865).[21] Sigismund Bachrich composed a Sakuntala ballet in 1884.[21] Felix Weingartner's opera Sakuntala, with a libretto based on Kālidāsa's play, premièred the same year.[25] Also Philipp Scharwenka's Sakuntala, a choral work on a text by Carl Wittkowsky, was published in 1884.[26]

Bengali translations:[relevant?]

Tamil translations include:[relevant?]

Felix Woyrsch's incidental music for Kālidāsa's play, composed around 1886, is lost.[27] Ignacy Jan Paderewski would have composed a Shakuntala opera, on a libretto by Catulle Mendès, in the first decade of the 20th century: the work is however no longer listed as extant in overviews of the composer's or librettist's oeuvre.[28][29][30][31] Arthur W. Ryder published a new English translation of Shakuntala in 1912.[32] Two years later he collaborated to an English performance version of the play.[33]

Alfano's operaEdit

Italian Franco Alfano composed an opera, named La leggenda di Sakùntala (The legend of Sakùntala) in its first version (1921) and simply Sakùntala in its second version (1952).[34]

Further developmentsEdit

Chinese translation:[relevant?]

Fritz Racek's completion of Schubert's Sakontala was performed in Vienna in 1971.[20] Another completion of the opera, by Karl Aage Rasmussen, was published in 2005[35] and recorded in 2006.[19] A scenic performance of this version was premièred in 2010.[citation needed]

Norwegian electronic musician Amethystium wrote a song called "Garden of Sakuntala" which can be found on the CD Aphelion.[citation needed][relevant?] According to Philip Lutgendorf, the narrative of the movie Ram Teri Ganga Maili[when?] recapitulates the story of Shakuntala.[36][relevant?]

In Koodiyattam, the only surviving ancient Sanskrit theatre tradition, prominent in the state of Kerala on India, performances of Kālidāsa's plays are rare. However, legendary[peacock term] Kutiyattam artist and Natyashastra scholar Nātyāchārya Vidūshakaratnam Padma Shri Guru Māni Mādhava Chākyār has choreographed a Koodiyattam production of The Recognition of Sakuntala.[37]

A production directed by Tarek Iskander was mounted for a run at London's Union Theatre in January and February 2009.[citation needed] The play is also appearing on a Toronto stage for the first time as part of the Harbourfront World Stage program.[failed verification] An adaptation by the Magis Theatre Company [1][failed verification] featuring the music of Indian-American composer Rudresh Mahanthappa had its premiere at La MaMa E.T.C. in New York February 11–28, 2010.[citation needed]

Film adaptationsEdit

It is one of the few classical Sanskrit plays that have been adapted to the silver screen in India and of them the most adapted (another being the Mṛcchakatika by Śūdraka). These films mostly under the title of the heroine (Shakuntala) include ones in: 1920 by Suchet Singh, 1920 by Shree Nath Patankar, 1929 by Fatma Begum, 1931 by Mohan Dayaram Bhavnani, 1931 by J.J. Madan, 1932 by Sarvottam Badami, 1932 Hindi film, 1940 by Ellis Dungan, 1941 by Jyotish Bannerjee, 1943 by Shantaram Rajaram Vankudre, 1961 by Bhupen Hazarika, 1965 by Kunchacko, 1966 by Kamalakara Kameshwara Rao, and 2022 by Gunasekhar.[38][39] A television film, titled Shakuntalam, was an adaptation of the play by Indian theatre director Vijaya Mehta.[40]

Bharat Ek Khoj, a 1988 Indian historical drama television series by Shyam Benegal based on Jawaharlal Nehru's The Discovery of India (1946), included a two part adaptation of the play and Kalidasa's life which aired on DD National.[41] A television series adaptation of the same name was produced by Sagar Arts and aired on the Indian television channel Star One in 2009.[42]


  1. ^ Quinn, Edward (2014). Critical Companion to George Orwell. Infobase Publishing. p. 222. ISBN 978-1438108735.
  2. ^ Sheldon Pollock (ed., 2003) Literary Cultures in History: Reconstructions from South Asia, p.79
  3. ^ Debroy, B. (2015). The Mahabharata. Penguin Books Limited. p. 101. ISBN 978-81-8475-388-2. Retrieved 2019-07-26.
  4. ^ Satyamurti, C.; Doniger, W.; Dharwadker, V. (2015). Mahabharata: A Modern Retelling. W. W. Norton. p. 49. ISBN 978-0-393-24645-2. Retrieved 2019-07-26.
  5. ^ Automation, Bhaskar (2019-06-13). "महाभारत की शकुंतला और कालिदास के अभिज्ञान शाकुंतलम का किया चित्रण". Dainik Bhaskar (in Hindi). Retrieved 2019-07-26.
  6. ^ dasa, K.; Vasudeva, S. (2006). The Recognition of ShakÂœntala. Clay Sanskrit Library. NYU Press. pp. 20–21. ISBN 978-0-8147-8815-8. Retrieved 2019-07-26.
  7. ^ Stephan Hillyer Levitt (2005), "Why Are Sanskrit Play Titles Strange?" (PDF), Indologica Taurinensia: 195–232, archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-07-22
  8. ^ a b Jones 1789.
  9. ^ a b Monier-Williams 1855.
  10. ^ Apte, Vaman Shivaram (1959). "भरतः". Revised and enlarged edition of Prin. V. S. Apte's The practical Sanskrit-English dictionary. Poona: Prasad Prakashan.
  11. ^ Review of Figueira's Translating the Orient: The Reception of Sakuntala in Nineteenth-Century Europe at the complete review website.
  12. ^ a b c Evison 1998, pp. 132–135.
  13. ^ Jones 1791.
  14. ^ Jones 1803.
  15. ^ Figueira 1991, pp. 19–20.
  16. ^ Mueller, Max A History Of Ancient Sanskrit Literature
  17. ^ Viswanathan, Gauri (1989). Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India. Oxford University Press. pp. 5–6.
  18. ^ a b c Manuela Jahrmärker and Thomas Aigner (editors), Franz Schubert (composer) and Johann Philipp Neumann (librettist). Sacontala (NSE Series II Vol. 15). Bärenreiter, 2008, p. IX
  19. ^ a b Margarida Mota-Bull. Sakontala (8 june 2008) at
  20. ^ a b c Otto Erich Deutsch, with revisions by Werner Aderhold and others. Franz Schubert, thematisches Verzeichnis seiner Werke in chronologischer Folge. (New Schubert Edition Series VIII: Supplement, Vol. 4). Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1978. ISBN 9783761805718, pp. 411–413
  21. ^ a b c d Boston Symphony Orchestra Twenty-Third Season, 1903–1904: Programmepp. 125–128
  22. ^ Allgemeine Zeitung, No. 104 (Thursday 14 April 1853): p. 1662
  23. ^ Monier-Williams 1853.
  24. ^ Gautier 1858.
  25. ^ Hubbard, William Lines (1908). Operas, Vol. 2 in: The American History and Encyclopedia of Music. Irving Squire, p. 418
  26. ^ § "Works without Opus Number" of List of works by Philipp Scharwenka at IMSLP website
  27. ^ Felix Woyrsch – Werke at Pfohl-Woyrsch-Gesellschaft website
  28. ^ Riemann, Hugo (editor). Musik-Lexikon [wikisource:de], 7th edition. Leipzig: Hesse, 1909, p. 1037
  29. ^ List of works by Ignacy Jan Paderewski at IMSLP website
  30. ^ Małgorzata Perkowska. "List of Works by Ignacy Jan Paderewski" in Polish Music Journal, Vol. 4, No. 2, Winter 2001
  31. ^ Catulle Mendès at
  32. ^ Ryder 1912.
  33. ^ Holme & Ryder 1914.
  34. ^ Background to the opera from The Opera Critic on Retrieved 8 May 2013
  35. ^ Sakontala (score) at Edition Wilhelm Hansen website
  36. ^ Ram Teri Ganga Maili Archived 2011-12-28 at the Wayback Machine at Notes on Indian popular cinema by Philip Lutgendorf
  37. ^ Das Bhargavinilayam, Mani Madhaveeyam"Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2008-02-15. Retrieved 2008-02-15.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) (biography of Guru Mani Madhava Chakyar), Department of Cultural Affairs, Government of Kerala, 1999, ISBN 81-86365-78-8[failed verification]
  38. ^ Heidi R.M. Pauwels (17 December 2007). Indian Literature and Popular Cinema: Recasting Classics. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-134-06255-3.
  39. ^ "In pics: Samantha's stunning stills from the sets of 'Shakuntalam'". The News Minute. 2021-03-16. Retrieved 2021-03-19.
  40. ^ Sanjit Narwekar (1994). Directory of Indian Film-makers and Films. Flicks Books. p. 181. ISBN 978-0-948911-40-8.
  41. ^ "Bharat Ek Khoj | Episode-18 | Kalidasa, Part—I". Prasar Bharati Archives.
  42. ^ "Shakuntala in Gujarat". Telegraph India.


External linksEdit