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Kalidasa’s Shakuntala enthralled Goethe, Herder, Schiller

India is superior in everything – intellectually, religiously…, even Greek heritage seems pale in comparison

By Salil Gewali

It is no less interesting, nor is it too surprising that a world-acclaimed president and artistic director of Vienna Boys Choir –  Gerald Writh of Austria is going to a guide our proud Shillong Chamber Choir (SCC), Meghalaya. But what is another proud fact is that their new project this time is the performance of an opera based on Shakuntala. Needless to say, this play proclaims itself to be one of the literary brilliance of the East. Probably authored between 4th century to 5th century CE by Mahakavi Kalidasa, this Sanskrit drama, soon after its translation into Latin by Sir William Jones in 1789, had won the fascination of the most of the top European scholars. Based on the story of a fraction part of Mahabharata it bears the rare attributes less known to the western world. So much so that many critics stood up challenging Aristotelian dramatic theory as they discovered the eastern literature with more literary adornments and philosophy.

That to what extent Sir William Jones had been able to render this play from the language which he had just learned from a person who did not know abc of English is quite astonishing fact. But, however, a very scholarly linguist, Sir Jones learned the oldest language of the world. And, many believed this snap opened the doorway to hitherto less known Eastern wisdom.

Sir William Jones.
Sir William Jones.

True, when he had first begun to study this play by Kalidasa it had occurred to Sir William Jones that this drama might dwarf other literary work of the European scholars. The conviction instantaneously inspired the British linguist to translate the work first into Latin. Without further ado, he had taken it upon himself the challenge of the translation.   Not very long after the publication the book captivated the imagination of many front-ranking scholars of Germany, Britain, Italy and French. The rational romantic thinkers who had not been fettered by the shackles of the prejudice and prevailing dogmas had burst out their passionate applause.  Immediately after two years, in 1791, another noted scholar George Forster translated this play again into the German language. Forster hastened himself to present his translation to a prominent philosopher and critic of the time Johann Gottfried Herder. After having immersed in the play Herder finally concluded that the philosophy of the West seems “narrow and cold” in comparison to the India literature. He quipped in praise of Shakuntala “I cannot easily find a product of the human mind more pleasant than this, a real blossom of the Orient, the first and the most beautiful of its kind…, something like that, of course, appears once every two thousand years…”. So, Herder got much impelled to introduce the book to the literary giant of the era – Johann Goethe. The father of the German literature was deeply enthralled by this Sanskrit drama that he decided to learn the language himself. Jone’s English edition of the Shakuntala became household name among the literary figure that it got reprinted five times between 1791 to 1807. The story of Shakuntala was adapted for plays, operas and ballets across the Europe.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Well, there is a very significant disclosure made by the father of German literature when another French Scholar Antoine Leonard de Chezy presented Goethe with his French edition of Shakuntala. In a letter of gratitude to Antoine Chezy, Johann Goethe opened up himself before European world : “The first time I came upon this inexhaustible work, [Shakuntala] it aroused such enthusiasm in me and so held me that I could not stop studying it. I even felt impelled to make the impossible attempt to bring it in some form to the German stage. These efforts were fruitless but they made me so thoroughly acquainted with this most valuable work, it represented such an “epoch in my life”, I so absorbed it, that for thirty years I did not look at either the English or the German version. It is only now that I understand the enormous impression that work made on me at an earlier age.”

While the intellectuals like Goethe, Herder, Heinrich Heine, Schiller, Habbel,… passionately lauded Indian drama, even by writing poems,  Friedrich Schlegel exclaimed with conviction “ India is superior in everything – intellectually, religiously…, even Greek heritage seems pale in comparison”.

Best of luck to Shillong Chamber Choir of Meghalaya! Hope this musical project will be instrumental in inspiring the people across the country to shed their past prejudices and seriously go deeper into the literature of the home country too as they study Odyssey, Iliad, Macbeth, Paradise Lost, David Copperfield, Harry Potter,…

Salil Gewali is a well-known writer and author of ‘Great minds on India’. Twitter: @SGewali.

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