The second of the two inferior dramas may be conveniently called Urvashi, though the full title is The Tale of Urvashi won by Valour. When and where the play was first produced we do not know, for the prologue is silent as to these matters. It has been thought that it was the last work of Kalidasa, even that it was never produced in his lifetime. Some support is lent to this theory by the fact that the play is filled with reminiscences of Shakuntala, in small matters as well as in great; as if the poet's imagination had grown weary, and he were willing to repeat himself. Yet Urvashi is a much more ambitious effort than Malavika, and invites a fuller criticism, after an outline of the plot has been given.
In addition to the stage-director and his assistant, who appear in the prologue, the characters of the play are these:
A charioteer, a chamberlain, a hermit-woman, various nymphs and other divine beings, and attendants.
The scene shifts as indicated in the following analysis. The time of the first four acts is a few days. Between acts four and five several years elapse.
ACT I.--The prologue only tells us that we may expect a new play of Kalidasa. A company of heavenly nymphs then appear upon Mount Gold-peak wailing and calling for help. Their cries are answered by King Pururavas, who rides in a chariot that flies through the air. In response to his inquiries, the nymphs inform him that two of their number, Urvashi and Chitralekha, have been carried into captivity by a
demon. The king darts in pursuit, and presently returns, victorious, with the two nymphs. As soon as Urvashi recovers consciousness, and has rejoined her joyful friends, it is made plain that she and the king have been deeply impressed with each other's attractions. The king is compelled to decline an invitation to visit Paradise, but he and Urvashi exchange loving glances before they part.
ACT II.--The act opens with a comic scene in the king's palace. The clown appears, bursting with the secret of the king's love for Urvashi, which has been confided to him. He is joined by the maid Nipunika, commissioned by the queen to discover what it is that occupies the king's mind. She discovers the secret ingeniously, but without much difficulty, and gleefully departs.
The king and the clown then appear in the garden, and the king expresses at some length the depth and seeming hopelessness of his passion. The latter part of his lament is overheard by Urvashi herself, who, impelled by love for the king, has come down to earth with her friend Chitralekha, and now stands near, listening but invisible. When she has heard enough to satisfy her of the king's passion, she writes a love-stanza on a birch-leaf, and lets it fall before him. His reception of this token is such that Urvashi throws aside the magic veil that renders her invisible, but as soon as she has greeted the king, she and her friend are called away to take their parts in a play that is being presented in Paradise.
The king and the clown hunt for Urvashi's love-letter, which has been neglected during the past few minutes. But the leaf has blown away, only to be picked up and read by Nipunika, who at that moment enters with the queen. The queen can hardly be deceived by the lame excuses which the king makes, and after offering her ironical congratulations, jealously leaves him.
ACT III.--The act opens with a conversation between two minor personages in Paradise. It appears that Urvashi had taken the heroine's part in the drama just presented there, and when asked, "On whom is your heart set?" had absent-mindedly replied, "On Pururavas." Heaven's stage-director
had thereupon cursed her to fall from Paradise, but this curse had been thus modified: that she was to live on earth with Pururavas until he should see a child born of her, and was then to return.
The scene shifts to Pururavas' palace. In the early evening, the chamberlain brings the king a message, inviting him to meet the queen on a balcony bathed in the light of the rising moon. The king betakes himself thither with his friend, the clown. In the midst of a dialogue concerning moonlight and love, Urvashi and Chitralekha enter from Paradise, wearing as before veils of invisibility. Presently the queen appears and with humble dignity asks pardon of the king for her rudeness, adding that she will welcome any new queen whom he genuinely loves and who genuinely returns his love. When the queen departs, Urvashi creeps up behind the king and puts her hands over his eyes. Chitralekha departs after begging the king to make her friend forget Paradise.
ACT IV.--From a short dialogue in Paradise between Chitralekha and another nymph, we learn that a misfortune has befallen Pururavas and Urvashi. During their honey-moon in a delightful Himalayan forest, Urvashi, in a fit of jealousy, had left her husband, and had inadvertently entered a grove forbidden by an austere god to women. She was straightway transformed into a vine, while Pururavas is wandering through the forest in desolate anguish.
The scene of what follows is laid in the Himalayan forest. Pururavas enters, and in a long poetical soliloquy bewails his loss and seeks for traces of Urvashi. He vainly asks help of the creatures whom he meets: a peacock, a cuckoo, a swan, a ruddy goose, a bee, an elephant, a mountain-echo, a river, and an antelope. At last he finds a brilliant ruby in a cleft of the rocks, and when about to throw it away, is told by a hermit to preserve it: for this is the gem of reunion, and one who possesses it will soon be reunited with his love. With the gem in his hand, Pururavas comes to a vine which mysteriously reminds him of Urvashi, and when he embraces it, he finds his beloved in his arms. After she has explained to him the reason of her transformation, they determine to return to the king's capital.
ACT V.--The scene of the concluding act is the king's palace. Several years have passed in happy love, and Pururavas has only one sorrow--that he is childless.
One day a vulture snatches from a maid's hand the treasured gem of reunion, which he takes to be a bit of bloody meat, and flies off with it, escaping before he can be killed. While the king and his companions lament the gem's loss, the chamberlain enters, bringing the gem and an arrow with which the bird had been shot. On the arrow is written a verse declaring it to be the property of Ayus, son of Pururavas and Urvashi. A hermit-woman is then ushered in, who brings a lad with her. She explains that the lad had been entrusted to her as soon as born by Urvashi, and that it was he who had just shot the bird and recovered the gem. When Urvashi is summoned to explain why she had concealed her child, she reminds the king of heaven's decree that she should return as soon as Pururavas should see the child to be born to them. She had therefore sacrificed maternal love to conjugal affection. Upon this, the king's new-found joy gives way to gloom. He determines to give up his kingdom and spend the remainder of his life as a hermit in the forest. But the situation is saved by a messenger from Paradise, bearing heaven's decree that Urvashi shall live with the king until his death. A troop of nymphs then enter and assist in the solemn consecration of Ayus as crown prince.
The tale of Pururavas and Urvashi, which Kalidasa has treated dramatically, is first made known to us in the Rigveda. It is thus one of the few tales that so caught the Hindu imagination as to survive the profound change which came over Indian thinking in the passage from Vedic to classical times. As might be expected from its history, it is told in many widely differing forms, of which the oldest and best may be summarised thus.
Pururavas, a mortal, sees and loves the nymph Urvashi. She consents to live with him on earth so long as he shall not break certain trivial conditions. Some time after the birth of a son, these conditions are broken, through no fault of the man, and she leaves him. He wanders disconsolate, finds her, and pleads with her, by her duty as a wife, by her love for her child, even by a threat of suicide. She rejects his
entreaties, declaring that there can be no lasting love between mortal and immortal, even adding: "There are no friendships with women. Their hearts are the hearts of hyenas." Though at last she comforts him with vague hopes of a future happiness, the story remains, as indeed it must remain, a tragedy--the tragedy of love between human and divine.
This splendid tragic story Kalidasa has ruined. He has made of it an ordinary tale of domestic intrigue, has changed the nymph of heaven into a member of an earthly harem. The more important changes made by Kalidasa in the traditional story, all have the tendency to remove the massive, godlike, austere features of the tale, and to substitute something graceful or even pretty. These principal changes are: the introduction of the queen, the clown, and the whole human paraphernalia of a court; the curse pronounced on Urvashi for her carelessness in the heavenly drama, and its modification; the invention of the gem of reunion; and the final removal of the curse, even as modified. It is true that the Indian theatre permits no tragedy, and we may well believe that no successor of Kalidasa could hope to present a tragedy on the stage. But might not Kalidasa, far overtopping his predecessors, have put on the stage a drama the story of which was already familiar to his audience as a tragic story? Perhaps not. If not, one can but wish that he had chosen another subject.
This violent twisting of an essentially tragic story has had a further ill consequence in weakening the individual characters. Pururavas is a mere conventional hero, in no way different from fifty others, in spite of his divine lineage and his successful wooing of a goddess. Urvashi is too much of a nymph to be a woman, and too much of a woman to be a nymph. The other characters are mere types.
Yet, in spite of these obvious objections, Hindu critical opinion has always rated the Urvashi very high, and I have long hesitated to make adverse comments upon it, for it is surely true that every nation is the best judge of its own literature. And indeed, if one could but forget plot and characters, he would find in Urvashi much to attract and charm. There is no lack of humour in the clever maid who worms the clown's secret out of him. There is no lack of a certain shrewdness in the clown, as when he observes:
[paragraph continues] "Who wants heaven? It is nothing to eat or drink. It is just a place where they never shut their eyes--like fishes!"
Again, the play offers an opportunity for charming scenic display. The terrified nymphs gathered on the mountain, the palace balcony bathed in moonlight, the forest through which the king wanders in search of his lost darling, the concluding solemn consecration of the crown prince by heavenly beings--these scenes show that Kalidasa was no closet dramatist. And finally, there is here and there such poetry as only Kalidasa could write. The fourth act particularly, undramatic as it is, is full of a delicate beauty that defies transcription. It was a new and daring thought--to present on the stage a long lyrical monologue addressed to the creatures of the forest and inspired by despairing passion. Nor must it be forgotten that this play, like all Indian plays, is an opera. The music and the dancing are lost. We judge it perforce unfairly, for we judge it by the text alone. If, in spite of all, the Urvashi is a failure, it is a failure possible only to a serene and mighty poet.