DCIB Book Club: Shakuntala!!! India’s Great Romantic Drama! What Did You Think?

Remember, in 2 weeks from today, Ramesh Menon’s Siva Purana! It’s X-rated! It’s fun! It’s sex ed and religion all in one book!

Shakuntala! Super fun drama! Feels very Shakespeare, doesn’t it? Love stories, royalty, funny servants, the forest versus the court, it’s really universal questions in a monarchical society.

Anyway, things to discuss:

Love Story: Did you buy into the King’s love story? I have to say, I really did. Sure it was love at first sight, which is always kind of lame, but then he did talk to her. And he was torn between royal duties and his love for her, which is a sign of the depth of his feelings. And he was sooooooo depressed at the end, I think he must have really loved her. Right?

Shakuntala as Independent Heroine: What do you think? Was she just controlled by the men around her, or did she make decisions on her own?

Relationships Between Women: One of my favorite parts is that Shakuntala talks stuff over with her friends, and her friends know her so well. And that the friends are so supportive of whatever she wants. Did you get that too?

Social Roles: Not the point of the play, but very handy if you are trying to figure this all out. There are the religious caste who are destined to live in the forest and pray forever. And there is the fighter caste who are destined to lead and have power in the world, but also protect the religious caste as needed. Our hero has all the responsibilities of leadership and kingship, which includes being a moral leader for his country (therefore not wanting to risk taking another man’s wife). Shakuntala was raised outside of normal society, freer and cleaner, but she is not of the religious caste, she was never intended to stay forever in their world. Her mother was a minor goddess/angel/fairy/what have you, sent by the Gods to tempt her religious father. She is born somewhat outside of caste, outside of the world. Her adoptive religious father intended her to go off into the world someday to marry where she chooses, from any caste. At least, that’s what I got. What did you get?

Familiar Story from Films: Right???? The heroine intro scene with her adoring friends/sisters, the hero seeing her from afar and falling in love, the hero stalking and tricking, the heroine secretly almost dying for love, the hero trying to steal a kiss, the heroine trying to resist, the village girl and the rich urban boy, the misunderstanding, the ever faithful heroine and the mistaken and then forgiven hero. Heck, even the hero’s funny servant/friend is here! Am I crazy or do you see it too?

24 thoughts on “DCIB Book Club: Shakuntala!!! India’s Great Romantic Drama! What Did You Think?

  1. Supervising bedtime so here goes in small bites.

    I did like the way the women formed a network of support. Shakuntala and her friends are fun, then the way her mother rescued her and her auntie spied on her traitorous husband, and delivered her to the protection of Aditi. Even Gautami was a supportive presence.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah! But at the same time, I also got the feeling that Shakuntala’s friends seem a lot more interesting and independent than her. Is it just because she’s so lost in her love? Also, Anasuya + Priyamvada together are just the best couple! They perfectly complement each other, I feel.

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      • True, being lovesick makes her kind of a limp rag for a bit. I liked the part where she feigned injury to get another look at the king, though. Her character is maybe better in the epic version, the Humsafar version of demanding her child’s rights. The way Kalidasa changed the story to make Dushyanta more sympathetic ends up making Shakuntala less sympathetic – or at least takes some of the fire out of her.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I think he plays up the sweet and gentle side of Shakuntala at the expense of the side demanding her child’s rights! I don’t think she even gets angry when Dushyanta rejects her because of the curse – just very sad.

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    • Yes! And the women around her never questioned her version of events, there was no moment of shame and turning away from her.

      On Sun, Feb 7, 2021 at 8:32 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. I could take the love at first sight because this is high register romance and she’s the daughter of a nymph and all. The lovesick part, though, too silly. And he put a bracelet on her wrist and then she got pregnant? Whut?? I missed something. When did that happen?

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    • Doesn’t he swear that when next they are alone he will not miss his opportunity to kiss her? And then she is pregnant in the next scene. So I can kind of piece it together. But it does feel weirdly like the censors made them cut a scene or something.

      On Sun, Feb 7, 2021 at 9:46 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Is it because this is a play that had to be performed, so they couldn’t show those bits live? Like even in dance performances, they’ll use a lot of metaphors and symbolism to get the point across?

        Or maybe it got removed by later commentators? I don’t know.

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      • This part is also more explicit in the epic version. Kanva, discovering Shakuntala is pregnant, rejoices and tells her “a man who loves may marry secretly the woman who loves him without a ceremony”. Taking marry here to mean get busy.

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  3. Interesting collection of parent figures. Kanva and Gautami, as adopted parents/hermits (hermits seems like a weird translation thing, I’m imagining a temple?), very nice, caring people who watch out for Shakuntala and want the best for her – if a little hands off, fate will take care of things. Bio dad, total bad guy, grumpy and meanspirited, wandering around knocking up nymphs and cursing people. Bio mom Menaka absent for Shakuntala’s childhood but comes through when she is cast off and has nowhere to turn.

    Then there are Kashyapa and Aditi. That scene is interesting. Shakuntala says she is “ashamed to go before such parents” with her husband. But wasn’t it Aditi who agreed to give her refuge, and Kashyapa who performed the birth rite for her son? The way the scene plays out feels almost like a new wife meeting her in laws, if your in laws were all knowing gods (no pressure!), which maybe makes up for being rejected by Dushyanta’s mother before? But this scene also felt like some of the films in that the parents get to play this perfectly benevolent role of reconciliation and plot resolution, but really the fact that things weren’t fixed before now is their fault. I mean, if they knew all along that Dushyanta had been cursed by grumpy bio dad, couldn’t they have at least let Shakuntala know? Even if for fate’s sake you have to go about getting a fish to dig the ring out of a river and get caught by a humble fisherman so he can be accused of theft and threatened with execution and dragged to the palace just to get the king his ring back, at least tell the grief stricken young mother what shenanigans are up. Right?

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    • I think “hermits” is actually correct. A religious community in the wilderness, living without any luxuries as part of their devotions. I liked that Gautami and her father were not a couple, just the head male and female hermits who took individual responsibility for Shakuntala.

      You went beyond the assigned reading! You read the bonus epic version and not just the play! I only reread the play this time so I don’t remember those other scenes as well. But even in the play, the ring thing is DUMB. People around Shakuntala know about it but don’t tell her, figuring she doesn’t have to know because she will be wearing the ring anyway. And then she drops it in the river, and gets all upset thinking her husband doesn’t love her, and so on and so forth.

      On Sun, Feb 7, 2021 at 10:22 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • I mean the ring adds a magic element and the whole scene between the guards and the fisherman. But again, all Kalidasa. In the epic version, Shakuntala shows up with a six-year-old son and demands that Dushyanta recognize him as his heir. Dushyanta casts doubt on her virtue until the gods are forced to intervene and speak up for the boy. Afterward, Dushyanta is all “Hear the words of this heavenly messenger. If I had received my son simply because of her words, he would be suspected by the world, he would not be pure.” So basically he comes off like a jerk.

        This is reminding me of other exchanges we’ve had talking about movies where the writers seem to have dumbed down a female character to make the male character look wiser and stronger. In this case, it’s not Dushyanta’s fault he was cursed, but then Shakuntala doesn’t get her big scene either because she has to be made more passive.

        Liked by 1 person

    • I think it’s just supposed to be an undyed no choli style sari made of natural fibers. This is the best picture I can find:

      On Sun, Feb 7, 2021 at 10:27 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  4. Modern films this made me think of: for setting and the scene where Dushyanta meets Shakuntala, obviously pictured Padmavaat, Ashoka, Bahubali. But the feel of the romance most reminded me of the Pakistani shows, where the lovers hear about one another and peek at one another or spy on one another but never actually speak until 8 or 9 episodes in. And then there are stretches of expository dialogue punctuated by sudden dramatic bursts of action. I started imagining Mahira as Shakuntala. Then if you read the straight epic version of the story after the play, the scene where she presents her son at court is right out of Humsafar and I could picture her face exactly.

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    • Oooo, I like the idea of the long Pakistani serial style! I think that makes more sense with the Epic. The kind of thing a minstrel would say over many nights with many parts. While the play is a one shot shortened version.

      On Sun, Feb 7, 2021 at 10:50 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  5. OK last post. I’m super curious about the history. The intro says Kalidasa might have lived in the 5th century CE. Do we know anything about how the play would have been performed, and for whom? It feels much more modern, with its meta prologue as an opening frame to bring the audience into the story. What language did he write in? How were his plays preserved for so many centuries?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d like to add something about what I know – Kalidasa wrote in Sanskrit. Though, these plays were adapted in regional languages as time passed – I am familiar with the Marathi version (which was written about a century ago)!

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    • I’m curious too! I can find loads about the history of translation, but there’s a big gap between when it was supposedly written first and when it was first translated.

      On Sun, Feb 7, 2021 at 10:57 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  6. My thoughts on the love story – I was not a fan, to be honest. Maybe it’s one of those things that’s meant to be seen acted live, and not read?

    Either way, what I am even less a fan of is the “original” version, where she brings her son to court and the King just straight up ignores her. At least here there’s a curse involved to make him behave like that for a while!

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