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Kalidasa, the poet of the natural world

Sumana Roy | Updated on September 03, 2021

Metaphor for life: The monsoons arrive, and everything changes   -  THULASI KAKKAT

As it rains, it is natural to turn to the epic writer whose verses bring home the monsoons and the plants in which the season become visible

* Kalidasa has survived, even as he — if he was indeed one person and not multitudes — might have gathered girth through centuries

* Rain finds a way to enter closed spaces, seeping into things that we didn’t quite think could get wet. A poem, for instance

* In a world denuded of both, the plants we encounter in the poems and the sound of the words in which we meet them, what might have the presence of Kalidasa have done?

***

It is raining. I’m reading Kalidasa. The two sentences might not have felt related to each other had the name of the writer not been Kalidasa, but someone else. For anyone even briefly acquainted with him knows how it rains in Kalidasa, how the pages of Ritusamharam begin to feel damp in the section on the rains. Middle-class childhoods like mine in India were filled with stories about Tansen’s singing seducing rain-bearing clouds. It says something about the resistance to poetry in an industrial society where Tansen was a genius in our parents’ adages and anecdotes, but Kalidasa, a fool, who had been found chopping the branch of a tree he happened to be sitting on. Tansen has, like god, entered the realm of belief that doesn’t need to be tested. There are no recordings of his singing after all, and no video — hard as it is to imagine a time where every moment wasn’t Instagrammed — that shows the rain clouds responding to a human voice. Kalidasa, though, has survived, even as he — if he was indeed one person and not multitudes — might have gathered girth through centuries. To read Kalidasa today, then, is analogous to coming face-to-face with the cross-section of a tree trunk, its age visible in the concentric circles.

The comparison might seem casual, but re-reading Kalidasa over the last few months, I’ve paused time and again to wonder about what Chandra Rajan, one of Kalidasa’s best translators in English, points out in her introduction to his works — the poet’s extraordinary familiarity with what Rajan calls the ‘natural world’. I read all of this, in English, turning occasionally, when dissatisfied with the translation, to the Bangla, just for the familiarity of a closer sonic register, as it rains outside. The doors and windows are swollen from moisture, they refuse to close, to return to the grooves of their old home; the branches of the trees outside cannot seem to take the weight of any more raindrops, even if they come in instalments; the walls have lost their malnourished paint, and in its stead is voluptuous moss, territorial but affectionate. Rain finds a way to enter closed spaces, seeping into things that we didn’t quite think could get wet. A poem, for instance.

Was Kalidasa a botanist? How else does one explain the intimate vocabulary of plant life in poem after poem? One leaves the ‘summer’ section of Ritusamharam (The Gathering of Seasons) after having inhaled the fragrance of sandalwood-scented water in the poems. But note, also, Kalidasa’s familiarity with the floor of a lake:

Heated by a fiery sun,

the mud around the lake has dried,

and is now encrusted by

the weeds of bhadramusta:

a host of pigs dig deep into them

with long snouts, as if to reach

the cold richness of the earth below.

Verse 19, too, is spent looking at the same space: “In the lake, the net of lotus roots/lies mangled...” In another poem, “in the heat of a glaring sun,/with bamboo sprouts by fire singed,/and dry leaves swirling in the wind.” Fire becomes analogous to the summer heat, and almost destroys plant life: “It has the red glow of safflower/petals scattered... it is the fire.”

Then the monsoons arrive, and everything changes: Humans become ‘lovers’, for such is the season and its unexpected elasticity. But it is actually in the plants in which the season becomes visible, so much so that even the sky begins to resemble plants. Take this verse, for instance:

Everywhere the sky is covered

by dark clouds which have a glow

like blue lotus flower leaves,

at times like heaped collyrium powder...

And then its impact on the earth:

The earth — covered with sprouting grass

gleaming like crushed emeralds,

and a new growth of plantain trees

with scarlet beetles upon them... [translated by AND Haksar]

It is incredible, Kalidasa’s familiarity with plants from various regions. In Abhigyan Shakuntalam, the metaphors turn Shakuntala into a plant in the forest. In Meghadutam, where one sees the world from the perspective of a cloud, Kalidasa’s incantatory words populate the earth:

As you let your first raindrops fall, all of nature will conspire to guide your way —

Bees will swarm to the pale auburn filaments of half-blown kadamba flowers,

And deer will gather along marshy banks to eat the first buds of banana tree blossoms,

And the elephants will march, smelling the intoxicating scent of the moist forest floor. [translated by Srinivas Reddy]

In a world denuded of both, the plants we encounter in the poems and the sound of the words in which we meet them, what might have the presence of Kalidasa have done? Or was it only that world, with its “sarja and kadamba, or arjuna, nipa, ketaki”, “blossoms of kakubba trees”, the “bakula and malati sprays/with new blossoms of yuthika buds”, that could have produced Kalidasa?

Sumana Roy   -  BusinessLine

 

Sumana Roy is the author of How I Became a Tree;@SumanaSiliguri

Published on September 03, 2021

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