When Sanskrit was supported by a bulging royal purse and mastery over the language regarded as the pinnacle of intellectual success, Sanskrit scholars of all types had ample leisure and resources to dedicate themselves to phenomenal feats of the mind. Now that a Masters in Marketing carries more weight than a Sanskrit doctorate and wealthy royal patrons have been replaced by a government with all too little money for the arts, you might imagine that Sanskrit scholarship would have diminished.
And yet erudition for erudition’s sake still flourishes. The great kavya (poetry) contests of Sanskrit’s heyday survive seemingly in spite of all the odds among small pockets of Sanskrit enthusiasts who compete not for the bountiful favour of a monarch but for the sheer love of it.
Last month saw a Sanskrit Ashtavadhanam (literally ‘eight-fold concentration’) organised by the Samskrta Sangha at the Tata Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore. An Avadhanam is a particular type of poetical contest today popular in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka particularly – the contests can also be conducted in these states’ regional languages, Telugu and Kannada. The contests are categorised according to the number of questioners they have, starting with the Ashtavadhanam which has eight.
Dr Shankar Rajaraman, an appropriately multi-talented psychiatrist, artist and Sanskrit poet as well as scholar, was in the hot seat as the avadhani (literally ‘concentrator’) being put to the test by eight pricchakas (questioners). The avadhaani must mentally compose verses on the spot – no pen or paper is allowed – according to the rules of each of the categories.
The first pricchaka is the Nishedhaakshari, the one who forbids certain sounds. He might ask the avadhani to compose a poem on Ganesha, but prohibit the syllable ‘ga’. As the avadhani fixes on a synonym, the interrogator predicts the word he is about to say and prohibits the syllable with which that begins and so on. Next is the Datta Padi, the one who supplies words. He will often give the avadhaani a non-Sanskrit word irrelevant to the topic of the verse, which he must somehow weave into his verse. He might supply “Limca” for example to fit into a verse on the Mahabharata.
Third is the Samasya Puranam. For this the avadhani is given a meaningless, illogical or obscene line for which he must supply the next three lines and thus render the verse meaningful or decent. Take the following literal translation of an illogical line for instance:
“Lalita begged Deva for Ganga”
If we read Parvati for Lalita and Shiva for Deva, as would be most natural, we are presented with an illogical situation because Parvati would never beg her husband, Shiva, for her sworn rival Ganga. The poet in this instance could supply the rest of the lines using modern political material in such a way as to suggest that the first line in fact meant that the Tamil politician Jayalitha had begged Deve Gowda, the political grandfather of Karnataka, for the Kaveri (the Kaveri is the Ganga of the South) with reference to the Tamil-Kannada water dispute.
The fourth element of the contest is Dr Shankar’s speciality, citra kavya or picture poetry. A citra kavya is a poem whose syllables can be inserted into a complex pattern usually based upon an animal or plant and thus read in several different ways, rather like a crossword or Su Doku puzzle. In this, the pricchaka will give the avadhani a particular citra kavya formation for which he must compose a poem. A Krishna Naaga Bandha (cobra formation) for instance might look something like this; every other syllable must fit into two words in the poem:
This is one of the most difficult parts of the avadhaanam. The avadhani has to be able to mentally calculate which syllables will repeat and where – for instance that ‘ri’ must be the second and the penultimate syllable – and then construct a verse which fulfils the technical requirements, makes sense and has poetic merit.
Fifth is the Ashu Kavitvam, literally “fast poetry”, where a poet has to compose four verses on one topic according to the interrogator’s specifications such as the use of a particular alamkara (poetic figure) or chandas (metre). Next is the Kavya Vacanan, in which the pricchaka will recite a verse taken from classical Sanskrit literature and the avadhani must supply the reference. The role of the seventh scholar, the Sankhya Bandha, is to disturb the poet in some way, by ringing a bell for example at random intervals or throwing a flower upon his back. At the end of the session, the poet must tell his audience how many times the bell rang or a flower was thrown. Finally, it is the turn of the Aprastuta Prasanga, to whose verses the poet must provide a humorous answer.
The session involves four rounds of each and takes about three to four hours. One of the pricchakas on this occasion was Dr Ganesh, who has earned the distinction ‘Shatavadhani’ in recognition of his ability to face up to 100 questioners. The Ashtavadana is level 1 as it were. Next comes the Shatavadanam, then the Sahasravadhanam (1,000) and so on to 5,000 – although it is apparently hard to get 5,000 scholars together so sometimes a slightly smaller group will divide up the questions between them.
Only two of the pricchakas on Saturday were Sanskrit teachers; for all of the others, including Dr Shankar, this is simply a hobby that they do outside work. Nor is their audience made up of traditional Sanskrit scholars – the majority are students of the IISC, who find time in between their doctoral theses to pursue their interests in Sanskrit. Highbrow Sanskrit arts are far from dead.