Kalidasa’s Ritusamhara is an ode to nature’s bounty and the enduring emotional response it evokes in mankind as a whole. The word Ritu (season) with the word saṃhāra is used here in the sense of “coming together” or “group”. Thus, Ritusamhara has been translated as Medley of Seasons or Garland of Seasons, perhaps more aptly as the “Pageant of the Seasons”, but also mistranslated as “birth and death” of seasons, which arises from the alternate meaning of samhāra as destruction. The poem has six cantos for the six Indian seasons- grīṣma (summer), varṣā/pāvas (monsoon/rains), śarat (autumn), hemanta (cool), śiśira (winter), and vasanta (spring).
Traditionally the Indian calendar begins with Spring (Vasantha) and ends with Winter (Shishira). But Ritusamhara starts with the description of summer. The dry weather and the extreme heat conditions make the lands extremely parched. The sizzling rays are like numerous sacrificial fires. Everyone yearns for a few drops of rain to soak the soil. The opening stanzas visualize a pair of lovers. The blazing sun has dried out the tide of desire. The lovers and the world seek relief on moonlit nights during the season. The swirling clouds of dust tossed up by the fierce heat of the sunburn the hearts of men who are far away from their beloved. From the world of the lovers, the poet takes us to the larger world outside: the natural world which is also in pain. The savage heat has left the vegetation and the animals helpless. Animals like deer, cobras, wild pigs, fish, birds, buffaloes are shown to be going through a relentless thirst, looking for water to quench their insatiable thirst. They even forget animosity towards other animals and roam around in the search of water, letting other fellow animals come and go through their territories.
Then come the much-awaited monsoons, everything gets drenched and clean in the fresh monsoon rains and not a speck of dust is seen anywhere. The black clouds and the rumbling thunder add to the magic of the monsoons. Everything on earth is covered with the darkness of the rain clouds. Animals and birds get affected by this, they cannot contain their happiness. The peacocks break into a dance of liberation and freedom, from the heat and misery. The rivers are shown to be flowing fast due to all the water added into them from the rainwater. The women who still have not heard from their lovers and husbands are shown to be sitting outside, staring at the thundering clouds relating the suffering of their longing hearts with it.
Then comes the season of autumn where people look forward to celebrating festivals and spread cheer and joy. Though the weather remains pleasant, the afternoons can be hot and it is almost like a second summer. However, the weather changes and one can feel the nip in the air. This is when the frost season arrives. The sudden nip in the air, the chilly winds in the morning and nights and the biting cold all signify the season of frost. The more severe form of frost is in the form of the winter season. The temperatures drop low and people are seen wearing layers of clothes. However, the severity of winters is not as much as in Western countries. It only snows in the hilly regions and the south of India hardly experiences any winters. It is shown that during the cold nights of the winter season, lovers are shown drinking wine together and igniting their passions with it and lose themselves in the long nights of lovemaking and ardour.
After winters, the weather starts to warm a bit and then comes spring season. This season is popular for the harvest festivals that take place and one can see blooming flowers all around. Thus, the variety of seasons in India is used to signify the changes that take place in the minds of lovers and how they change. Every change has some good and some bad effects, but in totality, it is a pleasant feeling.
The poem establishes the lyrical mode in classical Sanskrit literature. Love (sringara) is the dominant emotional mode that finds expression in the poem. Each stanza is exquisitely crafted around an image, as it were a flower, strung to the other to make a garland. The result is the poem, a garland of the seasons. The poet looks at Nature against the backdrop of changing seasons and the changes in the lives of the natural phenomena. Each canto ends as a prayer, where the lovers are wished well. Recounted as a celebration of the passing seasons, the poem captures the myriad facets of love and longing. And this it does in a kaleidoscope of sumptuous imagery: the mischievous moonlight that, like a pining lover, steals glances at sleeping maidens; the monsoon-bloated rivers that rush to the sea with a lustful urgency; the flame of lovemaking that is kindled anew at the onset of winter; the heady scent of mango blossoms that makes even the most unyielding of hearts quiver. Even animals, big and small, are swept into the playful pattern of the great poet’s lyrical homage.
The language of these lyric verses is simple, largely free of ‘alamkaras’ or poetic figures of speech typical of classical Sanskrit, and thus easier to follow. Their imagery is picturesque and vibrant. Ritusamhara is thus, an exuberant expression of the love of life and bring natural features to life. Even separation of lovers is a sweet longing. The beloved’s beauty and the beauty of Nature mirror and evoke each other. If Vyasa and Valmiki speak about the splendours of the spiritual, Kalidasa combines the transcendental with the terrestrial; and finds beauty in all.