Caturvidhābhinaya in the Kumārasambhava of Kālidāsa - Part 1

This article is part 1 of 9 in the series Caturvidhābhinaya in the Kumārasambhava

The current series of articles attempts to examine the merits and difficulties in bringing Caturvidhābhinaya in classical literature. The epic poems, i.e., the mahākāvyas of Kālidāsa have stood the test of time and are known for their rich content, magnificent plots, impactful modes of expression and profound spirit. The Kumārasambhava, though smaller among the two mahākāvyas of Kālidāsa, gives aesthetic delight in a concentrated form in a shorter span.

Both kāvya and nāṭya, i.e., classical poetry and theatre art aim at telling stories that can elevate the connoisseur to a state of uber-worldly ecstasy. Both work as spring-boards – rooted in the earth but gently pushing the rasika to heights of great delight. Abhinava-gupta, in his Abhinava-bhāratī, succinctly defines kāvya as follows -

काव्ये तु गुणालङ्कारमनोहरशब्दार्थशरीरे लोकोत्तररसप्राणके हृदयसंवादवशात् निमग्नाकारिका तावद्भवति चित्तवृत्तिः । (Chapter 1 of the Nāṭyaśāstra, commentary for the verse 107)

Kāvya has guṇa, alaṅkāra and enrapturing śabda and artha for its body, and Rasa which transcends the world for its breath. Through these media, the kāvya resonates with the connoisseur’s heart and helps in immersing his emotional landscape in aesthetic pleasure.

Bhāṭṭa-tauta, who Abhinava-gupta reveres as his teacher, puts in a nut-shell, the nature of kāvya and nāṭya:

अनुभावविभावानां वर्णना काव्यमुच्यते |
तेषामेव प्रयोगस्तु नाट्यं गीतादि रञ्जितम् ||

The creative description of anubhāvas and vibhāvas constitutes a kāvya, i.e., the causes and effects of different stable emotional states (sthāyi-bhāva) is poetry. These very aspects, when put in practise, i.e., when staged through an audio-visual medium, result in nāṭya and gīta.

 All the three – kāvya, nāṭya and gīta, are charming modes of entertainment, in their own right and possess features that are unique to the particular form and not translatable.

Bhāṭṭa-tauta further says - प्रयोगत्वमनापन्ने काव्ये नास्वादसम्भवः – At the first glance, the statement suggests that a kāvya which cannot be put into practise, i.e., cannot be performed, is not enjoyable. To see the statement from another perspective, one could say that a kāvya that lacks nāṭyāyamānatā, i.e., dramatization in the mental arena of the connoisseur, can certainly not be relished. In other words, the verbal descriptions of anubhāva and vibhāva in the kāvya that are carried out through the media of guṇa, alaṅkāra, śabda and artha, as per Abhinava-gupta should translate, in the words of Bhāṭṭa-tauta, into a concrete audio-visual effect in the minds of the connoisseur. This is true in the experience of any conscious connoisseur of literature – only if he is able to imagine in flesh and blood, the characters of the literary work he is reading, will the work be enjoyable. If not, he will only be left with vague ideas about several elements of the work.

In this background, it is not surprising that Aristotle, the Greek philosopher-aesthetician who belonged to the 4th Century BCE, though names his magnum-opus Περὶ ποιητικῆς (‘On Poetry/ Poetics’), he spends large sections of his work on describing the necessary and sufficient features that a drama must possess. While it might look strange that a work on literary aesthetics should end up speaking largely about theatre art, Aristotle perhaps, does so because poetry should lead to dramatization in the mental area of the connoisseur. In other words, poetry should translate into a play in the minds of its readers. He makes this thought both explicit and implicit in his work

The Apparent ‘Advantages’ of Nāṭya

Nāṭya uses four modes of artistic communication (abhinaya) to convey ideas, emotions and stories to the audience. The four modes, namely āhārya, āṅgika, vācika and sāttvika all work together to present anubhāva, vibhāva and vyabhicāri-bhāvas in nāṭya, which in-turn bolster the sthāyi-bhāva, thereby evoking Rasa – the very life of any form of art.

The effects of these four modes of abhinaya will need to be brought only through the verbal medium in a kāvya.

Let us examine the kind of advantages that nāṭya, at a first glance, might seem to possess because of the four possible media of abhinaya, against a kāvya, which appears to be thrice crippled and needs to use only vācika (verbal medium of expression) as it crutches.

  1. Āhāryābhinaya Nāṭya or theatre art, employs different kinds of stage properties, costumes, facial colours, lighting and other subsidiary objects to effectively communicate ideas. For instance, in a play based on the Rāmāyaṇa, the character of Śūrpanakha gets established in a matter of a few seconds with the entry of a female character dressed in disgusting garments, with unkempt hair, long nails and canine teeth and blood dripping all over her body. The scenery also gets registered by the backdrop and the different elements of stage properties used by the director of the nāṭya. In addition, in today’s theatre, lights of different colours can suggest different emotions and additional elements such as artificial smoke can add to the effect of āvaraṇa-nirmāṇa, i.e., the atmosphere. All these, which the audience can observe and register in a fraction of a second, will need to be brought out through words by a poet.
  2. Āṅgikābhinaya - A simple movement of the body, say the twitching of the eyebrow or waving of the hand when filled with sattva can easily and effectively communicate the intended emotion. Shyness, fear or romantic love can be communicated simultaneously through the subtle movement of different parts of the body.  Similarly, the height, age and the bodily frame of the character, his gait, temperament and character-type – all get revealed with the mere appearance of the actor dressed in the particular fashion. These too need to be brought out through words by the poet.
  3. Vācikābhinaya: Though words are a medium of communication for both the poet and for artistes in a play, there are several elements of the medium available to the latter but not to the former. Music – vocal and instrumental can be creatively used to render different kinds of effects in a theatre art. It can be used to intensify emotions and as auditory fillers to remove monotony in a nāṭya. Additionally, as actors who play character roles deliver dialogues, the tone, texture and the emotion embedded in their voices along with the variation in the volume and hidden sentiments can be deciphered by the audience. Moreover, nāṭya can employ vācika both in the gadya and padya form, i.e., as prose and poetry, all coming through kavinibaddha-prauḍhokti (the poet speaking through the characters). Nāṭya can also use different kinds of prākṛta, bringing the language closer to that of the world, there-by easily evoking rasas rooted in lokadharmī such as hāsya.

    An epic poet is bound by the medium – his form is stylized to a large extent. A poet like Kālidāsa uses Sanskrit as the language of expression and adheres to different metrical patterns – chandas. It is harder to bring lokadharmī when the medium of expression is stylized and a verse has constraints which prose does not. Though these might seem to be additional layers of crippling, the article will show how the poet succeeds in his medium by bringing in dimensions which nāṭya cannot even imagine.
  4.  Sāttvikābhinaya – Bharata, in the Nāṭyaśāstra, lists eight kinds of sāttvika-vikāras and several more are possible to be brought out by a talented artiste of the nāṭya. For instance, an actor, who is deeply involved in the character role he is playing on the stage, sheds tears naturally, as the situation might demand and those very water droplets transport the audience to dimensions beyond imagination. Similarly, when the actor feels horripilation (romāñca), undergoes a change in facial (or bodily) colour (vaivarṇya) or even naturally trembles (kampana) as the situation demands, they create long lasting and deep impact in the hearts of the sahṛdaya. However, merely reporting these elements of sāttvika as a fact in a kāvya can totally remove the value it would have had in a nāṭya. Thus, the poet will need to be conscious about the manner in which he brings about these elements through his kāvya.

While these might appear to be the advantages of a nāṭya, Kālidāsa easily circumvents these apparent ‘shortcomings’ in the verbal medium and effectively.  

The article attempts to examine the nuanced nature of the Kumārasambhava, which adds several layers to the four modes of abhinaya, sometimes explicitly and at times, implicitly. The genius of Kālidāsa optimizes what is literally told and what is left untold, and the latter naturally adds volumes of dhvani leading ultimately to aesthetic delight. The article also delineates and highlights the places where the elements of abhinaya are effectively brought out by the poet and where they are impactfully suggested. It also establishes, how, at several places, the manner in which this mahākāvya is untranslatable to any other form of art and, at times, to any other language of the world.


Kumārasambhava – Its Philosophy

While there are several dimensions of philosophy impregnated by the poet in his epic, the following is an overview just from the perspective of abhinaya. The story is, in sum, the graduation of Pārvatī from the levels of āhārya and āṅgika to Sāttvika; from the level of verbose vācika to the that where no words can be uttered. It is the tale of Pārvatī’s transcendence from the beauty at the material and the physical level to that of the spirit – Ātma-saundarya or Sāttvika-saundarya. It is the grand narrative of the awakening of Śiva –a Jīvanmukta for performing acts of Lokasaṅgraha. The epic is an elaborate commentary on the poet’s epigrammatic line that occurs in the Raghuvaṃśa -  “प्रजायै गृहमेधिनाम्” – The spiritual union of Śiva and Pārvatī is to achieve the material purpose of producing a ‘Kumāra’, whose very name means ‘a son’, who will be the best of his kind, leads the army of the devas and destroys evil – he is the greatest citizen of the world. It is the story of the ‘जगतः पितरौ’ producing ‘कुमार’ – the Son!  

This spiritual process is also implicitly narrated by the manner in which Kāma’s (Manmatha’s) āhārya and āṅgika are as despicable as ashes, as it is dharma-viruddha at the particular instance. It is the sāttvika of Manmatha that is of importance – he goes from being sāṅga to anaṅga. It is rati-bhāva getting elevated to śṛṅgāra-rasa, culminating in śānta in Pārvatī, which can help her realise Śiva within her. That Śiva is also the eternal Truth and absolute Beauty – Satya and Sundara.

This graduation is also reflected in the usage of words – vācika. The parvata-rāja-kanyā, Pārvatī traverses the path of Umā, to ultimately become Śivā – inseparable from Śiva in nāma, rūpa and svarūpa, i.e., in vācika, āṅgika and sāttvika. Āhārya of the ardhanārīśvara is merely a symbol for a profound sattva lying underneath.

An epic, which possess the philosophical backdrop as narrated above, is bound to have the play of the four modes of abhinaya. Additionally, the epic Kumārasambhava has such a smaller number of characters compared to other poems which fall under the genre of the mahākāvya that, one might even get surprised how it gets to be classified as one. While its profundity makes it an epic, the lesser number of characters make the analysis of nāṭyāyamānatā an easier one.

To be continued...


[1] Kumārasambhava and Raghuvaṃśa of Kālidāsa with the commentary of Mallinātha

[2] The Nāṭyaśāstra of Bharata with Abhinava-bhāratī of Abhinava-gupta

[3] Dhvanyāloka of Ānandavardhana with the Locana of Abhinava-gupta

[4] Bhāratī-locana, Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh, Prekshaa Pratishtana Bangalore, 2018




Arjun is a writer, translator, engineer, and enjoys composing poems. He is well-versed in Sanskrit, Kannada, English, Greek, and German languages. His research interests lie in comparative aesthetics of classical Greek and Sanskrit literature. He has deep interest in the theatre arts and music. Arjun has (co-) translated the works of AR Krishna Shastri, DV Gundappa, Dr. SL Bhyrappa, Dr. SR Ramaswamy and Shatavadhani Dr. R Ganesh

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Evolution of Mahabharata and Other Writings on the Epic is the English translation of S R Ramaswamy's 1972 Kannada classic 'Mahabharatada Belavanige' along with seven of his essays on the great epic. It tells the riveting...

Shiva-Rama-Krishna is an English adaptation of Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh's popular lecture series on the three great...


ಮಹಾಮಾಹೇಶ್ವರ ಅಭಿನವಗುಪ್ತ ಜಗತ್ತಿನ ವಿದ್ಯಾವಲಯದಲ್ಲಿ ಮರೆಯಲಾಗದ ಹೆಸರು. ಮುಖ್ಯವಾಗಿ ಶೈವದರ್ಶನ ಮತ್ತು ಸೌಂದರ್ಯಮೀಮಾಂಸೆಗಳ ಪರಮಾಚಾರ್ಯನಾಗಿ  ಸಾವಿರ ವರ್ಷಗಳಿಂದ ಇವನು ಜ್ಞಾನಪ್ರಪಂಚವನ್ನು ಪ್ರಭಾವಿಸುತ್ತಲೇ ಇದ್ದಾನೆ. ಭರತಮುನಿಯ ನಾಟ್ಯಶಾಸ್ತ್ರವನ್ನು ಅರ್ಥಮಾಡಿಕೊಳ್ಳಲು ಇವನೊಬ್ಬನೇ ನಮಗಿರುವ ಆಲಂಬನ. ಇದೇ ರೀತಿ ರಸಧ್ವನಿಸಿದ್ಧಾಂತವನ್ನು...


“वागर्थविस्मयास्वादः” प्रमुखतया साहित्यशास्त्रतत्त्वानि विमृशति । अत्र सौन्दर्यर्यशास्त्रीयमूलतत्त्वानि यथा रस-ध्वनि-वक्रता-औचित्यादीनि सुनिपुणं परामृष्टानि प्रतिनवे चिकित्सकप्रज्ञाप्रकाशे। तदन्तर एव संस्कृतवाङ्मयस्य सामर्थ्यसमाविष्कारोऽपि विहितः। क्वचिदिव च्छन्दोमीमांसा च...

The Best of Hiriyanna

The Best of Hiriyanna is a collection of forty-eight essays by Prof. M. Hiriyanna that sheds new light on Sanskrit Literature, Indian...

Stories Behind Verses

Stories Behind Verses is a remarkable collection of over a hundred anecdotes, each of which captures a story behind the composition of a Sanskrit verse. Collected over several years from...