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Saturday, 24 October 2009

Astavadhana by Dr. R. Ganesh at Shashvatee

I had the pleasure of witnessing one of the most difficult and "endangered" art forms being performed today, an Astavadhana in Sanskrit and Kannada, by the renowned Shatavadhani, Dr. R. Ganesh. He can perform this art form in three different languages fluently, i.e., in Sanskrit, Kannada and Telugu, and according to many, is the only living person today, who can perform this art at least in Sanskrit and Kannada. Without going into the details of both Avadhana and Dr. R. Ganesh's distinguished profile, here is a brief introduction about the two:

Avadhana is a literary performance believed to have originated in Karnataka around 12th century AD, and is very popular in the languages of Kannada, Telugu and Sanskrit. Avadhani, the performer of Avadhana, would require to have tremendous abilities of multi-tasking and requires immense memory power too. The multiple tasks that the Avadhani needs to perform range from on-the-spot poetry creation, to identifying the references and details of the poems recited, to keeping count of a bell ringing at random. These activities can be 8, which results in Astavadhana, or 100, which results in Shatavadhana, or even 1000, which results in Sahasravadhana. The Avadhani would have to perform these multiple tasks at the behest of "Pruchchakas" or the Questioners. More on Avadhana on Wikipedia.

Dr. R. Ganesh, one of the very few exponents of this art today, is a literary figure, who has the ability to create poetry in 17 languages including Greek and Latin, and has many books published in different languages. A BE in Mechanical Engineering from UVCE, Bangalore, an M.Sc in Material Science and Metallurgy from IISc bangalore, an MA in Sanskrit from Mysore University and a D.Lit from Hampi University, just show the tip of the iceberg - that is the ocean of knowledge he carries. He had performed 3 Shatavadhanas and 807 Astavadhanas till date, and the one at "Shashvatee", NMKRV College, Jayanagar, Bangalore today was his 808th Astavadhana. This was unique in the sense that he blended the avadhana in both Sanskrit and Kannada very well to keep both the laymen and the learned in the audiences at ease and entertained. More about Dr. R. Ganesh on Wikipedia.

Coming back to today's special Astavadhana at Shashvatee, with eight learned Pruchchakas filling up the roles for "Nishiddhakshari", "Samasyapooranam", "Dattapadi", "Chitrakavyam", Kavyavachanam", "Ashukavita", "Aprastuta Prasangah" and "Sankhyabandhah", Dr. Ganesh was at his sublime best, weaving his magic even as the Pruchchakas tried their all to derail his thoughts throughout. Without going into details, which I certainly am not qualified enough to do (and I do not remember the intricate details anyway), here are some highlights:

The theme for Nishiddhakshari was to create a shloka in Anustup Chandas which could talk about the possibility of a curse of village diety Manchalamma of Mantralaya for the floods that happened recently. The Pruchchaka was very stern in trying to avoid Dr. Ganesh from using any letter that could allow him to form words "Mantralaya", "Yati" "Raghavendra" and the likes. But the genius in Dr. Ganesh shone when he did so much in the first three lines of the four-liner that the Pruchchaka had to concede defeat and allow a free ride for the last line for the Shatavadhani. The summary of the four-liner was that it is incorrect to think of the situation at Mantralaya village as a curse by the local diety Manchalamma on people who worship Sage Raghavendra more than her. It is just the destiny and nature that led to the situation, and that there cannot be enemity among gods. The second line where he skillfully misled the Pruchchaka by starting off with "यन्मञ्चारे..." by conforming to the nishedha of "Ma" and still managing to bring out "Manchala", using "रलयोरभेधः" formula towards the end of it was simply outstanding.

Samasyapoornam saw him completing a funny Kannada line with a four-liner in Skanda vrutta, and in Dattapadi, he acheived the task of describing Lord Shiva's tapas using the sounds "ढुं", "ढं", "ढां", "ढं" with relative ease.

Kavyavachana was out of the world experience, with Smt. Meera treating us with her amazing voice and choice of shlokas and ragas (Ananda Bhairavi, Todi, Darbari Kanada). Pinnacle of Ganesh's performance was when he gave details on the not-so-well-known kriti "Madhura Vijayam" by 14th century Vijayanagara Queen and poet Gangambika Devi.

Chitrakavyam involved creating a verse on Iron Man Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in Asustup Chandas, and this is what Dr. Ganesh came up with, in the flower formation:

वर्यधार्यवलद्बल: |
वल्गुफल्गुवचस्पच: ||

Learning the tricks of the Avadhana trade himself, Sri Vasuki, Pruchchaka of Chitrakavyam, had produced a gem of his own about the first home minister of the country, equalling his guru in every sense. This, by the way, was a Mrudangam formation of letters:

द्विजवल्कलसारस: |
नयवल्लभसाधक: ||

Ashukavitas, mainly in Kannada, were excellent too, and Aprastuta and Sankhyabandhas were cakewalk for the genius with amazing wit.

The attendance of the general public for the event though, was disappointing. By the time the performance ended, there were only a few people left in the auditorium, and as a friend pointed out, Dr. Ganesh deserved better. At least a standing ovation. But with that strength, even that would have looked silly. But he doesn't do this for recognition, he does it for his love for the art form, and to learn through the process. This was my second experience of his Astavadhana, having attended it way back in 1998, when he had performed at Channarayapatna. What was heartening there was, for a town as small as Channarayapatna, it looked as if the whole town had gathered at the venue, the Grounds of Navodaya Composite College. There were thousands of them, people even hanging from school building balconies and perched on nearby trees to witness the miracle of Astavadhana. May be times have changed, people here are too busy, or the word did not spread as much as it should have. But no complaints from the attendees though, as they were treated to literary bliss.

Congratulations and kudos to all those at Rastriya Vidyalaya, who were involved in arranging this rare performance.

As a related reference, you can watch the 4-part English video series (about a total of 40 minutes) where Shatavadhani Dr. R. Ganesh shares his immense knowledge about the history and art of avadhana, advaita vedanta and problem solving heuristics with Prof. S. N. Balagangadhara (Ghent University, Belgium).

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4: