Kalidasa’s Sanskrit masterpiece Abhijnanasakuntalam based on the story of Shakuntala in the Mahabharata was written nearly 1,500 years ago. It was first translated into English in 1789 and later into 12 European languages. But among the many translations into South Asian languages, the one that stands out is its adaptation into Nepali by Laxmi Prasad Devkota, whose 110th birth anniversary falls on Sunday, 27 October.
Devkota’s Shākuntal Mahākāvya (1945) is the most accurate in retaining the original shrigara ras classical poetic style in Nepali. Experts have said Devkota’s Shākuntal is neither a translation nor an adaptation, but a ‘transcreation’.
Devkota’s Shakuntal is one of the three versions he undertook — a smaller work called Dushyanta Shakuntala Bhet and an English Shakuntala. It is extraordinary that a poet creates three distinct renditions of the same work in two languages. Devkota, who died in 1959, is also the only poet to write an English Shakuntala with a poetic structure and style totally different from Kalidasa’ dramatic form.
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The ancient epic has been translated into Persian, Arabic, classical Tamil, and modern translations in Urdu in both poetry and prose, and other regional Indian languages. In Nepali, there are eight other translations of Abhijnanasakuntalam besides Devkota’s three versions.
Reading Devkota’s Shakuntal Mahakavya gives the sense that there is two-way communication going on between two great poets of two distinct, but related cultural and poetic traditions, separated by many centuries.
Devkota and Kalidasa engage in a spiritual and poetic dialogue when they bring out the meaning of ‘re-cognition’ (abhijnana) of Shakuntala. The mystical symbolism and poetic rhythms of Kalidasa are perceptible only through suggestion (dhvani) and Devkota’s text captures this subtly but surely.
Kalidasa’s epic describes Shakuntala’s birth as the abandoned daughter of the sage Vishwamitra and the celestial singer Menaka. The king of Hastinapur meets her in the forest, and leaves her with his ring to be presented when she comes to his palace. Vishwamitra is made to forget the pregnant Shakuntala, and she loses the ring enroute to the palace.
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