The original story of Shakuntala originates in Adi Parva of Mahabharata where lineage of Shantanu is being described. In Adhyaya (Canto) 68 to 74, there is a brief mention of the story.
Vishwamitra was a warrior king turned sage. In order to become a Bhrahmrishi, he meditated for many years.
To test whether he had gained control over his passions, Indra sent Maneka to entice Vishwamitra. She was his most beautiful courtesan/Apsara. Maneka succeeded in attracting Vishwamitra but she too fell in love with him. They live together for ten years.
Maneka conceived. When she disclosed the pregnancy to Vishwamitra, she also confessed that she was sent by Indra to disturb his penance. Enraged by the betrayal, Vishwamitra abandoned pregnant Maneka.
Maneka took refuge in the Hermitage of sage Kanva, who adopted the girl born to her. This girl Shakuntala, grew up to be a beautiful and innocent young woman. One-day King of Kuru clan, Dushyant arrived in the forest for a hunting game. He liked Shakuntala. He proposed to Shakuntala and wed her in Kanva’s absence. After a while he returned to Hastinapur. When he failed to return as promised, Kanva sent Shakuntala with her six years old son to live with Dushyant.
Dushyant was ashamed to accept alliance with an Ashram girl and declined to honour the marriage. A celestial prophecy was announced, that the child was destined to be a great king. As God’s wish, Dushyant accepted the mother and the son. This child became the next king.
Abhigyan Shakuntalam- Kalidas’s poetic and dramatic play
This old unromantic story from Mahabharat was transformed into one of the most beautiful plays in classical Sanskrit by the poetic genius of Kalidasa. The original escapade during a hunting expedition, that Dushyant was so ashamed to acknowledge, was woven into a genuine love story.
In kalidas’s play Abhigyan Shakuntalam, Shakuntala was the foster child of Rishi Kanva. She was as beautiful and untouched as the flora and fauna around the Hermitage. One day while Kanva was away for a long pilgrimage, Hastinapur’s king Dushyant arrived there. He was following a deer that belonged to Shakuntala. The residents of the ashram forbade him from killing her favourite fawn and offered him their hospitality. Among them he then spotted the attractive Shakuntala.
Dushyant was totally smitten by this delicate beauty. In his mind he compared her with a new spring leaf among the fall stricken foliage (the rough sages). He extends his stay to get close to her and courts her with zest.
Kalidas’s similes describe Shakuntala to the reader, no less than a nymph. Through Dushyant he elaborates Shakuntala’s effort of watering the plants, as though a blue lotus petal was attempting to saw a giant tree. Dushyant’s wooing won the simple and innocent Shakuntala’s heart. He offered her a Gandharva marriage, in absence of relatives from both sides. Shakuntala consented on a condition that he would make their future son the next king. Dushyant agreed. The ashram inmates blessed them both.
By the time Kanva returned Dushyant was ready to leave. He assured the sage that he would soon arrange for Shakuntala to join him in Hastinapur. He gave her his signet ring as a memoir.
After Dushyant’s departure Shakuntala was stricken with extreme loneliness, lost interest in all things and people around her. She wandered around lost in her memories of Dushyant and their joyous time together.
One day the short-tempered Rishi Durvasa arrived, Shkuntala was so lost in her thoughts that she never noticed his presence. Angered at her insolence, Durvasa cursed that the one who made her forget her etiquette, would forget her too.
Kanva sends pregnant Shakunatala to Hastinapur.- Raja Ravi Varma
Shakuntala was devastated at the thought. She knew she was already carrying Dushyant’s child. She left for Hastinapur. On the way she used a boat to cross a river. She lowered her hand in the water and Durvasa’s curse began its work. Dushyant’s signet ring slipped out of her finger and was swallowed by a fish. Shakuntala reached the court, she reminded the king of their marriage. Dushyant under the influence of the curse, refused to recognize her. Shakuntala was heartbroken; she roamed around the city, clueless where to go. Her mother Maneka rescued her, returned her to the hermitage and a son was born to Shakuntala.
Several years passed, one day a fisherman in Hastinapur caught a big fish. He carried it as a gift for the King’s feast. When the royal cook cut the fish, a signet ring bearing Dushyant’s family seal dropped out. The cook rushed the slit fish and the ring to the King. At the sight of the ring Dushyant recalled Shakuntala. He immediately left for the hermitage of Kanva to fetch her.
On reaching the place, he saw a six-year-old boy playing with lion cubs. He was fearlessly trying to part open, the cat’s jaws to count its teeth. Dushyant was amazed with his bravery and fearlessness. He inquired whose child was he? To his surprise he was informed it was his own son Bharat. The couple reunited and returned to Hastinapur with Bharat.
The brilliance of Kalidas’s writing is that he invented dramatic situations and characters that captivate the hearts. The descriptions appeal to finer emotions of the readers. He added the short-tempered sage Durvasa’s visit after Dushyant’s return. Durvasa’s curse followed by the loss of the ring is the pivotal point, around which the theme has been turned by Kalidas.
German poet Gothe said, “If you wish to enjoy the fragrance of spring flowers and flavours of summer fruits together, or wish to see something that enthralls, be witches, entices and satiates you, all at the same time, then you must savour the Abhigyan Shakuntalam.”
Indian Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore remarked, “There are two unions in Shakuntala, the motif of the play is the progress from the earlier physical union of the first Act with its earthly unstable beauty and romance, to the higher union of eternal bliss, described in the last Act of the play. Love is elevated from the sphere of physical beauty to the eternal heaven of moral beauty.”
Shakuntala contains the history of a development – the development of flower into fruit, of earth into heaven, of matter into spirit. In the beginning, no restraints are imposed on nature’s impulses by either of the lovers. Yet Shakuntala naturally develops into, a devoted wife, leading a life of rigid religious discipline. Freedom and restraint are marvelously blended in her. The consequential joys and sorrows of love find a meeting point in her. Loyalty was firmly enthroned in her heart, and though for a moment it caused her fall, it also redeemed her forever. Tagore adds that it’s a literary work that begins with beauty and ends with divinity.
The greatest Sanskrit maestro, Kalidas wrote the Abhigyan Shakuntalam nearly 2,500 years ago. The title means ‘recognising Shakuntala’. This immortal love story is also the bedrock foundation of India’s rich socio-culture edifice, evolution of a girl into a woman. For the first time Abhigyana Shakuntalam wastranslated in English language by Sir William Jones in the year 1789. After this, there were at least 46 translations of this play in 12 different European languages.
The vivid descriptions of beauty inspired the 19th century painter Raja Ravi Varma, who did a full series of paintings on this play. The paintings almost bring the settings to life. His artworks have been honored on various forums even postage stamps. It is a little effort to bring together a glimpse into the work of these two great artists on this theme.