It takes courage, the courage of conviction, to translate yet again an iconic text such as Kalidasa’s Meghadutam, one of the most widely translated Indian texts over the last two centuries. And that is just what Srinivas Reddy has done. All translation is sweat; but the translation of classics is sweat and blood. And considering how translations are routinely undermined, kudos to Reddy on the effort.
Kalidasa’s Meghadutam, which tells the tale of an exiled yaksha who entreats a cloud to carry a message to his beloved, remains unsurpassed in its poetic power and lyrical grace. In fact, this masterpiece, which acknowledges its lineage to Valmiki’s text wherein Hanuman is the messenger, initiated an entire tradition of duta-kavya (courier poems) in Sanskrit and other languages.
Titled The Cloud Messenger, this 2017 translation published by Penguin, joins a long list of retellings in various languages, genres, and styles. Reddy’s translation, based on Kale’s 1969 edition of the Sanskrit text, presents Kalidasa’s lyrical treat of a poem with 111 verses, in two parts: Journey and Message. With the express purpose of offering the poem as a delectable poetic experience rather than a dry, scholarly exercise in epistemology, the translation highlights the literary rather than the literal. Given the impossibility of translating the quantitatively fixed patterns of Sanskrit into fluid English verse, Reddy has chosen a verse form of eight lines to represent the four-line verse in the Mandakranta metre in Sanskrit. In keeping with his intent of foregrounding the literary, the translator has not provided any explanatory notes or used diacritics within the body of the text; however, the translated text provides an extensive, 10-page glossary of 102 items! It is strange that the translator’s name does not figure on the cover page—a small but important act of omission in this day and age when the translator’s invisibility in public culture is being stoutly resisted.
Let me quote the very last verse to show how the eight-line structure works in the translation:
O great cloud, though I was wrong to even
you gladly did this for me
Out of friendship, or may be out of
for you could feel my pain.
Now roam wherever you please in your
And may you not suffer even one moment
from the light of your life. (Canto 2: verse 55)
It is interesting that while other translations have used the word ‘lightning’ based on the Sanskrit original, Reddy has used his translatory licence to improvise it to ‘the light of your life’, when he refers to the cloud’s beloved. And why not?
So what is the conviction that has impelled this translation? Quoting the well-known poet, Vishwanatha Satyanarayana, who re-created the Valmiki epic in Telugu and wrote, “I worship the same Rama as everyone else/ but the devotion in my poetry is my own,” Reddy makes the valid claim that refashioning a text is a deeply personal and subjective expression. He writes, “… the translation of Sanskrit literature into English has almost exclusively remained in the realm of academia. And while this long engagement has produced some superb scholarship, the fact that we are dealing with literature, with poetry of the highest order, has been deplorably neglected. Literality and accuracy have remained the twin foci of most such translations, while literariness and emotive depth have fallen by the wayside, leaving us with a poetically impoverished body of translations from one of the richest canons of world literature.”
Chandra Rajan, who has also extensively translated Kalidasa’s oeuvre including Meghadutam, argues in the preface that because his poetry is stylised, the translation, to be faithful, also has to be stylised, and yet be readable, wherein readability is not coterminous with contemporaneity. When I compare the following verse in Reddy’s rendition with the original and with seven other translations, two Indian and five Western, I see that it may have gained in readability of a kind; however, it seems to have lost out on the text’s style, its deliberate craftsmanship—a hallmark of Kalidasa’s poetry. Compare the two versions of the following stanza, utterly crucial to the message carried by the cloud:
Both bodies frail and fragile, burning within
with an inner fire,
Wet with tears and sighs of sorrow, and filled
with lust and longing.
But he’s worse off than you, being so far away,
his way being barred
By fate, and so he endeavours to enter
your heart through his imagination.
(Reddy: Canto 2: v 42)
Far off, his way barred by adverse decree,
in his imaginings
His body becomes one with your body;
thin with thin,
anguished with intensely anguished,
tear-drowned with tear-drenched
yearning with endlessly yearning,
your hotly-sighing body
with his racked by long drawn-out sighs.
(Meghadutam, v 101, 1989, Penguin)
Reddy’s version is readable as it is not obscure or convoluted; there is an easy informality here. But this readability comes at a cost—it misses out on the rich tonality, compression, physicality, and poetic energy of the original verse. This further raises the question, ‘Doesn’t the literary inhere in the literal?’
Reddy’s perspective also raises some important issues. First of all, his evaluation of translations into English over two centuries and more seems too dismissive and overgeneralised. His stand that explanatory notes mar the ‘literariness’ of a classical text is problematic. These explanations are essential for understanding the mythological, metaphorical, and literary allusions in their cultural context, which makes for multiple readings of the text. If a classic cannot be savoured in all its depth and reach, are we not losing out on tasting its full flavour?
David Damrosch, teacher and scholar of world literature in Columbia University, has an illuminating essay (2008) on reading classics, exemplified through a reading of Meghadutam. Damrosch points to the historical context of the translator and the reader as a shaping influence in reading a translated work—using H.H. Wilson’s Neoclassical, Leonard Nathan’s New Critical, his own Deconstructionist, and Abhinavagupta’s Rasadhvani theoretical frameworks. While admitting the possibility that the foreign text may affect us deeply even on an uninformed reading, Damrosch argues that “It is not ideal for us to rest forever in a random, half-assimilated state of ignorance, and the Meghaduta’s reader can certainly benefit from greater exposure to Kalidasa’s home culture... Our encounter with the new—and with the radically old—poses challenges to what we think we know, offering us new possibilities that neither we nor Kalidasa would have experienced on our own. Our readings, and the Meghaduta itself, have a great deal to gain in translation.” Thus, we cannot wish away context—social, cultural, and literary—as an important carrier of meaning in reading any text, more so in reading classics which come to us from far away times and rhymes.
By way of an unfair comparison, let me share the story of yet another Meghadutam translation (1943), by a Kannada poet, the peerless D.R. Bendre, more for his brilliant metaphor for imaging translation. Kannada culture has justly celebrated Bendre by describing him as ‘the good fortune of the earth’. While there have been other Kannada translations of the text before and after, it is Bendre’s bhāvānuvāda (re-creation of the emotive impact of the kavya) that has been considered a fitting tribute from a varakavi (gifted poet) to a kavikula guru (teacher to the clan of poets). Bendre has translated the text using a four-line, desi metre, imbuing the text with the rhythm, rhyme (the AABB end rhyme typical of Kannada), idiom, and sensibility of Kannada. For a consummate poet like Bendre, translation was an erotic relationship between the author who offers his poetic talent and the translator who has the sensibility to receive it, as articulated in a prefatory verse to his text:
A bee savouring bhāva, I avidly fed on the
Its petal-words may come drifting to fill my
The lovers’ embrace may slacken even in
that wet, exquisite form;
The life-infusing drink from those lips,
would it trickle down to the womb? (tr: VV)
This extended metaphor should give us some sense of what it takes to translate the ‘literary’, to create a new text in another tongue that resonates with the expressive rhythms of Kalidasa’s poetry. That said, how can we possibly allow millenial happenings like Bendre to cramp our style? So we shall translate—to express our ‘devotion’, to s(tr)ing one more raga in the raagamalika of Meghadutam translations.
The writer is a visiting professor at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.
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KALIDASA, (kaalidaasa), India’s greatest Sanskrit poet and dramatist. In spite of the celebrity of his name, the time when he flourished always has been an unsettled question, although most scholars nowadays favor the middle of the 4th and early 5th centuries A.D., during the reigns of Chandragupta II Vikramaaditya and his successor Kumaaragupta. Undetermined also is the place of Kaalidaasa’s principal literary activity, as the frequent and minute geographic allusions in his works suggest that he traveled extensively.
Numerous works have been attributed to his authorship. Most of them, however, are either by lesser poets bearing the same name or by others of some intrinsic worth, whose works simply chanced to be associated with Kaalidaasa’s name their own names having long before ceased to be remembered. Only seven are generally considered genuine.
Kalidasa’s Life Time: There are eight hypothesis about his lifetime. The main logics, ecidences are as follows:
1. 6th century AD, Yashodharman defeated Mihirkul of HooN clan. Dr. Harnely says this Yashodharman is kalidas’s Vikramaaditya. Flaw: Y. never tok the title of Vikramaaditya
2. Fargusen says that 6th century AD, there was a king Vikramaaditya in Ujjayini (present day Ujjain). he defeated Shakas, started `Vikram-samvat’ calendar, starting it 600 years back 57BC. Prof. Max Muller basing on this said that Kalidasa was in the court of this Vikram. Flaw: There was no king by name VIkramaaditya in 600 AD in India. `Vikram-samvat’ calendar was in vogue since 1st century BC as `maalav-samvat’. This is clear from `mandasor’ `shilaalekha’ (stone writings) of VatsabhaTTi.
3. Kalidasa was familiar with Greek astronomy, using words like `jaamitra’. Greek astronomy/geometry was popularised by AryabhaTTa who was in 5th century AD. SO, Kalidasa was in 6th AD onwards. Dr McDonald refutes this saying `Romaka-siddhaanta’ was prevalant before AryabhaTTa, so he didn’t popularise Greek astronomy.
4. Mallinaath (the most famous commentrator on Kalidasa) gives two meanings to Meghadoot’s 14th verse. He says that `dinnaaga’ and `nichula’ words refer to Buddhist philosophers `dinnaaga’. Based on this some scholars put kalidasa in 6th century AD `coz kalidasa’s contemporary `dinnaaga’ was disciple of Vasubandhu who was in 6th century AD. Flaw: Vasubandhu was apparently in 400 AD `coz his books were translated in Chinese around 475-525 AD.
Finally this is what can be said about his lifetime: Kalidasa in his drama `Malvikaa-agni-mitra’ makes Agni-mitra his hero, who was the son of Pushamitra Shunga who was in 2nd century BC. This is his upper bound. Banabhatta in the preface of his Kadambari mentions Kalidasa. Banabhatta was in early 7th century AD. This is Kalidasa’s lower bound.
Kalidasa’s Life: Many tell tales are there for his life. Some call him native of Kashmir, some of Vidarbh, some of Bengal and others of Ujjain. It is said that he was a dumb fool to start with. The king’s daughter was a very learned lady and said that she will marry him who will defeat her in `shaastraartha’ (debate on the scriptures). Anyone who gets defeated will be black faced, head shaven and kicked out of country on a donkey. (The punishment part might be later aditions!) SO, the pundits took Kalidasa (whom they apparently saw cutting the tree branch on which he was sitting) for debate. They said that he (Kalidasa) only does mute debates. The princess showed him one finger saying `shakti is one’. He thot she will poke his one eye, so he showed her two fingers. She accepted it as valid answer, since `shakti’ is manifest in duality (shiv-shakti, nar-naaree etc etc). She showed her the palm with fingers extended like in a slap. He showed her the fist. She accepted it as answer to her question. She said `five elements’ and he said `make the body’ (earth, water, fire, air, and void). [ The debate explanations are also apparently later additions] So they get married and she finds he is a dumbo. So she kicks him out of the house. He straightaway went to Kali’s temple and cut his tongue at her feet. Kali was appeased with him and granted him profound wisdom. When he returned to his house, his wife (the learned) asked, “asti kashchit vaag-visheshaH” (asti = is; kashchit = when, as in questioning; vaag = speech, visheshaH = expert; i.e. “are you now an expert in speaking”).
And the great Kalidasa wrote three books starting with the 3 words:
with asti = asti-uttarasyaam dishi = Kumara-sambhavam (epic)
with kashchit = kashchit-kaantaa = Meghdoot (poetry)
with vaag = vaagarthaaviva = Raghuvansha (epic)
Another story says that he was the friend of Kumardas of Ceylon. He was killed by a courtesan once when he visited his friend in Ceylon.
(Courtesy: Shashikanth Joshi)
Works of Kalidasa:
Plays – There are three plays, the earliest of which is probably the Malavikaagnimitra ( Malavikaa and Agnimitra), a work concerned with palace intrigue. It is of special interest because the hero is a historical figure, King Agnimitra, whose father, Pushhpamitra, wrested the kingship of northern India from the Mauryan king Brihadratha about 185 B.C. and established the Sunga dvnasty, which held power for more than a century. The Vikramorvashiiya ( Urvashii Won Through Valor) is based on the old legend of the love of the mortal Pururavaas for the heavenly damsel Urvashii. The legend occurs in embryonic form in a hymn of the Rig Veda and in a much amplified version in the ShatapathabraahmaNa.
The third play, AbhiGYaanashaakuntala ( Shakuntalaa Recognized by the Token Ring), is the work by which Kaalidaasa is best known not only in India but throughout the world. It was the first work of Kaalidaasa to be translated into English from which was made a German translation in 1791 that evoked the often quoted admiration by Goethe. The raw material for this play, which usually is called in English simply Shaakuntala after the name of the heroine, is contained in the Mahaabhaarata and in similar form also in the PadmapuraaNa, but these versions seem crude and primitive when compared with Kaalidaasa’s polished and refined treatment of the story. In bare outline the story of the play is as follows: King Dushhyanta, while on a hunting expedition, meets the hermit-girl Shakuntalaa, whom he marries in the hermitage by a ceremony of mutual consent. Obliged by affairs of state to return to his palace, he gives Shakuntalaa his signet ring, promising to send for her later. But when Shakuntalaa comes to the court for their reunion, pregnant with his child, Dushhyanta fails to acknowledge her as his wife because of a curse. The spell is subsequently broken by the discovery of the ring, which Shakuntalaa had lost on her way to the court. The couple are later reunited, and all ends happily.
The influence of the AbhiGYaanashaakuntala outside India is evident not only in the abundance of translations in many languages, but also in its adaptation to the operatic stage by Paderewski, Weinggartner, and Alfano.
Poems – In addition to these three plays Kalidaaa wrote two long epic poems, the Kumarasambhava ( Birth of Kumara) and the Raghuvamsha ( Dynasty of Raghu). The former is concerned with the events that lead to the marriage of the god Shiva and Paarvatii, daughter of the Himalayas. This union was desired by the gods for the production of a son, Kumara, god of war, who would help them defeat the demon Taraka. The gods induce Kama, god of love, to discharge an amatory arrow at Siva who is engrossed in meditation. Angered by this interruption of his austerities, he burns Kama to ashes with a glance of his third eye. But love for Paarvatii has been aroused, and it culminates in their marriage.
The Raghuvamsha treats of the family to which the great hero Rama belonged, commencing with its earliest antecedents and encapsulating the principal events told in the Raamaayana of Valmiki. But like the Kumarasambhava, the last nine cantos of which are clearly the addition of another poet, the Raghuvamsha ends rather abruptly, suggesting either that it was left unfinished by the poet or that its final portion was lost early.
Finally there are two lyric poems, the Meghaduta ( Cloud Messenger) and the Ritusamhara ( Description of the Seasons). The latter, if at all a genuine work of Kalidasa, must surely be regarded as a youthful composition, as it is distinguished by rather exaggerated and overly exuberant depictions of nature, such as are not elsewhere typical of the poet. It is of tangential interest, however, that the Ritusamhara, published in Bengal in 1792, was the first book to be printed in Sanskrit.
On the other hand, the Meghaduta, until the 1960’s hardly known outside India, is in many ways the finest and most perfect of all Kalidasa’s works and certainly one of the masterpiece of world literature. A short poem of 111 stanzas, it is founded at once upon the barest and yet most original of plots. For some unexplained dereliction of duty, a Yaksha, or attendant of Kubera, god of wealth, has been sent by his lord into yearlong exile in the mountains of central India, far away from his beloved wife on Mount Kaildasa in the Himalayas. At the opening of the poem, particularly distraught and hapless at the onset of the rains when the sky is dark and gloomy with clouds, the yaksa opens his heart to a cloud hugging close the mountain top. He requests it mere aggregation of smoke, lightning, water, and wind that it is, to convey a message of consolation to his beloved while on its northward course. The Yaksha then describes the many captivating sights that are in store for the cloud on its way to the fabulous city of Alakaa, where his wife languishes amid her memories of him. Throughout the Meghaduta, as perhaps nowhere else So plentifully in Kalidasa’s works, are an unvarying freshness of inspiration and charm, delight imagery and fancy, profound insight into the emotions, and a oneness with the phenomena of nature. Moreover, the fluidity and beauty of the language are probably unmatched in Sanskrit literature, a feature all the more remarkable for its inevitable loss in translation.
(Courtesy: Walter Harding Maurer University of Hawaii at Manoe)
DOWNLOAD LINKS TO COMPLETE WORKS OF KALIDASA
1. Abhijnana Sakuntalam
Abhijnana Sakuntalam Of Kalidasa – M. R.Kale
Abhijnana Sakuntalam English Translation by CSR Sastri
Sakuntala – Sanskrit Text with English Translation by Monier Williams
Sakuntala – English Translation by JG Jennings
Kalidasa’s Sakuntala – English Translation by Richard Pischel
Malavikagnimitram of Kalidasa – Skt Commentary – KP Parab
Malavikagnimitram English Translation by CH Tawney
Vikramorvasiyam Sanksirt Text with English Notes by SP Pandit
Vikramorvasiyam English Translation by EB Cowell
Kumarasambhava Cantos I-VII – Sanskrit Commentary, English Translation & Notes – MR Kale
Kumarasambhavam – Eng Translation by RTH Griffith
Kumarasambhavam with Mallinatha’s Sanskrit Commentary
Raghuvamsa with Mallinatha’s commentary Hindi translation by Pt. Lakshmi Prapanna Acharya(DJVU)
Raghuvamsa with Mallinatha’s commentary Shankar Pandit Part 3
Raghuvamsa English Translation by De Lacy Johnston
Cantos 1 to 10 with Mallinatha’s commentary and Eng Translation by MR Kale
Raghuvamsa with Hindi Tika by Jvalaprasa Mishra
Raghuvamsa with Commentary of Mallinatha & English Translation by GR Nandargikar
6. Meghasandesam (Meghadutam)
Meghasandesa with Dakshinavartanatha’s Tika – TG Sastri
Meghaduta with Sanjivani Vyakhya 1894
Kalidasa’s Meghaduta with Skt Commentary & English Translation – KB Pathak, 1916
Meghaduta English Translation by HH Wilson, 1814
Meghaduta English Translation by Col. HA Ouvry, 1868
7. Works of Kalidasa
Works of Kalidasa English Translation – William Jones 1901
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