The character of Sakuntala, in Kalidasa‘s play Abhijnanasakuntalam is a remarkable fusion of beauty and moral prowess. On one hand she is the everlasting symbol of vulnerable womanhood; on the other hand, she proves to be heroic in her actions. Kalidasa adopts the character from the pages of Mahabharata and transforms her into a figure inspiring wonder, admiration and respect.
In the earliest mention of Sakuntala in Vedic literature, she is described as an “apsara” (divine dancer) who gave birth to Bharata. In Mahabharata she is shown as daughter of apsara, abandoned at birth and raised by sage Kanva. Kalidasa presents her as a woman with close connection to nature, as a child of nature. On the other hand, her journey to the urban world of men makes her connect two worlds – the world of nature and the world of man. Her character evolves through this journey from the secure boundaries of her childhood home to the uncertain dangers of the unknown city of Hastinapur, finally to the sacred ashrama of Marica.
In the first act of the play, Sakuntala is presented as intimately connected to the flora and fauna of Kanva’s hermitage. She feels in tune with the plants and animals as if they are her siblings. Yet, she is different from her friends Anasuya and Priyamvada. Duhsanta is drawn towards her in an instant. Sakuntala shows maidenly coyness despite her desires for the man clearly in love with her.
In the third act, Sakuntala is seen as an inquisitive spirit, elated by the amorous attentions of her heroic suitor. It is interesting to note that she accepts the mode of Gandharva marriage although it means she will not have any witnesses to her wedding. For a woman, accepting this kind of wedding has social risks but she claims ownership of her body and heart by accepting such a wedding.
The curse of Durvasa is clearly instrumental in changing Sakuntala’s situation. The curse is more deadly because the wedding had no witnesses or social sanction. The curse took away the only security Sakuntala had – the security of memory, the assurance of remembrance. Therefore, Sakuntala’s departure from her father’s hermitage is both a literal journey and a symbolic one. It is at this moment that she leaves behind the comforting security of the world of nature. Chandra Rajan observes, “The movement out of the green world is accomplished with much reluctance on the heroine’s part. When she disappears from view behind a line of great forest trees, the green world, magical, vanishes too.”
It is this journey from the magical to the real, poetic to prosaic, instinctive to logical, that Sakuntala’s journey is about. Interestingly, this magical world of fertility and plenitude made Sakuntala appealing to the king in the first place. Duhsanta’s childlessness is the central concern that finds solution in her. However, in the first phase, Duhsanta had known Sakuntala only physically. Later, in the court, she is humiliated; her every word turned into a lie. Finally, she stands alone, abandoned all over again. However, now she is not protected by the world of nature as she was at infancy. In Mahabharata, Sakuntala is presented as a fiery spirit, fighting for her son’s rights. Kalidasa transforms his source to portray a more rounded character, both spontaneous and responsible.
Sakuntala’s motherhood is her redemption even without Duhsanta’s recognition. Interestingly she refuses to recognise Duhsanta at Marica’s hermitage. This shows Sakuntala is capable of sustenance even without her husband. It makes her equal in strength, if not superior to Duhsanta who needs her more than she needs him. Kalidasa shows through Sakuntala that true reconciliation comes only through equality and mutual respect. In doing so, Kalidasa creates an unprecedented heroine who redefines representation of woman in Indian classical drama.