Shakuntala (play)

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Shakuntala. A painting by Raja Ravi Varma.
Shakuntala writes to Dushyanta.
Painting by Raja Ravi Varma.
Shakuntala despondent.
Painting by Raja Ravi Varma.

Abhijñānashākuntala or Abhijñānaśākuntalam (Devanagari: अभिज्ञानशाकुन्तलम्), is a well-known Sanskrit play by Kālidāsa, dramatizing the story of Shakuntala told in the epic Mahabharata. It is considered to be the best of Kālidāsa's works.[citation needed] Its date is uncertain, but Kālidāsa is often placed in the period between the 1st century BCE and 4th century CE.

The Sanskrit title means pertaining to the recognition of Śākuntalā, so a literal translation could be Of Śākuntalā who is recognized. The title is sometimes translated as The token-for-recognition of Śākuntalā or The Sign of Śākuntalā.


Abhijñānaśākuntalam is written by Kalidas Although Kalidas makes some minor changes to the plot, the play elaborates upon an episode mentioned in the Mahabharata, the protagonist is Shakuntala, daughter of the sage Vishwamitra and the apsara Menaka. Abandoned at birth by her parents, Shakuntala is reared in the secluded, sylvan hermitage of the sage Kanva, and grows up a comely but innocent maiden.

While Kanva and the other elders of the hermitage are away on a pilgrimage, Dushyanta, king of Hastinapura, comes hunting in the forest and chances upon the hermitage, he is captivated by Shakuntala, courts her in royal style, and marries her. He then has to leave to take care of affairs in the capital, she is given a ring by the king, to be presented to him when she appears in his court. She can then claim her place as queen.

The anger-prone sage Durvasa arrives when Shakuntala is lost in her fantasies, so that when she fails to attend to him, he curses her by bewitching Dushyanta into forgetting her existence, the only cure is for Shakuntala to show him 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 when she dips her hand in the water playfully. On arrival the king refuses to acknowledge her. Shakuntala is abandoned by her companions, who return to the hermitage.

Fortunately, the ring is discovered by a fisherman in the belly of a fish, and Dushyanta realises his mistake - too late, the newly wise Dushyanta defeats an army of Asuras, and is rewarded by Indra with a journey through heaven. Returned to Earth years later, Dushyanta finds Shakuntala and their son by chance, and recognizes them.


In other versions, especially the original one found in the Mahabharata, Shakuntala is not reunited until her son Bharata is born, and found by the king playing with lion cubs. Dushyanta enquires about his parents to young Bharata and finds out that Bharata is indeed his son. Bharata is an ancestor of the lineages of the Kauravas and Pandavas, who fought the bloody war of the Mahabharata, it is after this Bharata that India was given the name "Bharatadesam", the 'Land of the Bharata'. However, Kalidasa's version is now taken to be the standard one.[citation needed]


The play 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.[1]

English translations include:

Tamil translations include:

Bengali translations include:

Chinese translation includes:


Manuscripts differ on what its exact title is. Usual variants are Abhijñānaśakuntalā, Abhijñānaśākuntala, Abhijñānaśakuntalam and the "grammatically indefensible" Abhijñānaśākuntalam.[2]


Thanks to translations, by the 18th century, Western intelligentsia were beginning to get acquainted with the most important works of Indian literature and philosophy. Goethe, Germany's greatest poet, read Kalidasa's play, and is said to have been thoroughly charmed by it. He expressed his admiration for the work in the following verses:

Willst du die Blüthe des frühen, die Früchte des späteren Jahres,

Willst du, was reizt und entzückt, willst du was sättigt und nährt,
Willst du den Himmel, die Erde, mit Einem Namen begreifen;
Nenn’ ich, Sakuntala, Dich, und so ist Alles gesagt.

Wouldst thou the young year's blossoms and the fruits of its decline

And all by which the soul is charmed, enraptured, feasted, fed,
Wouldst thou the earth and heaven itself in one sole name combine?
I name thee, O Sakuntala! and all at once is said.

—translation by Edward Backhouse Eastwick (E.B. Eastwick)


In Koodiyattam, the only surviving ancient Sanskrit theatre tradition, performances of Kalidasa's plays are rare. However, legendary Kutiyattam artist and Natyashastra scholar Nātyāchārya Vidūshakaratnam Padma Shri Guru Māni Mādhava Chākyār has choreographed a Koodiyattam production of The Recognition of Sakuntala.[3]

A production directed by Tarek Iskander was mounted for a run at London's Union Theatre in January and February 2009.

The play is also appearing on a Toronto stage for the first time as part of the Harbourfront World Stage program.

An adaptation by the Magis Theatre Company [5] 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.

Musical adaptions[edit]

  • Austrian composer Franz Schubert left an incomplete opera, Sakuntala, which has been completed and recorded.
  • French composer Ernest Reyer composed a ballet, Sacountalâ, in 1858.
  • 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).
  • Hungarian composer Karl Goldmark composed a Sakuntala overture, op. 13 (1865).
  • Norwegian electronic musician Amethystium wrote a song called "Garden of Sakuntala" which can be found on the CD Aphelion.

According to Philip Lutgendorf, the narrative of the movie Ram Teri Ganga Maili recapitulates the story of Shakuntala.[4]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Review of Figueira's Translating the Orient: The Reception of Sakuntala in Nineteenth-Century Europe at the complete review website.
  2. ^ Stephan Hillyer Levitt (2005), "Why Are Sanskrit Play Titles Strange?" (PDF), Indologica Taurinensia: 195–232 
  3. ^ Das Bhargavinilayam, Mani Madhaveeyam[1](biography of Guru Mani Madhava Chakyar), Department of Cultural Affairs, Government of Kerala, 1999, ISBN 81-86365-78-8
  4. ^ Ram Teri Ganga Maili at Notes on Indian popular cinema by Philip Lutgendorf


External links[edit]