In the fourth century, or earlier, King Vikramaditya gathered to his court the navaratna or nine jewels of Indian culture. Pre eminent among these was Kalidasa, the Sanskrit poet and dramatist. His creative genius made him greatest writer in Sanskrit and one of the world's literary immortals.
Kalidasa’s poem "Kumara Sambhavam" expresses ideas that the rishis of ancient India evolved as to the principles underlying cosmic and human life. These ideas are now regarded as the loftiest and most profound in the history of the human mind. In the India of Kalidasa, they were natural to high and low, they influenced the thoughts and action of not only the cultured strata of society but also of the so called lower classes to whom devotion to the Powers behind life meant everything.
In "Kumara Sambhavam", Kalidasa gives an account of the circumstances that made the creation (sambhavam) of Kumara an urgent necessity in order to save the three worlds (material, mental, spiritual) from the wicked attentions of a demon on whom Brahma, the Creator, had conferred powers which the demon, Taraka, turned to other purposes then those intended.
Here is obviously a reflection of the universal quarrel between good and evil, light and darkness, positive and negative, that are the subject of "savior myths" from time immemorial. The common origin is the creative life of the universe. The "evil deeds" of the demon Taraka came out of the powers bestowed on him by Brahma. The "good deeds" that Goddess Parvati (called also Sati and Uma) was to perform in creating Kumara to overcome Taraka, came also out of the mind of Brahma. Evil could not affect goodness, good could not react to evil, unless behind their external mayavic ("illusory") differences there was a coordinating unity.
This is subtly indicated in what may ne called the "moral" of the poem, as it emerges towards the close, in the dramatic disclosure of Shiva in the disguise of an ascetic, and his fulfillment of Parvati’s ambition to serve Him as His consort. Where the wiles of the body and the plot of Kama, the god of the senses, had failed, austerity had succeeded. Yet soul and body are not set over against one another: they are "cooperative antagonists" in carrying out the will of Brahma.
In a reference to "Kumara Sambhavam" in an essay on the inner meaning of "Sakuntala", Rabindranath Tagore emphasizes the two principles of life that are inherent in Indian thought, the tie of home life and the freedom of the soul. Between these there is complete harmony. Love gives warmth and responsibility to devotion to the highest; devotion purifies, elevates and liberates love.
The presentation, therefore, of stories such as "Kumara Sambhavam" out of the traditional imagination of India, given with the reverence and beauty due to them, as is done by the Kalakshetra, lifts them out of the level of mere entertainment to the height of sacred ritual, and makes the place of performances a Temple of Art.
The essential features of Kalidasa’s poem, "Kumara Sambhavam", have been adapted to stage presentation by Srimati Rukmini Devi, who not only created the multitude of appropriate postures, gestures and movements in conformity with the traditional dance drama of south India, the Bharata Natya, and reproduced the spirit of Kalidasa’s era, but directed and produced the dance. Classic Sanskrit play was thought by Pandit Subramania Sastri. He along with Adi Narayana Sarma and Venkatachala Sastri together edited the text and prepared usable script for presentation through dance.
The music of this version has been created by the master of classical Indian music Sangita Visaradam Sangita Kalanidhi Tiger Lion K. Varadachariar.
There have been other dramatic versions of the story of "Kumara Sambhavam"; but, as far as is known, the present version, taken directly from Kalidasa's Sanskrit poem, is the first full evening’s presentation in Bharata Natya of the ancient poet's immortal rendering of the Puranic story.
After the success of Rukmini Devi’s first dance drama, Kutrala Kuravanji, art lovers and friends were eager that should produce another. Dr. Arundale and K.S. Ramaswami Sastri were particular that she should produce Kalidasa's Kumarasambhavam. Rukmini Devi was the Secretary of Besant Centenary Celebrations Committee and worked hard with the help of eminent persons like Dr. Cousins to make the celebrations worthwhile. It was decided that she should produce Kumarasambhavam. Tiger Varadachariar who had come to Kalakshetra as its first Principal, with the inauguration of the Sangita Siromani course, was requested to compose music for this.
S. Venkatachala Sastri, our Sanskrit teacher, and B.S. Adinarayana Sarma, Kalakshetra's Sanskrit Pandit, and I (i.e. Periya Sarada) had a difficult task editing Kalidasa’s work for dance drama. The poetry was so beautiful and it was very hard work making the choice! K. Sankara Menon, who had gone to Europe with Rukmini Devi, had fallen ill in Belgium and had to undergo treatment in Switzerland. He returned only in 1949. His guidance in editing the work was not available.
Rukmini Devi gave a general guideline about what she needed for the stage presentation of the story as well as about the music. The opening scene was to be the invocation to the Himalayas, the abode of Siva and Parvati. Rukmini Devi desired that the ten verses of description should be set to music which should be grand to suit the majesty of the great mountains. This music should resemble thanam without tala. And only have a general rhythm; it should not be like any set type of music. I thought this an impossibility. When Kamala Rani and I went to Tiger and related this request of Rukmini Devi, he laughed and exclaimed sabash. Rukmini Devi wished that the poetry which described the birth of Parvati should be like a padam.
She particularly wanted that the central piece of music of the dance drama should proclaim the greatness of Lord Siva, in the slow tempo. Tiger used a copy of the Kumara Sambhavam in Telugu script. I related the meaning of the verses to him. He said he would compose two verses each in the five gana ragas. Without any hesitation, he began singing Astyuttarasyam in Nattai and we were wonderstruck and just managed to write down. It was an unforgettable experience in our lives to have worked with this genius, a master musician. Music just flowed out of him in all its glory, music unequalled in its original creativity. Only Rukmini Devi could have composed the dance to match this music, Tiger's musical composition blended with the meaning of the poetry to enhance its beauty.
Rukmini Devi assembled five dancers on the stage to commence the composition of the dance drama and heard the music and innately beautiful conception and ideas began to unfold immediately on the stage with the Apsaras worshipping the Himalayas. After the puja, the Apsaras dance to drum syllables and swaras in the five gana ragas. Next the chief Apsara A.Sarada danced to the padam like song describing the advent of Parvati and her graceful growth live the waxing moon.
In the second scene, Indra pleads with Brahma to save the Devas and the three worlds from Tarakasura, who was uncontrollable because of a boon given by Brahma. Brahma says, "If a son is born to Shiva and Parvati he will destroy the evil Asura." T.K. Chandu Panikkar, the great Kathakali artiste, enacted Brahma in the Kathakali style, in keeping with the song in the Saraswathi raga. D. Pasupati was Indra.
There was a chorus who used to recite the verses to provide the connecting link for the story on the stage. This recitation was done in resonance with suitable ragas.
The third scene is dominated by Manmatha, the Lord of Love (Cupid). He enters and boasts about his power of conquest achieved through the kindling of love. A noteworthy ragamalika expresses this boastfulness. C.V. Chandrasekhar was Manmatha incarnate. Indra persuades Manmatha to endeavor to invoke love for Parvati in Lord Shiva, who was engaged in a severe penance. Tiger has used Dhanyasi for this persuasion.
In the fourth scene, two of Parvati’s sakhi describe the untimely advent of spring caused by Manmatha. Parvati enters bedecked in colorful flowers to the song Asoka nirbhartsitha in Kambodi, a most unusual composition of Tiger in the slow tempo, displaying depth, graces or gamakas and the flow of melody and the variation in pitch. Parvati and the sakhis attend on Lord Shiva. Manmatha enters and releases his arrow of flowers on Lord Shiva, when PArvati is about to offer a garland of lotus seeds to him. Lord Shiva is attracted to Parvati, but realizing that he had been disturbed in his penance, opens his Third Eye in annoyance. A spark from this eye destroys Manmatha. C.V. Chandrasekhar enacted this most heart rendingly and was always applauded. Rukmini Devi as Parvati expressed varying moods in an unparalleled manner, at this crucial juncture in the dance drama.
In the fifth scene, Parvati undertakes severe penance to attain Lord Shiva. What she had failed to attain through beauty, she endeavors to obtain by austerities. With slokas sung by Pasupati in his melodious voice, the sakhis describe Parvati's penance. Parvati is approached by an ascetic, who asks in wonder, why such an enchanting damsel like her should undertake penance. Chandu Panikkar, as the ascetic, was superb using the Kathakali style. Then he says that she should be sought after, and Not be seeking. Overcome by shyness, and unable to answer his persuasive questions, Parvati signals to her sakhis to do so. Rukmini Devi with a beautiful movement of the eyes indicated this to the sakhis. The sakhis then say that Parvati seeks union with none other then Lord Shiva himself. This portion is danced to a song in Bilahari. The ascetic (Chandu Panikkar) seeks confirmation of this from Parvati. Parvati answers that she was seeking the supremely unattainable as there was no limit to one's aspirations. Rukmini Devi danced to this song in Bhavapriya. Chandu Panikkar, as the sage, to the Sloka in Nindasthuthi, expresses the uncouth grotesqueness of Lord Shiva in its aspects.
In answer to this, Parvati extols the greatness of Shiva. This is the central piece in the dance drama. The song Paramarthatho haram in the raga Lathangi in the very slow tempo (Nalu kalai chaukkam) was danced most wondrously by Rukmini Devi, who used to improvise the dance abhinaya on the stage picturing the glories of Lord Shiva. As she turns away in disgust, the ascetic takes his own form and appears as God Shiva and accepts the pure love of Parvati. Rajamani, one of the earliest men students of Kalakshetra, enacted Shiva and was encouraged by Rukmini Devi in portraying this difficult role.
The sixth scene in the marriage of Shiva and Parvati. The sakhis dance to ragamalika with swaras in Atana, Shanmukhapriya, Shama and Vasantha. They describe the wedding procession of Shiva and Parvati and the appropriateness of their union. The wedding ceremony is enacted to music in Ritigoula. This is a most picturesque scene and a fitting finale to the dance dramawith the appearance of Vishnu, Brahaspatthi, Brahma and others. The dance drama ends with a tillana done in Kannada danced by four apsaras before the divine bridal couple, and they beseech Lord Shiva to restore Manmatha to life. Manmatha and Rati appear and joyously prostrate before the God. Then the mangalam in Madhyamavati is sung by the orchestra.
During the music composition Tiger always used to tell us in advance in what raga and tala he was going to compose a verse and why it was suited to the sentiments expressed and the meter used. Then the music would flow forth from him and we had to write it down quickly. The time factor was of no consequence to Tiger, while composing. At times he suffered from stomach pain. He had summer boils while the Kumarasambhavam composition was going on. Occasionally, for personal reasons, he could not compose music. But he made up fpr it the next day with additional work. Sometimes he used to lie down on a mat and compose, and then he became enthusiastic, used to get up and continue with joy.
For dress rehearsals of Kumarasambhavam, a couple of days prior to its scheduled premiere, both the dance and the music had been composed only up to the end of the fifths scene. Rukmini Devi used to compose the dances in the mornings and rehearsals were held in the evenings. We used to go to Tiger, in between, for the music composition. Rukmini Devi was concerned, because the marriage scene was yet to be composed. She consulted Tiger and the young dancers. Rukmini Devi retorted humorously that she would also be able to compose the dance, but what about the dancers! The dancers were very enthusiastic and said they would work hard, rehearse and do their best. None of them desired that the staging of the Kumarasambhavam should be dropped and the Kutrala Kuravanji staged instead. Tiger composed the thillana daru for the final scene on the morning before the premiere and Rukmini Devi composed the dance for it immediately. The full dance drama, with the final scene, was staged only before the public at the Adyar Theatre in the T.S. on the eve of the Besant Centenary, on 30th September 1947.
At the final dress and light rehearsals, Rukmini Devi decided that all the costumes that had been got ready under her direction were unsuitable, when she saw it visually on the stage. Everyone was flabbergasted and wondered how she was going to effect a change within the couple of days available! But she achieved impossible with the assistance of her dedicated band of workers. The costumes she chose for the final heavenly characters were simply and extremely beautiful. They also, by chance, accorded with the description of the robes, colors etc. described in the puranas for celestial characters!
Kumarasambhavam was received with great enthusiasm by the public. The premiere thrilled the overflowing audience in the Adyar Theatre, which included eminent people, who had come from all over India, for the Besant Centenary functions. Kumarasambhavam was again staged to an overflowing house on October 2, 1947, at Adyar.
In the Himalayas, whose splendors are recounted in the opening stanzas of the dance drama in Sanskrit from Kalidasa’s poem, lived Sati, who had been the wife of Shiva, but, on account of an insult offered by her father to Shiva, had by yoga, left her body and retired to the sacred mountain.
Sati now desired rebirth as daughter of the Lord of the Himalaya and his wife, Mean. The birthday of Sati, now called Uma, is poetically described as conducting to the "happiness of embodied beings, movable and immovable; a day on which the firmament brightened, on which the winds free from dust, and whereon a shower of flowers followed the sounding of heavenly conches".
From childhood to womanhood the reborn Sati grew up in beauty and goodness "like a painting under the artist’s brush or a lake in the rays of the sun".
Narada, the celestial gossip, seeing Parvati (Sati), prophecies that she should become the bride of Shiva, and that though their divine marriage the would become two beings in one body (Ardhanareswara).
Indra, accompanied by Brahaspati, approaches Brahma with the request that he should create a God who could destroy Taraka. a demon who had misused powers conferred on him as a boon by the Creator.
That this might be accomplished, Brahma told the Gods that they should endeavor to lure Shiva away from his austere asceticism by the beauty of Parvati (called also Uma), and through their marriage, Kumara would be born as a son who would lead the hosts of heaven and destroy the demon.
Kama, the god of Love, approaches Indra, in response to the thought of the latter, and asks for a command as to what individual, fortified by austerities, he might overcome by an arrow from his flower decked bow. He could, he boasted, break down even the self restraint of Shiva.
Thereupon Indra, seeing that Kama had anticipated the fulfilling of the instructions of Brahma to break Shiva's asceticism, admitted that his thunderbolt (vajra) was powerless against austerity, while the arrow of Kama was always victorious. He asked Kama to strive to make Shiva love the pure daughter of Himalaya, this being necessary for creation (sambhavam) of a deity who would overcome the demon. The Gods, Indra said to Kama, were suppliants to him; the work was for the good of the Three Worlds (physical, psychical and spiritual); and the deed that would accomplish this was not a cruel one.
The girl companions of Parvati enter and tell of the beauties of the season. They also tell how Nandi, the sacred Bull, vehicle of Shiva, controls the mischievous tendencies of Shiva’s guards (Ganas), and causes the forest and its inhabitants, at a sign from him, to keep still.
Parvati enters and makes preparations for a puja (worship) to Shiva.
Kama approaches, and is so impressed at seeing Shiva in such deep meditation that his all victorious bow falls from his hand. But on catching sight of Parvati his confidence and purpose are restored.
On Shiva’s return to outer consciousness, he accepts an offering of a rosary of dried lotus seeds from Parvati.
As Shiva receives the offering, Kama fixes his arrow in his bow. Shave and Parvati become mutually agitated in each other’s presence. But Shiva looks around for the cause of the disturbance of his senses, and sees Kama and his aimed arrow.
With fire from his eye Shiva reduces Kama to ashes; and vanishes from the vicinity of temptation; while Parvati, defeated in her effort to win Shiva, returns to her Himalayan home.
Parvati now takes to austerity and contemplation with the undiminished intention of winning the attention of Shiva. She retires to a peak of the Hills, where her tapas (austerities) goes beyond the attainments of even the most practiced Yogis.
While thus engaged, an ascetic, passing through the sacred forest, asks Parvati why one so young has taken to the austerities of age; and says to her: "If you seek heaven, your effort is unnecessary, since your Father's region is the abode of Gods. If you desire a husband, austerities are useless; a jewel is sought after; it does not seek."
Parvati is too confused to reply to the ascetic who has divined her secret. One of her companions answers for her: "This lady seeks as husband none lower then Shiva. With her father’s permission she has come to this sacred forest to practise austerities for this highest of purposes."
The ascetic replies: "The eyes of Shiva are monstrous; his parentage is undiscoverable; his wealth is shown by his poverty. Can one having the eyes of a young gazelle find anything that is expected of a husband in the three eyed deity?"
Hearing this, Parvati rebuked the ascetic for disparaging Shiva. "It is a sin for Brahmin," she said, "to speak thus of the Creator, and it is a greater sin for me to listen to you. I cannot ask you to go away; I can only myself leave you."
Then Shiva (for it was he, disguised to test her) assumes his own form, and detains Parvati with a smile. Where the wiles of the flesh had failed, austerity had succeeded.
The marriage mantapam of Shiva and Parvati. Shiva enters beautifully dressed. Parvati is decorated by her mother, Mean. Her companions rejoice that she has won Shica by tapas (austerity). "If we can by tapas come to his feet, we shall indeed be lucky." Vishnu, brother of Parvati gives her away, and they all prostrate before Brahma.
A marriage dance performed.
And thus, as Narada has prophesied, Shiva and Parvati become one.
Here ends the dance drama, adapted from Kalidasa’s fourth poem, "Kumara Sambhavam", recounting the circumstances leading up to the creation of the son of Shiva and Parvati, Kumara, called also Subramaniam, Shanmukham and Kartikkeya, leader of the celestial hosts, though whom Taraka was defeated and the Three Worlds saved.
Creation of Kumarasambhavam Dance Drama (1947) // S.Sarada "Kalakshetra-Rukmini Devi: reminiscences", Kala Mandir Trust, Madras 1985