Published in Speaking Tree on March 25, 2012.
She was abandoned on the forest floor, dropped by her mother, Menaka, the Apsara, who had successfully seduced Vishwamitra, the Tapasvin. Mission accomplished, the water-nymph returned to the paradise of Indra. His austerities broken, the fire-ascetic walked away ashamed, determined to win back control of his senses. On the forest floor lay a girl-child, proof of a nymph’s victory and an ascetic’s defeat, alone, weeping, food for vultures who gathered around her.
This is how the Rishi Kanva found her: under the shadow of birds (shakunta). Hence, he named her Shakuntala, and raised her as his own.
Then one day, when she was a young beautiful maiden, and her father was away, a handsome prince came to the hermitage. It was Dushyanta, prince of Hastinapur. He had never seen such a beautiful, innocent girl before, a gentle doe. And she had never seen such a handsome man, truly a virile buck. They flirted. They courted. They finally mated, like beasts in the forest, under the sky, without waiting for social sanction, not even a father’s approval. Then he went away, leaving her behind. He could not wait till Kanva returned and it would be inappropriate to take her without Kanva’s permission. But he promised to be back, meet Kanva, and ask her hand in marriage. “You shall be my queen,” he said.
Now, the story changes.
In Vyasa’s version, written 2000 years ago, as part of the epic Mahabharata, Kanva returns and finds his daughter with child. He smiles. The child is born. It is a son. He is raised by Kanva and Shakuntala in the forest. He is a brave boy, with the power to put his hand in the mouth of a lion and count its teeth. When he grows up, he wonders who his father is. So Shakuntala takes him to meet Dushyanta. Dushyanta, however, does not remember her. He insults her as a woman of loose morals and accuses her of trying to stake a claim over his kingdom. Shakuntala stands before him unperturbed. “This is your father,” she tells her son and turns around with dignity. The gods then speak up for her and Dushyanta is forced to apologize and take back his words. He claims he spoke thus because he wanted the support of his people so that no one challenges the legitimacy of his son. Shakuntala laughs: a forest maid, she has no notion of social approval, legitimacy or marital rights.
In Kalidasa’s version, written 500 years later, at the height of court culture of the Gupta period, when Dushyanta does not return, Kanva insists that a very pregnant Shakuntala go to him, as a wife should. But in court, Dushyanta cannot remember her. Why? Because of a curse of Durvasa, a hot-tempered sage who was angered by the lovesick Shakuntala’s distractions. Shakuntala loses the ring that Dushyanta had given her. Heartbroken, Shakuntala leaves the king’s palace and returns, some say to the forest, some say to her mother’s abode. After she departs, a fisherman finds the ring and gives it to the king and memory returns. A shattered Dushyanta searches for his beloved everywhere, in vain. Years later, after helping the Devas win a war against Asuras, Indra leads Dushyanta to a meadow where he finds a child counting the teeth of a lion. The child’s armband falls off. Dushyanta ties it back. “Only his father or his mother can do so,” say the gods, revealing that the child is Dushyanta’s. Thus Shakuntala is reunited and there is a happy ending, after long years of longing and separation.
Kalidasa’s Shakuntala seeks her husband while Vyasa’s Shakuntala seeks her son’s father. Kalidasa’s Shakuntala is very conscious of social stigma while Vyasa’s Shakuntala is indifferent to it. Kalidasa’s Shakuntala is a frail lovelorn heroine; Vyasa’s Shakuntala is autonomous and dignified. This perhaps is a reflection of change in social values and gender identity over time.