The book's cover declares Kalidasa "the greatest poet and playwright in classical Sanskrit literature and one of the greatest in world literature." These are lofty claims, but you will definitely agree by the time you reach the book's end. Substantial introductory material, historical clarity and Chandra Rajan's attentive translation make this collection of Kalidasa's poetry and one of his plays a great read.
The greatest strength of this book is its thoroughness. Roughly one half of the pages comprise the introduction, the glossary of Sanskrit terms, and the meticulous footnotes to the texts translated. Rajan is careful in her historiography of Kalidasa, who is a problematic figure in that it is impossible to date him with any great degree of accuracy (Rajan points out that scholars have placed him anywhere from 100 BC to 500 AD; she herself comes down on the earlier side, making the playwright/poet a rough contemporary of, say, Plautus and Terence).
This care is also evident in the lengthy Sanskrit glossary to terms left untranslated in the texts themselves. At first, this tendency is frustrating; when you're cruising through a play or poem, you don't want to be skipping to the book's end to see what's being said. But it also helps to preserve the integrity of the original. Rajan points out polyvalences in the Sanskrit that would have been simply whitewashed in typical English translation. And, miraculously, by the end of the poem/play, you've internalized the Sanskrit meanings and don't NEED the glossary anymore.
As for the poems and plays themselves, they're a revelation. The translation feels a bit antique--like reading Milton, say, or even Shakespeare--but this is perfectly suited to Kalidasa's position in literature. The epic sweep of "The Cloud Messenger" is matched only by the sophistication of the famous play, "The Recognition of Sakuntala," which places Kalidasa alongside Shakespeare, in my mind. While Plautus and Terence were scripting the comic format that, borrowed from Menander, would evolve into the worst of today's sit-coms, Kalidasa was writing comedy with such dark corners that it provokes as much thought as laughter. If the seeming cheesiness of some of the lovey-dovey parts annoys today's reader, it must be admitted that it helps to accentuate the frustration of the darker parts. The ending is happy, yes, as the King eventually realizes his mistake, comes out of his oblivion and takes his intended, Sakuntala, back; but before we reach that point, there are three or four acts replete with suffering and rejection, of an intensity that Western comedy would not countenance for over a thousand years.
This collection of Kalidasa makes for satisfying reading, whether you're into slogging through the weighty introductory materials for the full picture, or just interested in experiencing some of the best of Indian--or world, for that matter--poetry and drama.