Saturday April 21, 2018

Concentration combines with entertainment to become Avadhaanam: Shataavadhaani R Ganesh (Part 1)


By Nithin Sridhar

Literature can be considered as a lifeline of any language. Among various genres of literature, poetry can be said to be one of the purest forms of expression.

From the very ancient times, the Indian poets have found a unique way to not only create poetry spontaneously and on the spot, but to do so in a creative and artful manner that would entertain the audience. This ancient literary performance, which is still very much alive and flourishing, is known as ‘Avadhaanam’.

In an exclusive interview with NewsGram, Shataavadhaani Dr. R. Ganesh, who has performed more than 1000 Avadhaanams speaks about this art, its history, the pre-requisites for performing Avadhaanam, and present conditions.

Interview of Shataavadhaani Dr. R. Ganesh: Part 1

Nithin Sridhar: Avadhaanam is considered as one of the most creative, but extremely difficult literary performances. What is the role of it in literature and how important is it in preserving and enriching a language?

Shataavadhaani Ganesh: It basically means ‘concentration’. ‘Ava’ is the prefix of the word ‘Dhanam’. Ava means ‘well’, Dhanam meaning ‘placing’ or focusing. Therefore, Avadhaanam means well focusing or well-concentrated.

Avadhaanam or concentration is a faculty of mind. And for it to become an art, it must have an entertaining value. Concentration as such is not very appealing and attracting. Hence, various arts like literature, music, and dance are combined with concentration and various kinds of Avadhaanam performances like Sahitya Avadhaanam, Sangita Avadhaanam, etc. are executed.

What I perform is Sahitya Avadhaanam using poetry and literature, but I have also designed Nritya Avadhaanam which uses dance.

An Avadhaanam performance basically includes concentration and spontaneous creation (of poetry, etc.) amidst disturbances. A real Avadhaanam should have an in-built art and the artistic creation should be spontaneous and extempore to any challenges given on the spot. At the same time, the whole process is carried out without hindrances amidst various disturbances. The aspect of disturbance is very important as without it, there is no point in saying, the Avadhaani or the performer of Avadhaanam is focusing or concentrating. The real concentration is only when the performer is focused despite of being constrained with a lot of distractions and willful diversions.

Therefore, spontaneous creation of art (Ashu Kala Sarjana) amidst distractions (Vikshepa), with full concentration (Avadhaanam) is Kala-Avadhaanam (Art of Concentration) and when this is done using literature, it becomes Sahitya-Kala-Avadhaanam.

Sahitya Avadhaanam which includes spontaneous creation of grammatically correct and aesthetically appealing poetry and prose on the spot will naturally be cherished by people and will enrich the literature as well as the language in which the performance is given.

Further, it mainly involves the creation of poetry in classical style and hence adds to the tradition of Classical literature. It also helps to bring focus on diverse aspects of language and literature. For example, in the case of Kannada Avadhaanam I perform, someone may ask me to compose poetry in Halagannada (Old Kannada) style and some may ask me to compose using Nadugannada (Middle Kannada) or Modern Kannada language and styles. Hence, a Kannada literary tradition of more than 1000 years is all brought into action in a single performance.

Further, Avadhaanam contains an element of wonder that naturally arouses curiosity among the audience. This in-turn leads to many uninitiated people to take up literature, poetry, and Avadhaanam. And here in this art, flawless and grammatically perfect language has to be used. The idiomatic beauty, aesthetics, and poetic tenets need to be perfectly adhered to. By this, the purity of the language is maintained. Thus, Avadhaanam contributes immensely to the growth and flourishing of literature and language.

NS: Can you briefly share regarding the History and origins of Avadhaanam? When and where did it originate? In what languages was Avadhaanam practiced historically?

SG: Avadhaanam has its origin in the recitation of the Vedas itself. The Vedas can to be recited in various manners called as Prakriti and Vikruti. Prakruti is of two types and Vikruti is of eight types called as ‘Ashta Vikruti Patha’. And these methods of recitation of Vedas require enormous concentration.

Around 2000 years ago, Avadhaanam developed into an art. In the list of 64 arts mentioned by Vatsayana in his Kamasutra, more than sixteen of them belong to the realm of this art. Example: Manasi (retention), Kavya-Kalpa (poetry and poetics) and Samasya-Poorna (art of solving cryptic verses) among others.

Sanskrit language is the mother of this art as it was originally developed in Sanskrit. Later it spread to other languages like Prakrit, Kannada, and Telugu. Though Avadhaanam was widely practiced in all these languages, it is in Kannada literature that one finds the complete definition and description of an Ashataavadhaanam performance documented around 800 years ago by a poet named Kaama in his work ‘Sringara-Ratnakara’. And around ninety percent of the procedure which Kaama has mentioned is still being followed today.

In Kannada language, the performance of this art goes back to at least 1000 years. Mallideva, Madhava, Vishwanatha, and Kanti are few examples of famous Avadhaanis in the olden times. Then, in early 20th century, the well play writer, poet, and theater scholar Bellave Narahari Shastri was also an Avadhaani.

In Andhra Pradesh, we have a very rich tradition of Avadhaanis in Telugu and Sanskrit. It highly flourished in the 13th and 14th century with famous Avadhaanis like Pedanna, Ramaraja Bhushana, and many more people occupying the stage. Then, in late the 19th century and early 20th century we had great Avadhaanis in Andhra like Devarupalli brothers, Tirupati Venkata twin poets, Veluri Shivarama Shastri, etc.

Even today, in the world of Avadhaanam, there are many highly renowned and well versed Avadhaanis from Andhra Pradesh. For example, Garikapati Narasimha Rao, Kadimella Varaprasad, Medasani Mohan etc.

In Tamil Nadu also, we can find many Avadhaanis present around 15th century. But, the pattern of Avadhaanam practiced there is different. It is more of a memory task and less of poetic creation. This pattern is also practiced among the Jain monks in Gujarat using mathematical calculations and very few verse compositions mainly in Prakrit and Sanskrit. A tradition of this art was also taken to Sri Lanka by Tamil Avadhaanis. Recently, a few people have tried performing Avadhaanam in Hindi language as well.

It is in Karnataka and Andhra region that Avadhaanam has reached its zenith in Kannada, Telugu, and Sanskrit languages.

Also Read: Avadhaanam is best among arts, in a sense it is the soul of all arts: Shataavadhaani R. Ganesh

NS: You are often credited with reviving Kannada Avadhaanam in current times. Can you shed light on how and when did it decline in the past?

SG: Well, the art more or less declined after the 17th century, though few stray performances could be observed even after that. There are many reasons for it. First, it is a very difficult art.

Second, any competent Avadhaani will have to invest a lot of time, energy, in fact whole life towards it. So, naturally he would expect a lot of returns. But, without proper patronage, returns are obviously very less. Thus, decline in proper patronage directly results in decline in Avadhaanam performances.

Third, it being a highly sophisticated classical art, it is neither understood nor appreciated by every person. Thus, the reach of Avadhaanam is limited to those who appreciate literature and understand its intricacies.

Fourth, in Karnataka, devotion and religion were the driving force behind literature and literature was largely nurtured by various religious movements and not by pure Rasikas (the lovers of art). This also contributed to the decline of Avadhaanam which is a classical literary performance that mainly appeals to Rasikas. On the other hand, in Andhra region where there were no such religious movements, literature survived among the scholars in the courts. Thus, art never declined in Andhra.

Fifth, the rise of Navodaya literature during the beginning of the 20th century, which was more influenced by modern poetry of the West than the Indian Classical literature. This also contributed to the continued decline of Avadhaanam. I have dealt on the history of this art in depth in my Doctoral thesis- ‘Kannadadalli Avadhaana Kale’ (The art of Avadhaanam in Kannada).

Thus, after 17th century, the Avadhaanam was revived only in 20th century by Bellave Narahari Shastri who performed in 1933-36 and then later after a gap of around 45 years, by me in 1981. Another person is J. Sadananda Shastri, who started performing in 1985. Now, many people have started performing this art like Dr. Shankar who performs Sanskrit Avadhaanam, Ganesha Bhatta Koppala Tota, and Vasanta Bharadwaja, who perform Kannada Avadhaanam and Dr. Ramakrishna Pijattaya, who performs both in Kannada and Sanskrit.

NS: You are from a science background and you did BE in Mechanical engineering. What led you to take up this art?

SG: Since my childhood, I was basically a poet. In my school days I used to compose poems and used to participate in literary activities like debates, extempore, etc. I was also initiated into various fine arts like music, dance, painting, sculpture, etc. My mother was the driving spirit behind all these things. Hence, language and literature in a sense became an inseparable part of me. Even while I was pursuing my engineering, I used to read all classical literature in not only Indian languages like Prakrit, but also in Greek, Latin, etc. So, I was spontaneously attracted towards this art.

NS: Avadhaanam is usually differentiated into Ashataavadhaanam, Shataavadhaanam etc. Can you shed more light on this? How many Avadhaanams have you performed till date? When was the largest Avadhaanam performed in history and who performed it?

SG: Ashataavadhaanam refers to Avadhaanam’s having eight questioners (called Prucchakkas) who question the Avadhaani. Similarly, in Shataavadhaanam, there will be 100 questioners; in Dvishata or Trishata Avadhaanams, there will be 200 and 300 questioners respectively; in Sahasraavadhaanam, there are 1000 questionnaires. Avadhaanams could be performed with 10 questioners called Dashaavadhaanam, or 12 questioners called Dwadashaavadhaanam.

Apart from this, there is Gunitaavadhaanam or simultaneous performance of multiple Ashataavadhaanams. I have performed two simultaneous Avadhanas, one in Sanskrit and one in Kannada. I have also performed Chatur-Gunitaavadhaanam, consisting of 4 groups of questioners each group having 8 people. Similarly, Tri-Gunitaavadhaanam consists of 24 questioners in three different groups. In Andhra, some Avadhaanis have performed Dasha-gunitaavadhaana consisting of 80 questioners as well.

A general Ashtaavadhaana will take around 3 hours. A Shataavadhaanam will take 3 days with each day consisting of two 4-hour sessions. The Sahasraavadhaanam is the largest Avadhaanam that has been performed and it takes around one whole month. But, the basic unit of the art is Ashatavadhaanam– consisting of 8 questioners.

I have performed around 1016 Ashataavadhaanams, including Dashaavadhaanams and Dwadashaavadhaanams; 5 Shataavadhaanam; and 5 Gunitaavadhaanam.

NS: Can you shed some light about the present status of Avadhaanam in various languages? Has the interest of people declining or is it increasing? What future do you see for the art?

SG: As I said before, it is well flourishing now in Kannada and Telugu. In my knowledge only one person is doing it in Tamil. Few Jain monks in Gujarat may still be practicing. I have encountered lot of enthusiasm and interest among people for Avadhaanam. I have witnessed more number of people coming to some of my Avadhaanams than the crowd present in Kavi Sammelans (gathering of poets).

When I performed Kannada Shataavadhaana in December 2012, then for three days, around 1000 people came and watched for 12 hours from morning till night each day. So, there is a definite enthusiasm and support among the people. But, no support is available from our Government bodies, Universities, Academies or from writers.

A video of Kannada Avadhaanam performed by Shataavadhaani Dr. R. Ganesh available on Youtube:

(Photo Credit:

More in the Series:

Interview of Shataavadhaani R. Ganesh: Part 2

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Know Your India: How Well Do You Know Hindu Wisdom?

Our rich past must remain our greatest inspiration and inform our engagement with the world

Hindu wisdom and the broader framework of Eastern philosophy talked in the same language as modern physics was beginning to do. Wikimedia Commons
Hindu wisdom and the broader framework of Eastern philosophy talked in the same language as modern physics was beginning to do. Wikimedia Commons

By Bikash Sarmah

No matter how our self-styled secularists vilify ancient Indian or Hindu wisdom, there is an element of eternity and universality about that treasure trove. It is a great work of reason and analysis. And there is no confusion in the discourse. Such is its universality that the intelligent Westerner woke up to it long ago and discovered the wealth therein. Such is its practicality that when Albert Einstein deconstructed the long-held Newtonian worldview in the early part of the 20th century, and when quantum mechanics from the other side revolutionized the whole course of physics and brought about a paradigm shift in our perception of matter and energy, the founding fathers of the evolving field had already taken resort in Hindu wisdom, and to their utter surprise found that Hindu wisdom and the broader framework of Eastern philosophy talked in the same language as modern physics was beginning to do. And it was not restricted to physics or mathematics alone. Even Western writers and philosophers began to appreciate Hindu wisdom, but not without struggling to comprehend the non-Newtonian Hindu worldview — used as they were to a discrete, Newtonian notion of fundamentalism, both in the material and non-material world.

As an acclaimed physicist and thinker Fritjof Capra says in his classic The Tao of Physics, ‘‘The picture of an interconnected cosmic web which emerges from modern atomic physics has been used extensively in the East to convey the mystical experience of nature. For the Hindus, Brahman is the unifying thread in the cosmic web, the ultimate ground of all being… In Buddhism, the image of the cosmic web plays an even greater role. The core of the Avatamsaka Sutra, one of the main scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism, is the description of the world as a perfect network of mutual relations where all things and events interact with each other in an infinitely complicated way.’’

In Buddhism, the image of the cosmic web plays an even greater role. The core of the Avatamsaka Sutra, one of the main scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism, is the description of the world as a perfect network of mutual relations where all things and events interact with each other in an infinitely complicated way.’’ Says Fritjof Capra. Wikimedia Commons
In Buddhism, the image of the cosmic web plays an even greater role. The core of the Avatamsaka Sutra, one of the main scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism, is the description of the world as a perfect network of mutual relations where all things and events interact with each other in an infinitely complicated way.’’ Says Fritjof Capra. Wikimedia Commons

ALSO READ: Future of Hinduism in US: An Analysis

Such worldview brings a lot of discomfort to the typical Western mind brought up in a culture that emphasizes only rigid fundamentals and overlooks the varied possibilities beyond the confinement of fundamentals, unlike in the Hindu system that rejects such fundamentalism and espouses a notion of the world, both material and spiritual, that jells wonderfully with the implications of the theories of modern physics. But how well is this known? It is in this context that a compilation of Western thoughts on India and its ancient wisdom, titled ‘Great minds on India’ compiled by Salil Gewali and published by Academic Publications, Shillong, is pertinent. It captures the best of comments by Western intellectual giants on Hindu wisdom and its timelessness, reflecting also on the parallels between modern physics and Hindu wisdom. Let us hear some of them. Werner Heisenberg, one of the founders of quantum mechanics and celebrated for his epoch-making Uncertainty Principle in quantum mechanics that rejects the Newtonian assertion of predicting the position and momentum of matter simultaneously, glorifies Hindu wisdom thus:

‘‘After the conversations about Indian philosophy, some of the ideas of quantum physics that had seemed so crazy suddenly made much more sense.’’ If Einstein says that ‘‘we owe a lot to Indians who taught us how to count, without which no worthwhile scientific discovery could be made’’, Julius R Oppenheimer, the father of nuclear bomb, goes further: ‘‘What we shall find in modern physics is an exemplification, an encouragement and a refinement of old Hindu wisdom.’’

‘‘Indian philosophers’ subtleties make most of the great European philosophers look like schoolboys.’’ Says TS Eliot. Wikimedia Commons
‘‘Indian philosophers’ subtleties make most of the great European philosophers look like schoolboys.’’ Says TS Eliot. Wikimedia Commons

Coming to TS Eliot, who needs no introduction. He says: ‘‘Indian philosophers’ subtleties make most of the great European philosophers look like schoolboys.’’ What Eliot means, in other words, is that when it comes to subtlety — that is, to the delicate refinement of ideas — most of the great European philosophers should rather be huddled in a classroom with an Indian philosopher teaching and guiding them. That is why Francois M Voltaire, one of the greatest French writers and philosophers, admits thus: ‘‘I am convinced that everything has come down to us from the banks of the Ganga — astronomy, astrology, spiritualism etc. It is very important to note that some 2,500 years ago at the least Pythagoras went from Samos to the Ganga to learn geometry… But he would certainly not have undertaken such a strange journey had the reputation of the Brahmins’ science not been long established in Europe.’’ And that is why Ralph Waldo Emerson, great American author, and essayist, confesses to having been ‘‘haunted’’ by the Vedas. ‘‘In them (the Vedas),’’ Emerson says, ‘‘I have found eternal compensation, unfathomable power, unbroken peace.’’ And hence the candor, again, of Arthur Schopenhauer, one of the greatest German philosophers and writers: ‘‘In the whole world there is no study so beneficial and so elevating as that of the Upanishads. It has been the solace of my life, and it will be the solace of my death. They are the product of the highest wisdom.’’

ALSO READ: Hindu Americans are role models for Hindus in India: Dr. David Frawley

Perhaps the best eulogy for India, as it truly deserves, has come from Frederich von Schlegel, acclaimed German writer, critic, philosopher, and one of the founders of German Romanticism: ‘‘There is no language in the world, even Greek, which has the clarity and the philosophical precision of Sanskrit, and this great India is not only at the origin of everything, she is (also) superior in everything, intellectually, religiously or politically, and even the Greek heritage seems pale in comparison.’’

The booklet, ‘Eat minds on India’, is doubtless a unique venture, and the publishers deserve kudos for having accomplished such an onerous task as to compile comments on India and Hindu wisdom by a galaxy of Western intellectual giants and then to choose the best and the most relevant ones. The tragedy, however, remains: a pseudo-secular dispensation as we are blessed with at the Centre would hardly initiate any move to popularize ancient Indian wisdom, which is essentially Hindu, and call upon the youth of the country to rediscover their past and marvel at the sheer effulgence of Hindu wisdom — stemming not from any dogmatic, fundamentalist and conditioned worldview, but from a holistic way of life and its liberating experience. This is so because the word ‘‘Hindu’’ will invariably echo in any discourse on ancient Indian wisdom and the country’s perverse, self-styled secularists will discover a ‘communal’ agenda there — ‘against our pluralist ethos’. These poor souls do not realize — nor do they want to — that whatever pluralist ethos the country today takes pride in and will sustain for all times is due solely to the Hindu way of life, a preponderant way of life in India. Why, look at how the other by-product of Partition, including Bangladesh, has evolved.

Our rich past must remain our greatest inspiration and inform our engagement with the world. Even quantum mechanics and all of its later avatars recognize that fact of life. Let us all be proud of it all.

(The writer is the former consultant Editor of ‘The Sentinel’, a Guwahati-based
daily. He currently resides in Guwahati)