The Abhinjanasakunthalam is regarded as the first Indian play translated into a western language. Sir William Jones translated it, and it was later translated into twelve European languages. Some English translations include “The Fatal Ring: an Indian drama” by Sir William Jones, “The Lost Ring: an Indian drama” by Sir Monier Monier Williams, and “Sakuntala and other works” by Arthur W. Ryder.
In Tripti Mund’s thesis, it is mentioned that Abhinjanasakunthalam contains over two hundred verses, mostly uttered by major characters in Sanskrit. The characters’ language is divided according to social status: Vidushaka speaks Prakrit, high-class women, children, and royal servants speak Maharastri, and the other attendants of the royal palace speak Magadhi. Low-class people like cowherds, robbers, and gamblers speak varieties of Prakrit like Abhiri, Paisaci, and Avanti (Mund 24, 25). The themes for any Sanskrit play are usually from history or epic legend, but the dramatist mixes them up with fictitious inventions, as Kalidasa has done in many places in Abhinjanasakunthalam.
The play commences with Nandi, followed by the prologue. The stage manager, with his wife or assistant, introduces the actors and informs the audience of the play. Apart from religious festivals, marriage, and birth, the Sanskrit stage adhered to the high ideals of Indian culture. The theme of the play is based on the Indian philosophy that true love is immortal. Rabindranath Tagore explains this theme of love in Kalidasa’s Sakuntala. He says that Kalidasa has shown that while infatuation leads to failure, beneficence achieves complete fruition. Beauty is constant only when upheld by virtue. The highest form of love is the tranquil, controlled, and beneficent form. In regulation lies the true charm, and lawless excess leads to the speedy corruption of beauty. He refuses to acknowledge passion as the supreme glory of love and proclaims goodness as the final goal of love. (Krishnamachariar 590)
As mentioned before, most Sanskrit plays begin with a prayer or a Nandi. The Nandi is essentially addressed to a deity, and for Kalidasa, it was Lord Siva. According to the essay by Lockwood and Bhatt, classical dramatists have infused the body of verse with genetic elements, which is the first source of organic continuity in the structure of a Sanskrit play. The Nandi is thus an embryo of the play (Lockwood & Bhatt 1).
A mere read-through would not reveal the inner meanings of the Nandi because many ideas are only suggested, making it even more complex for even a well-read reader to grasp. The meanings become clearer as the play proceeds. The sthapaka suggests the story by a simple beginning or by naming the character, as in Sakuntalam. Then, the sthapaka pleases the audience with songs descriptive of some seasons. The Prasthavana is of two types: the Prarochana and the Aamukha. Here, the sutradhara holds conversations with the actress or the assistant, bearing on the subject.
The classical Indian idea of drama is that of a work representing the march of the three worlds. Bharata speaks of it as a sacrifice. This idea comes from the Purusa sukta of the Rg-Veda, where the whole world is seen as a sacrifice. According to A. Berriedale Keith, Indian tradition gives drama a divine origin and close connections to the Vedas (Keith 12). The most potent idea of the drama being a sacrifice appears in the Nandi or the prologue. There are two important levels of suggestiveness: cosmic creation, which is seen in the Purusa sukta of the Rg-Veda, and procreation, also mentioned in the Rg Veda.
In Sakuntalam, The Nandi begins with a reference to the foremost creation of the creator, which suggests the Waters (the female) at the cosmic level and Sakuntala, the daughter of an apsara, at the erotic-procreative level” (Bhatt, pg. 18). The first two clauses of the Nandi, therefore, suggest the union of fire and water, implying the structure of drama as a sacrifice since fire and water are inevitable elements in a sacrifice.
According to the Natya-Sastra, the Nandi should hint at the characters in the play and the dramatic plot through words and meaning. The two clauses refer to Sakuntala and Dusyanta, identified with water and fire, the two principles of creation. The sutradhara, or director of the play, and the nati, or heroine, will later be reborn as the hero and heroine in the play. After Nandi, the sutradhara gives a speech to the nati, connotative of the sringara rasa. Implied meanings can be found in the verses after the sutradhara’s speech. For example, when asked to sing a song about the summer season, the nati’s verse explicitly states the pleasures of nature in early summer, but at a higher level, it also has a suggestive sexual implication. The song is a prelude to the happenings at the end of act three.