Citra Kavya: Review of Citram

Citra Bandha – Volume III of Citram

V Balasubrahmanyam

Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan


 Dr Shankar Rajaraman

Authors on Sanskrit poetics have traditionally classified poetry into three types based on the predominance, subordination or relative absence of dhvani (suggestion) and specifically of its major subdivision called rasa-dhvani (suggestion through sentiment, in fact sentiment itself because it is held that sentiment can never be expressed through words but always suggested through them). Of these three types, the ‘superior’, ‘intermediate’ and ‘inferior’ – plus the ‘most inferior’ if we accept Jagannātha Paṇḍita’s four-fold classification – citrakāvya (literally ‘marvel poetry’ [1]) comes last. It is therefore held to be synonymous with the ’inferior’ or the ‘most inferior’ categories of poetry.

Citrakāvya’s aim, as its very name suggests, is to create wonder. Though held to be inferior by rhetoricians, it is by no means easy to compose. Neither has it been neglected due to its lower status. It is in fact intriguing to note that even purists who vouch for the superiority of poetry that is infused with dhvani have been unable to resist the pull of citrakāvya for the sheer intellectual challenge it offers. Ānandavardhana, the author of the Dhvanyāloka, a path-breaking work in Sanskrit poetics that successfully upholds the superiority of dhvani, is, surprisingly, also credited with the Devīśatakam, a hymn in praise of Devī, the Mother Goddess, that sets forth to illustrate, at every step, the numerous, complicated and difficult forms of citrakāvya.

Backed by a history of more than a thousand years, citrakāvya still continues to be composed by small pockets of scholars throughout India. The laity, though, is scarcely aware of the existence of such a form of poetry. A work of the nature of Citram is therefore the need of the hour. By introducing a lesser-known but interesting aspect of Sanskrit poetry to the general public, the work has, I should say, done yeoman service to the cause of popularising the language. Anything that is interesting is also likely to motivate some, at least, to explore further. 

This book, the third volume of Citram, deals with one of the subdivisions of citrakāvya called citrabandha (‘pictorial poetic composition’), also termed bandhacitra or simply bandha, in addition to gaticitra (‘citrakāvya based on movement’).

Gaticitra is poetry in which letters are so arranged that they repeat when one moves through the lines of a verse in a particular manner. The most famous example of a gaticitra (although in this book it hasn’t been classified as a gaticitra we may consider it so on the authority of Dr Venkatachala Shastry, author of Kannaḍa Citrakāvya) is the gomūtrikā bandha, a zig-zag composition.  In this composition, every alternate letter of the first and third lines of a verse is the same as every alternate letter of the second and fourth lines, thus creating a zig-zag pattern which mimics that left by an ambling cow – gomūtra is a cow’s urine.

[The image above is slightly different to the classical gomūtrikā; here the zig-zag pattern moves between the first and second lines and the third and fourth rather than between the first and third and second and fourth.]

The second category, bandhacitra, refers to composition of verses where the repetition of letters gives rise to a pattern that resembles recognisable objects in day to day life, for example a lotus or serpent.  [The illustration below shows a cobra citrabandha, both in composition and then below that in regular verse form.]

The author, under the heading ākṛticitram (citrakāvya based on the form or appearance of shapes) has classified the various types of pictorial poetry under eleven subheads.  Māṅgalikacitram refers to a pattern that resembles objects considered auspicious, eg the svastika sign. Twenty two such patterns have been described.  Next is the gomūtrikā, of which four types are described.  The muraja is a pattern resembling straps tied to a muraja, a type of musical drum. This is also often classified under gaticitra.  Cakra compositions are wheel patterns whose subtypes are based on the number of spokes the wheel contains. Ten types have been described here.  The padma (‘lotus’) category is subdivided based on the number of petals the lotus contains; the author describes eight types.  There are 12 types of nāga compositions, which consist of a single or multiple coiled or uncoiled serpent(s), and 19 types of āyudha ones, which resemble various weapons, like a sword, knife or mace.

In the section on gaticitram, the author gives six categories.  Of these the āvalī (a streak or uninterrupted series, an uninterrupted repetition of the same letters in a different sense as in ‘His Hispanic panicky wife’) and śṛṅkhalābandha (literally a chain-shaped composition, an extension of āvalī in which the entire verse is composed so that every succeeding word starts with the letters with which the preceding word ends) are in fact subtypes of yamaka, a figure of sound consisting of repetition of letters that give different meanings, but are similar in sound. Of the remaining four, rathapada, gajapada and turagapada are based on the chessboard moves of a camel, elephant and horse [2] while the last, namely kākapada (crow’s foot), has examples quoted from the Vidagdhamukhamaṇḍanam where the answers to three riddles posed in a verse when arranged in a particular manner resemble a crow’s foot.  There is then paśupādapacitram – patterns based on certain flora and fauna, for instance an elephant, horse or peacock, and also a man or woman. Sixteen types have been described.  Ābharaṇacitram consists of patterns resembling various ornaments, such as an armlet or girdle. Five types are described here.  Finally we have 38 types of anyākāracitram which are miscellaneous formations such as the moon, Mount Meru, a bed, swing, well, lamp, pestle, mirror, lute, bell and so on.  The book thus discusses a total of 141 patterns.

The author’s modus operandi in describing a pattern is to first quote its Sanskrit definition (lakṣaṇa) translate it to English and then give the examples (lakṣya) from various sources – both poetry and works on poetics followed by the Sanskrit commentary on these exemplary verses – the English meanings of individual words in the verses and the overall purport. Metrical details are occasionally added.

Though the author’s efforts in collating information on citrakāvya from every nook and corner of Sanskrit literature are laudable, more value could have been added to his work had he more closely analysed the intricacies involved in composing citrakāvya. To give an example, he cites a verse which illustrates the kuṇḍalitanāgabandha, or the coiled snake pattern, but forgets to mention the metre which in this case is the 21-syllable pañcakāvalī, also called sarasī or campakamālā. It is necessary to know the metre in this instance because it is usually the more famous sragdharā metre that is employed for composing verses of this kind. Further, a verse in the kuṇḍalitanāgabandha pattern invariably has to be composed in a metre that has 21 syllables in each line. That the metre itself, quite apart from the pattern selected, poses extra constraints on the poet, has also not been analysed adequately. In this example, the distribution of short and long syllables in each line is as follows (U represents a short syllable and _ represents a long one): UUUU_U_UUU_UU_UU_U_U_. The coiled serpent pattern requires, apart from similarity between other pairs of letters, that the 14th letter of the first line and the 20th letter of the second line be the same. However, from the distribution of short and long syllables in this metre, it can be seen that the 14th syllable is long while the 20th syllable is short. The poet is therefore forced to use a conjunct consonant as the 15th letter of the first line so that, in accordance with metrical rules, the preceding syllable – in spite of being short to match the 20th syllable of the second line – is counted as long, thus simultaneously satisfying constraints posed by the pattern as well as metre.

With respect to the Sanskrit portions of this book, several mistakes can be observed. For example, in the verse cited above, the 13th, 11th and 9th letters of the first, third and fourth lines have been printed as ṇā (which is a long syllable), ya (a short syllable) and kṣa (a conjoint consonant that renders the previous syllable long) respectively. The contingencies of the metre, however, mean that such a representation of short and long syllables is not possible. The absence of diacritical marks makes it difficult to read Sanskrit words transliterated into Roman script. For instance, ‘Anyakara Chitram’ could be read as either anyākaracitram or anyākāracitram, meaning either ‘pictorial poetry from other sources’ or ‘pictorial poetry delineating other patterns’.

Notwithstanding the above, this is a book that merits a place in the personal collection of any Sanskrit enthusiast. Its strength lies in the sheer amount of information that it provides on the topic of citrakāvya. Apart from well-known sources such as the Pādukāsahasram, Ṥiśupālavadham, Ṥarasvatīkaṇṭhābharaṇam or Citrakāvyakautukam, the author has also managed to draw examples from less-known and difficult-to-procure sources such as the Vidagdhamukhamaṇḍanam, Citraprapañca, Kapphiṇābhyudaya and Vīrajinastava. That the octogenarian author learnt Sanskrit in order to delve deep into one of the most difficult and least explored aspects of its literature is as much a proof of the greatness of this language that can provide such inspiration as of the author’s passion.

Dr Shankar Rajaraman is an accomplished Sanskrit poet and an aṣṭāvadhānī who can compose citrabandhas at the drop of a hat.  His latest book, Devīdānaviyam, a citrakāvya (from which the illustrations  above have been taken), was published in January by Samskrita Bharati.

[1] For a definition of citrakāvya, rf. Kāvyaprakāśa 1.4: ‘śabdacitraṃ vācyacitram avyaṅgyaṃ tvavaraṃ smṛtam’ – ‘sound-based citrakāvya and meaning-based citrakāvya are said to be an inferior sort of poetry without any implied meaning’.  See also the explanation that follows: ‘citramiti guṇālaṅkārayuktam. Avyaṅgyamiti sphuṭapratīyamānārtharahitam.’  – ‘citrakāvya is poetry endowed with attributes like mādhurya (sweetness) etc and figures of sound and sense such as alliteration and simile, but bereft of any conspicuous suggested meaning.’ 
[2] Venkatachala Shastry in his Kannaḍa Citrakāvya wonders if this refers to the moves of a camel (the camel is the Indian equivalent of the bishop) in chess.  According to the Kāvyālaṇkāra of Rudraṭa, in a rathapada verse the second and fourth lines are palindromes, ie, read the same forwards and backwards. In other words, it refers to the moves of a chess piece that can traverse both forwards and backwards horizontally, vertically or obliquely, but not all three. The minister (queen) may traverse both forwards and backwards and in all directions, so it cannot be the moves of a minister. The elephant (rook) may traverse both forwards and backwards horizontally and vertically (but not obliquely) – and in any case there is already a gajapada – so this does not refer to the moves of the elephant either. It is the camel alone that has the freedom to traverse forwards and backwards in only one direction, ie, obliquely. I therefore feel this comes closest to the moves made by the camel on the chess board. It may be that it is called ratha (chariot) rather than uṣṭra (camel) because traditionally the caturaṅgasainya (‘four-limbed army’; caturaṅga can also refer to chess) is composed of elephants, chariots, horses and foot soldiers – but no camels. Since elephants, horses (the horse is the knight) and foot soldiers (the pawns) are already represented on the chess board, the remaining piece – leaving aside the king and minister – which we now call the camel should logically be a chariot. 

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