By Nithin Sridhar
Literature can be considered as a lifeline of any language. Among the various kinds of literature that could be produced in a language, poetry can be considered as the most creative expression that could be produced using any language.
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 the art, its history, the pre-requisites for performing it, and the present conditions.
Interview of Shataavadhaani R. Ganesh: Part 2
Nithin Sridhar: Is Avadhaanam an art or is it a science? What are the preparations required to perform it? What qualities should a poet develop for this?
Dr. Shataavadhaani R. Ganesh: Avadhaanam is essentially an art. My mentor Lanka Krishnamoorthy used to say ‘Avadhaanam Samaadhaanam Kalaanaam Atmanah Kalaa’, i.e. Avadhaanam is best among the arts, it is in a sense the very soul of the arts. All other arts are actually planned presentations, they are not spontaneous. A musician or a dancer rehearses before coming on the stage. But, an Avadhaani can have no rehearsal. He must come with a blank mind. Further, there is no element of distraction in other arts. But, this art has distraction as one of its core elements. That’s why, it is the most creative and challenging art.
At the same time, it must strictly adhere to tenets of various sciences. Sciences mean ‘Shastras’. Vyakarana Shastra (Grammar), Alankara Shastra ( the science of imagery), Chhandas Shastra ( the science of prosody), and many other fields support an Avadhaani in his performance.
Now, coming to the qualities of the person who performs the art i.e. Avadhaani, he must be first and foremost, a poet of very high merit. He must not simply be a poet who composes at his home in his leisure and without any disturbances or other constraints.
Instead, the Avadhaani must be a ‘Sabha-Kavi’- a poet who composes amidst people without using pen or paper. He composes his poetry mentally and on the spot and recites them without any mechanism for correction or modification after the verse is recited.
He should be able to compose and recite a verse on any topic without closing his eyelids. And such verses must adhere to all classical rules of prosody, grammar, and aesthetics.
So, naturally to accomplish all this he must be well trained, must have thorough knowledge about various supporting sciences and nuances of language and literature and must have a lot of worldly experiences and a deeper understanding of the human psyche. If, he has an understanding of other branches of knowledge, be it religion, modern science, philosophy, or fine arts, it would only make his compositions richer.
Secondly, he must have a high level of memory. Because, during Avadhaanam, the poet has neither dictionary, nor grammar books, nor any notepads to make notes. Hence, a very good memory is very necessary for the Avadhaani. Third, the poet must have one-pointed concentration even amidst distraction as, without it, the performance itself is not possible.
But, more than erudition or memory, it is the ability of an Avadhaani to creatively imagine, which is the most vital requirement for the Avadhaana, as, without this, an Avadhaani will not be able to create spontaneous poems by adhering to various constraints.
The poet must also be engagingly talkative who enriches the whole process with his wits and insights. The Avadhaani must be able to cheerfully give answers to all the questions posed to him irrespective of their difficulties. Fourth, having one pointed concentration amidst numerous distractions is a must.
Further, he should not only be able to create good poetry but should also have in-depth knowledge about literature created in the past by master scholars and poets and should be appreciative of the good poetry composed by others.
These qualifications that are required for a person to perform Avadhaanam can be summed up as: Dhara (Spontaneous Versification), (Retention) and Dhairya (Courage and confidence to entertain the masses).
NS: Can you shed light about the process, the principal elements, and the people involved in this literary art performance?
SG: Avadhaanam basically consists of two elements: ‘Avadhaanis’ and ‘Prucchakas’. The person who performs the art by accepting various challenges like composing poetry, solving mathematical puzzles, etc. is called as ‘Avadhaani’. The persons who ask the questions and give challenges to the Avadhaani are called as ‘Prucchakas’.
A layman cannot be a Prucchaka. Only a Vidvat-Rasika i.e. a scholar who is also a person of taste alone can become a Prucchaka. He should have high-level taste in fine arts and literature. Further, he should have in-depth knowledge in the field and be well-equipped in the faculty of learning. For a Sahitya Avadhaanam (performance using literature and poetry), the Prucchaka must also be a poet.
A Prucchaka must be well aware of the nuances and the limitations of the art. He need not be lenient, but he should be compassionate. Similarly, he need not be partial, but he should be pertinent. These are the qualities required to be a Prucchaka.
In the Ashtaavadhaanam, which is the basic unit of this art, there are eight Prucchakas asking questions and posing challenges related to eight different arts and skills. There are a large number of arts and skills associated with literature that could be used in the performance.
In my Ashtaavadhaanams, I usually include following categories of challenges to be posed by eight Prucchakas: Nishedakshara, Samasyapoorna, Dattapadi, Chitra-Kavitaa, Ashu-Kavitaa, Kavya-Vachana, Aprastuta-Prasanga, Samkhya-Bandha, or Ghantaganana.
The Ashtaavadhaanam involves eight rounds wherein Avadhaani is given various challenges. The Nishedakshara, Samasyapoorna, Dattapadi, and Chitra-Kavitaa involves the composition of four poems each containing four lines with one line being composed in each round. The poems in these four categories are to be composed by adhering to various constraints and restrictions that Prucchakas place during each round apart from being grammatically sound and adhering to all poetic principles.
For example, In Nishedakshara, a topic will be given on which a poem has to be composed. But, after each letter that the Avadhaani composes, the Prucchaka will place a restriction that a particular letter should not come next. That is after Avadhaani composes the first letter of the first line, then the Prucchaka, who is a poet himself, will analyze and guess what may become the second letter of the first line of poetry. Then, Prucchaka will restrict Avadhaani from using this particular letter as the second letter of the first line of the poem. Hence, the name Nisheda (restricted) Akshara (letters).
In Samasyapoorna, the fourth line of the poem is given. Usually, the fourth line will be either riddle like, or completely redundant. This redundancy must be solved by composing the first three lines of the poem such that, the whole poem makes sense.
In Dattapadi, four words are given, a topic will be given, and the meter in which the poem is to be composed is given. Avadhaani will have to compose the poem in that particular meter explaining the given topic using given four words. The given words usually will have no connection with the topic. In one of my performances, I had to compose a poem in the praise of Lord Shiva using words like Idli, Dosa, Puri, and Sambar which are all names of food items.
Chitra-Kavitaa is one of the most difficult art to master. Here, cryptic verses have to be composed. The Prucchakas will give a topic and keep restrictions like the poem has to be composed using only 2 letters, or that the poem must have six different meanings or the lines of the poem should be such that they can be read from left to right or right to left, etc.
Then, at the end of four rounds, all the four lines of the poems in each of the four category must be recapitulated, recited, and explained.
Then, during each round, one Ashukavitaa has to be composed. ‘Ashu’ means ‘quick’, hence, Ashukavitaa means ‘quick poems’. Here, the Avadhaani must compose the poem and recite it so fast that no person should be able to write it down. In the Ashtaavadhaanam, a total of four Ashukavite is composed.
In Kavya-Vachanam, few lines from poems composed by great poets are recited by the Prucchakas, and the Avadhaani has to give the context of the poem as well as its critical analysis.
The seventh is ‘Aprastuta-Prasanga’ which literally means irrelevant incident. While all the above six tasks are being carried out, the Prucchaka who is in-charge of Aprastuta-Prasanga, will try to distract the Avadhaani with his witty and irrelevant questions. The Avadhaani should also answer those questions wittily without getting distracted.
The Samkhya-Bandha involves calculation of numbers in the magic square and the Gandhaganane involves keeping a count of the number of times the bell was rung.
This basic design of Ashtaavadhaanam is scaled up in case larger Avadhaanams be it Shataavadhaanam or Sahasraaavadhaanam.
NS: I read about Avadhaanam being performed in painting, dance, mathematics, and using eyes as well. Can you share about how this art is performed in these fields?
SG: Avadhaanam using painting is called as Chitra–Avadhaanam and it is similar to Sahitya Avadhaanam. The artist accepts challenges on the spot and simultaneously creates multiple paintings adhering to constraints placed by the Prucchakas.
Avadhaanam using Mathematics is mainly about memory and calculation and not about spontaneous creativity. Here, the Avadhaani must answer various questions related to mathematics. For example, Magical square, or calculating cube roots of a large number etc.
Similarly, the art can be performed using Music and Dance as well. Though, not many takers are there in these Avadhaanams.
Then, there is ‘Netraavadhaanam’ that involves conveying a sentence or a message using only eye movements alone. But, this Avadhaanam has no creativity in it.
Historically, only Sahitya Avadhaanam has been performed. It is only in recent times, few attempts at other Avadhaanams are being made. Recently, the renowned painter B.K.S.Verma has performed a Chitra-Avadhaanam, wherein he simultaneously created eight different paintings on different themes and using different styles. In Andhra, around a hundred years ago, there was a famous Avadhaani– Ajjada Adibhatla Narayana Dasu who had performed Sangita-Avadhaana.
NG: What is your advice to anyone who wants to take up this art?
SG: To perform this art, one should be a Kavi (poet). Then, he develop himself and become an Ashu-Kavi i.e. one who can quickly and spontaneously create poems. Then, he should become an Abhijata-Ashu-Kavi. ‘Abhijata’ means responsible, subtle, sophisticated, sublime, and elegant. Only after developing all these qualities as a poet, should the person take up Avadhaanam.
A video of Sanskrit Avadhaanam performed by Shataavadhaani Dr. R. Ganesh available on Youtube:
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