Kālidāsa (c. 5th century CE) was the greatest Sanskrit poet and playwright of India. He is commonly viewed as India’s national laureate—the writer who best exemplifies the Indian consciousness in literary forms. His surviving three plays, two narrative poems, and two lyrics are all characterized by a delicate and expressive power that captures both emotional nuances and the beauties of nature.
Nothing certain is known about Kālidāsa’s life and family, but it is widely accepted that he was among the navaratnas (nine jewels) in the court of King Vikramaditya of Ujjayinī, central India. Legend has it that he was an illiterate cowherd by birth, who, by the grace of the goddess Kāli, was transformed into a great literary figure. Hence the name Kālidāsa (the devotee of Kāli.)
Kālidāsa’s surviving works consist of three or four mahākāvyas (long lyric poems)—Raghuvaṃśa (The Dynasty of Raghu,) Kumārasambhava (The Birth of the War God,) Meghadūta (The Cloud Messenger,) and, doubtfully, Ṛtusaṃhāra (The Gathering of the Seasons.) He also wrote three plays based on long-established themes—Mālavikāgnimitra (Mālavikā and Agnimitra,) Vikramorvaśīya (Urvaśī Won by Valour,) and the famous Abhijñānaśakuntalā.
Kālidāsa’s most accomplished drama is Abhijñānaśakuntalā (The Recognition of Śakuntalā, commonly referred to as Śakuntalā,) from a story in the Hindu epic Mahabharata. Written at the height of his poetic skill and in full mastery of the procedures and aesthetic potentialities of Sanskrit drama, this play focuses on the encounter between King Dushyanta and the maiden Śakuntalā, their subsequent consummation of love, his loss of memory due to the curse of a sage, the birth of a child to Śakuntalā while she is abandoned, and Dushyanta’s eventual reunion with Śakuntalā. In 1789, Abhijñānaśakuntalā became the first work in Sanskrit to be translated into a modern European language.