An Indian poet and dramatist, Kalidasa lived sometime between
the reign of Agnimitra, the second Shunga king
(c. 170 BC) who was the hero of one of his dramas, and the Aihole
inscription of AD 634 which praises Kalidasa's poetic skills.
Most scholars now associate him with the reign of Candra Gupta
II (reigned c. 380-c. 415).
Little is known about Kalidasa's life. According to legend,
the poet was known for his beauty which brought him to the attention
of a princess who married him. However, as legend has it, Kalidasa
had grown up without much education, and the princess was ashamed
of his ignorance and coarseness. A devoted worshipper of the
goddess Kali (his name means literally Kali's slave), Kalidasa
is said to have called upon his goddess for help and was rewarded
with a sudden and extraordinary gift of wit. He is then said
to have become the most brilliant of the "nine gems"
at the court of the fabulous king Vikramaditya of Ujjain. Legend
also has it that he was murdered by a courtesan in Sri Lanka
during the reign of Kumaradasa.
Kalidasa's first surviving play, Malavikagnimitra or
Malavika and Agnimitra tells the story of King Agnimitra,
a ruler who falls in love with the picture of an exiled servant
girl named Malavika. When the queen discovers her husbands passion
for this girl, she becomes infuriated and has Malavika imprisoned,
but as fate would have it, Malavika is in fact a true-born princess,
thus legitimizing the affair.
Kalidasa's second play, generally considered his masterpiece,
is the Shakuntala which tells the story of another king,
Dushyanta, who falls in love with another girl of lowly birth,
the lovely Shakuntala. This time, the couple is happily married
and things seem to be going smoothly until Fate intervenes. When
the king is called back to court by some pressing business, his
new bride unintentionally offends a saint who puts a curse on
her, erasing the young girl entirely from the king's memory.
Softening, however, the saint concedes that the king's memory
will return when Shakuntala returns to him the ring he gave her.
This seems easy enough--that is, until the girl loses the ring
while bathing. And to make matters worse, she soon discovers
that she is pregnant with the king's child. But true love is
destined to win the day, and when a fisherman finds the ring,
the king's memory returns and all is well. Shakuntala
is remarkable not only for it's beautiful love poetry, but also
for its abundant humor which marks the play from beginning to
The last of Kalidasa's surviving plays, Vikramorvashe
or Urvashi Conquered by Valor, is more mystical than the
earlier plays. This time, the king (Pururavas) falls in love
with a celestial nymph named Urvashi. After writing her mortal
suitor a love letter on a birch leaf, Urvashi returns to the
heavens to perform in a celestial play. However, she is so smitten
that she misses her cue and pronounces her lover's name during
the performance. As a punishment for ruining the play, Urvashi
is banished from heaven, but cursed to return the moment her
human lover lays eyes on the child that she will bear him. After
a series of mishaps, including Urvashi's temporary transformation
into a vine, the curse is eventually lifted, and the lovers are
allowed to remain together on Earth. Vikramorvashe is
filled poetic beauty and a fanciful humor that is reminiscent
of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's
In addition to his plays, Kalidasa wrote two surviving epic
poems Raghuvamsha ("Dynasty of Raghu") and Kumarasambhava
("Birth of the War God"), as well as the lyric "Meghaduta"
("Cloud Messenger"). He is generally considered to
be the greatest Indian writer of any epoch.