The Sacrificial Ritual as Metadrama in Kālidāsa’s Śākuntalam

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Classical Indian ñaka seems to have chosen to portray the four objectives of ancient Indian life in a variety of sacrificial rituals which provide models for the proper balance between desire (Kāma) and Dharma, on the one hand, and material possession (Artha) and Dharma on the other. The balances portrayed by the playwrights can be seen (D®ßya) and heard (Śravya), thought about and felt because the ñaka, as Kālidāsa says, is a visual sacrifice (Cākßußam kratuð – Mālavikāgnimitram, Act I). It is precisely because the actual turning points and limits of each one of these objectives are vague to ordinary perception that we need sacrificial rituals in order to conceive them. The ñaka as a sacrificial ritual creates a refined turning point that will stand for the slow, gradual, but very important, process of emerging with orientations and susceptibilities on the part of the spectator. The sacrificial rituals also confirm for us the need to live in complete harmony with the universe – a harmony which is solely dependent on the maintenance of the balance of the objectives mentioned above. Every time a sacrificial ritual is performed, it is a kind of revalidation of cultural ensemble in which it exists, both as a part of it and as a totality within the frame into which it is fitted.

Thus sacrificial rituals are exactly like (ñakas) or, one might say, “Plays are sacrifices” (Ijyā is the word that Bharata uses). Both employ the same set of codes that enable people to understand themselves and their activities – their world, so to say – through the medium of their cultural totality. And because the set of codes used is the same (Ārambha, Yatna, Prāptyāśa, Niyatāpti, Phalaprāpti), there are no clear-cut basic differences.

Dußyanta, the hero of Kālidāśa’s play Śākuntalam, takes on a full-fledged characterization in the play which is a sacrificial ritual and in which he, “for the welfare of the world, implants the vital seed”; and Śakuntalā, who “bears that seed, allows it to grow and sprout in her womb,” until, finally, it yields the much-intended fruit.

Dußyantēnâhitaì tējō dadhānaì bhūtayē bhuvað |

Avēhi tanayāì Brahman-nagni-garbhāì śamīm-iva ||

Know, Brahman! that Dußyanta has,

For the welfare of the world,

Implanted the vital seed,

And your daughter, bearing it as she does,

Is now, like the fire-wombed Śamī tree.

As in a sacrificial ritual, there are signs of the vital seed being lost as well as efforts meant for its rediscovery and fruition. The characters in the Śākuntalam thus seem to dissolve the boundaries of sacrificial ritual and ñaka as they would do in plays within plays. In this process, the plot seems to assume the structure of a sacrificial altar with its implications of the union between the male and the female, and eternal, multi-layered sacrificial (ritualistic) creative process.

How Should Drama Be


Drama must relate to reality, to itself, and to culture generally. Realistic theory implies that all elements of drama (including those of performance) can be tested in terms of how close to, or far away from, life they are. But drama is never about reality directly. Plays operate within a context of cultural codes, including that drama itself, and surrounding that, other cultural systems including those of theatre, literature and social behaviour. Drama is always about the way we perceive reality through culture of which dram itself forms a part.

All plays, in a sense, are metadramatic. Broadly speaking, metadrama is drama within or upon drama and also drama about drama. There are varieties of metadrama, however, of varying degrees of explicitness, and the more explicit the metadrama, the more it generates a sense of estrangement in the audience, who are forced to realign their perception of the dramatic illusion. Such estrangement is the ultimate aim of serious drama.