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Power of the Narrative

Anne E. Monius

Edited by Saswati Sengupta and Deepika Tandon
Orient BlackSwan, Hyderabad, 2011, pp. 327, Rs 695.00


Gathering together fifteen papers presented at a two-day international conference at Miranda House (University of Delhi) in January 2010, Revisiting Abhijnanasakuntalam presents a richly fascinating follow-up to Romila Thapar’s ground-breaking 1999 study first published in New Delhi by Kali for Women, Shakuntala: Texts, Readings, Histories. Grouped together under three headings—‘The Biography of a Narrative,’ ‘The Hero King,’ and ‘Of Love, Marriage and Family’—the collection taken as a whole ‘focuses on the continuity as well as the change in the narrative of Shakuntala and Dushyanta and the interface between literature and social contexts’ (p. 13). Contributors range from well-known Sanskritists examining primary sources to historians of performance, visual arts, and gender studies; Revisiting Abhijnanasakuntalam thus offers a diverse, complex, and finely detailed portrait of the enduring legacy of Kalidasa’s play, its antecedents, and its echoes and reiterations in the colonial and postcolonial world. Space constraints unfortunately do not permit a sustained engagement with the arguments and details of each article; rather, the following review will sketch out the main contours of each section, noting particular points of interest.   The six essays in Section One of the volume, ‘The Biography of a Narrative,’ collectively present both the historical reach and the regional depth of the Shakuntala-Dushyanta narrative. Alf Hiltebeitel’s ‘The First Reading of “Sakuntala”: A Window on the Original and Second Reading by Kalidasa,’ for example, argues that the Mahabharata tradition itself contains two versions of the Shakuntala story, long before the writing of Kalidasa’s seminal play. The remaining essays address Kalidasa’s iteration of the story, albeit in a variety of historical, regional, and linguistic contexts. Mandakranta Bose, in her ‘Staging Abhijnanasakuntalam,’ reflects on a mid-twentieth-century performance of Kalidasa’s play (in which the author herself participated), an attempt that she argues suffered from any working knowledge of Bharata’s second-century theoretical treatise on dance-drama, the Natyasastra. Only by more clearly realizing the historical and stylistic contexts in which Kalidasa might have envisioned the performance of his play, Bose argues, can one begin ‘to uncover its many levels of meaning’ (p. 53). Shampa Roy takes up the influential 1789 English translation of the Abhijnanasakuntalam of William Jones in ‘The Celestial Fruit of Collected Virtues: A Reading of William Jones’s Sacontala,’ closely examining the details of Jones’s translational choices. In particular, Roy argues that Jones—despite his self-proclaimed respect for the play, its author, and Sanskrit literature in general—‘...

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