Friday, June 8, 2012

Book 98, India: "Theater of Memory: The Plays of Kalidasa"

First heard about Kalidasa at the age of thirteen in Sec Two, when our history teacher talked about the Guptas. Bought this book in my senior year of college; had wanted to register for a colloquium on South and Middle Eastern texts but didn't have the time, so ended up buying the second-hand course pack instead. Seven years later, I'm finally reading it!

And it's great to finally find out what the big deal was over Sakuntala and the Ring of Recollection, the divine drama of forgetting that so entranced Goethe. Also wonderful to learn the legend of Urvasi Won By Valor, whose heroine's namesake is a seriously cool queer activist.

But surprisingly, my favourite text is probably the only non-magical one: Agnimitra and Malavika. In a way, it's because this is the least complex tale: it's about a king who's lusting after a beautiful servant girl, thwarted by the rival queens in his harem - but who discovers in the end that she's a noble princess in hiding, hooray, big wedding! Also happens to have quite a bit of comedy, and some plum female roles, including the intellectual nun Kausiki - easy to imagine a girl-heavy student group attempting this (and doing a semi-decent job of it, but oh well).

The other two...well, according to the intro, they're  natakas, or heroic romances. They're about semi-divine kings who fall in love with nymphs. Again there are barriers to their love conquests, making for some pretty romantic seduction and hiding scenes - but the focus is on tragic destinies: Dusyanta is cursed to forget that he married Sakuntala; Urvasi is cursed to leave Pururavas for the heavens as soon as he beholds his son.

The tragedies aren't allowed fulfillment, however - in Urvasi, a heavenly reprieve is granted, an annoying deus ex machina not unlike Athena's trial at the end of Aeschylus' The Oresteia. Sakuntala, on the other hand, is disappointing because it takes such pains to assure us that Dusyanta is a worthy, just king, whose forgettery is not his fault: quite different from the more ambivalent version of the legend in the Mahabharata, in which he's much more of the prototypical knock-up-yo-baby-momma-and-leave asshole.

None of Aristotle's Poetics and catharsis here; what we've got instead is a dramatic theory from the Sage Bharata's Natyasastra, which has the aim of assuring us all that the social order is hunky-dory, no problems, stop asking difficult questions, boy. Which of course rankles with a rebel like myself.

Also the weird fixation on male perspectives: despite the titular centrality of the women in these narratives, it's the desire of the king which is paramount. Sakuntala barely gets any screen time weeping before she's spirited off; Dusyanta discovers the ring of recollection and goes mad with grief, wailing and weeping and painting pictures of his beloved. Pururavas actually gets two scenes of elaborate lover's agony: in one of them he dances the carcari dance and wildly questions the animals and plants, with Urvasi only popping up at the end apologising for being turned into a creeper. (Yeah, it's a little nuts, but great literature tends to be as such.)

Did learn an awful lot from this book, though. Did you know that there are still ancient theatres cut into caves in Eastern India, with murals still on the walls? And that playhouses were allegedly invented on the command of lord Brahma, because demons tried to break up the first play? A divine world indeed.

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Representative quote:

SAKUNTALA: I've thought of a verse, but I have nothing to write it on.

PRIYAMVADA: Engrave the Letters with your nail on this lotus leaf! It's as delicate as a parrot's breast.

SAKUNTALA (miming what Priyamvada described): Listen and tell me if this makes sense!

BOTH FRIENDS: We're both paying attention.

SAKUNTALA (singing):

I don't know
your heart,
but day and night
for wanting you
love violently
my limbs,
cruel man.

KING (suddenly revealing himself):

Love torments you, slender girl,
but he completely consumes me -
daylight spares the lotus pond
while it destroys the moon.

Next book: Royston Ellis's A Hero In Time, from the Maldives.

1 comment:

Noorlinah Mohamed said...

My dear Yi-Sheng. I adore your blog. Came to it when you posted an update on your FB. You have read so many books. Congratulations! Once I have placed my final full stop in my own long journey of words and thoughts, I shall visit you and listen to your travel tales. For now I will enjoy your blog. It has beautiful, funny, endearing and accessible nuggets of the wor(l)ds you have visited. Wonderful stuff. Thank you.