Vidyottama was one of the most erudite and talented women of her time. Although much of what is known about her is hearsay, yet her extraordinary genius has been historically established through the works of her husband, Kalidasa, the great Indian poet of antiquity, who nevertheless began life as a simple cowherd. In the twenty first century a fresh inquiry is being made into her role and the works of the poet Kalidasa are being looked at from a gender perspective.

Vidyottama was the daughter of the famous king Vikramaditya of Ujjain. She was named Gunamanjari (Garland of Virtues) by her parents, who appointed Acharya Vararuchi as her tutor in scholarship and academics, while Ganadas was given the task of developing her talents in the arts, particularly dance and music. By the time she was twelve, Gunamanjari had mastered all that her gurus had to teach her, and there was no field, whether in scholarship or in the gentle arts, which she did not excel in. Thus she came to be known as Vidyottama (She who excels all in learning). Her phenomenal accomplishments attracted kings and princes from all over the country who vied for her hand in marriage. However, King Vikramaditya declared that only he who could prove himself more learned that Vidyottama, could win her—a condition that none could fulfill.

It is said Vidyottama’s pride knew no bounds, and she even had the audacity to make fun of her guru Vararuchi. Stung by her irreverence, the Acharya cursed her, saying that her husband would be no better than a keeper of animals. To compound her humiliation, he conspired to get her married off to a totally illiterate person, namely Kalidasa. Not satisfied even with that, he commanded Kalidasa to communicate with his wife only through signs. This delayed the discovery of the trick only a while; Vidyottama found out her husband’s secret when she gave him the manuscript of her work called Sringarodaya to correct. She was completely shattered to find he could neither read nor write. Kalidasa, who really loved her, realised that he was the cause of her misery and so one night he quietly left the palace. For ten years he studied under many renowned teachers, at a time when those who possessed learning jealously guarded it. He finally retuned to Ujjain to write his famous epics, or at least so the legend says. When Vidyottama objected to one of his erotic descriptions in Kumarasambhava and asked him to omit it, Kalidasa humbly refused to give in to her. When she insisted, he left Ujjain, never to return, his poem still incomplete. After his death it was Vidyottama who completed Kumarasambhava, and the essences of loyalty and bravery, which animate this epic, are not evident in any other poem of Kalidasa’s. Vidyottama edited even Raghuvansha, and it was she who gave it its heroic spirit. It is said that whatever was left incomplete by Valmiki was completed by Kalidasa and whatever was weak or incomplete in Kalidasa was mad immortal by Vidyottama. After the completion of Kumarasambhava Vidyottama went on pilgrimage to Mount Kailash with her companion Priyamvada.

Dr. Nalini Langer