Archive for the ‘sanskrit’ Category
Viṣṇu, appearing before Bali as Vāmana, transformed into Trivikrama, filling the universe, covering all the earth and the heavens in two steps.
In the verse that opens the Pūrva-pīṭhikā of Daṇḍin’s Daśakumāracarita, the author (who may not be Daṇḍin) plays on this imagination, and on the word daṇda. Here’s the verse (in Sragdharā metre of pattern GGGGLGG—LLLLLLG—GLGGLGG):
May the leg of Trivikrama,
pole for the parasol that is the universe,
stem of the lotus that is Brahma’s seat,
mast of the ship that is the earth,
rod of the streaming banner that is the river of the Gods,
axle-rod around which the zodiac turns,
pillar of victory over the three worlds,
rod of death for the enemies of the Gods,
favour you with blessings.
brahmāṇḍa-cchatradaṇḍaḥ śata-dhṛti-bhavan’-âmbhoruho nāla-daṇḍaḥ
kṣoṇī-nau-kūpa-daṇḍaḥ kṣarad-amara-sarit-paṭṭikā-ketu-daṇḍaḥ /
jyotiścakr’-âkṣa-daṇḍas tribhuvana-vijaya-stambha-daṇḍo ‘ṅghri-daṇḍaḥ
śreyas traivikramas te vitaratu vibudha-dveṣiṇāṃ kāla-daṇḍaḥ //ब्रह्माण्डच्छत्रदण्डः शतधृतिभवनाम्भोरुहो नालदण्डः क्षोणीनौकूपदण्डः क्षरदमरसरित्पट्टिकाकेतुदण्डः । ज्योतिश्चक्राक्षदण्डस्त्रिभुवनविजयस्तम्भदण्डोऽङ्घ्रिदण्डः श्रेयस्त्रैविक्रमस्ते वितरतु विबुधद्वेषिणां कालदण्डः ॥
[To be updated: please see: http://manasataramgini.wordpress.com/2006/04/22/dandins-purvapithika-of-dasha-kumara-charitra/ for much much more on this poem.]
The translation above is mildly modified from that of Isabelle Onians in her translation (“What Ten Young Men Did”) of the Daśa-kumāra-carita, published by the Clay Sanskrit Library:
Pole for the parasol-shell that is Brahma’s cosmic egg,
Stem for Brahma’s lotus seat,
Mast for the ship that is the earth,
Rod for the banner that is the rushing immortal river Ganges,
Axle rod for the rotating zodiac,
Pillar of victory over the three worlds—
May Vishnu’s leg favor you with blessings—
Staff that is the leg of him who as Trivikrama reclaimed those three worlds in three steps,
Rod of time, death itself, for the demon enemies of the gods.
Ryder, in his translation (“The Ten Princes”), takes some liberties and manages verse in couplets:
May everlasting joy be thine,
Conferred by Vishnu’s foot divine,
Which, when it trod the devils flat,
Became the staff of this and that:
The staff around which is unfurled,
The sunshade of the living world;
The flagstaff for the silken gleam
Of sacred Ganges’ deathless stream;
The mast of earth’s far-driven ship,
Round which the stars (as axis) dip;
The lotus stalk of Brahma’s shrine;
The fulcrumed staff of life divine.
For another (and in my opinion much better) verse that fully gets into this “filling the universe” spirit, see The dance of the bhairava on manasa-taramgini.
[Originally posted to linguistics.stackexchange.com as an answer to a question by user Manishearth, who asked: "I've heard many times that learning German is easier for those who speak Sanskrit, and vice versa. Is there any linguistic basis for this? What similarities exist between the two languages that may be able to explain this?"]
This is an answer not to the part about whether it is easier to learn German after Sanskrit (I don’t know), but rather, a few more assorted points re. “What similarities exist between the two languages”, or even more generally, “Why would people make such a claim?”
As Cerberus [another user] noted, most of these claims come from people whose familiarity, outside of Indian languages, is with mainly English, and perhaps a bit of French (or rarely, Spanish or Italian). So even though many similarities noted between Sanskrit and German are in fact those shared by many members of the Indo-European family, the claim just means that among the few languages considered, German’s similarities are remarkable.
[My background: I have a reasonable familiarity with Sanskrit; not so much with German. For impressions about German I’ll rely on the Wikipedia articles, and, (don’t lynch me) Mark Twain’s humorous essay The Awful German Language — of course I know it’s unfair and not a work of linguistics, but as examples of what the average English speaker might find unusual in German, it is a useful document.]
With that said, some similarities:
German apparently has four cases; Sanskrit has eight cases (traditional Sanskrit grammar counts seven, not counting the vocative as distinct). As Cerberus [another user] notes, “Sanskrit and German have several functional cases, whereas French/Spanish/Italian/Portuguese/Dutch/English/etc. do not. Those are the languages one might be inclined to compare Sanskrit with”.
Although English does have short compound words (like bluebird, horseshoe, paperback or pickpocket), German has a reputation for long compound words. (Twain complains that the average German sentence “is built mainly of compound words constructed by the writer on the spot, and not to be found in any dictionary — six or seven words compacted into one, without joint or seam — that is, without hyphens”) He mentions Stadtverordnetenversammlungen and Generalstaatsverordnetenversammlungen; Wikipedia mentions Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz and Donaudampfschiffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft. But these are nothing compared to the words one routinely finds in ornate Sanskrit prose. See for example this post. Sanskrit like German allows compounds of arbitrary length, and compounds made of four or five words are routinely found in even the most common Sanskrit texts.
Verb appearing late
It appears that German words tend to come later in the sentence than English speakers are comfortable with. I notice questions on this SE showing that German has V2 word order, not SOV. However, many English speakers seem to find late verbs in German worth remarking on. One of my favourite sentences from Hofstadter goes
“The proverbial German phenomenon of the “verb-at-the-end”, about which droll tales of absentminded professors who would begin a sentence, ramble on for an entire lecture, and then finish up by rattling off a string of verbs by which their audience, for whom the stack had long since lost its coherence, would be totally nonplussed, are told, is an excellent example of linguistic pushing and popping.”
Twain too, says “the reader is left to flounder through to the remote verb” and gives the analogy of
“But when he, upon the street, the (in-satin-and-silk-covered-now-very-unconstrained-after-the-newest-fashioned-dressed) government counselor’s wife met,”
“In the daybeforeyesterdayshortlyaftereleveno’clock Night, the inthistownstandingtavern called `The Wagoner’ was downburnt. When the fire to the onthedownburninghouseresting Stork’s Nest reached, flew the parent Storks away. But when the bytheraging, firesurrounded Nest itself caught Fire, straightway plunged the quickreturning Mother-stork into the Flames and died, her Wings over her young ones outspread.”
Well, this is exactly typical Sanskrit writing. Those sentences might have been translated verbatim from a Sanskrit text. Sanskrit technically has free word order (i.e., words can be put in any order), and this is made much use of in verse, but in prose, usage tends to be SOV.
Of Sanskrit’s greatest prose work, Kādambarī, someone named Albrecht Weber wrote in 1853 that in it,
“the verb is kept back to the second, third, fourth, nay, once to the sixth page, and all the interval is filled with epithets and epithets to these epithets: moreover these epithets frequently consist of compounds extending over more than one line; in short, Bāṇa’s prose is an Indian wood, where all progress is rendered impossible by the undergrowth until the traveller cuts out a path for himself, and where, even then, he has to reckon with malicious wild beasts in the shape of unknown words that affright him.” (“…ein wahrer indischer Wald…”)
(This is unfair criticism: personally, I have been lately reading the Kādambarī with the help of friends more experienced in Sanskrit, and I must say the style is truly enjoyable.) Now, the fact that this was a German Indologist writing for the Journal of the German Oriental Society somewhat goes against the claim of Sanskrit and German being similar. But one could say: for someone familiar with Sanskrit’s long compounds and late verbs that even Germans find difficult, the same features in German will pose little difficulty.
Adjectives decline like nouns
In Sanskrit, as it appears to be in German, an adjective takes the gender, case, and number of whatever it is describing. (Twain: “would rather decline two drinks than one German adjective”)
Gender of nouns has to be learned
By and large, it is so in Sanskrit as well. Twain notes that in German “a tree is male, its buds are female, its leaves are neuter; horses are sexless, dogs are male, cats are female — tomcats included, of course; a person’s mouth, neck, bosom, elbows, fingers, nails, feet, and body are of the male sex, and his head is male or neuter according to the word selected to signify it, and not according to the sex of the individual who wears it — for in Germany all the women either male heads or sexless ones; a person’s nose, lips, shoulders, breast, hands, and toes are of the female sex; and his hair, ears, eyes, chin, legs, knees, heart, and conscience haven’t any sex at all”. (He goes on to write a “Tale of the Fishwife and its Sad Fate.”) It does not seem quite so bad in Sanskrit, but yes, gender of words needs to be learned. (In Sanskrit there exists a word for “wife” in each of the three genders.) However this is a feature common to many languages (including, say, languages like Hindi or French that have only two genders) so I shouldn’t list it among similarities.
This is something quite trivial, and linguists often don’t even consider orthography a part of the language proper, but spelling seems to be a pretty big deal to Indians learning other languages. The writing systems of most Indian languages are phonetic, in the sense that the spelling deterministically reflects the pronunciation and vice-versa. There are no silent letters, no wondering about a word spelled in a particular way is pronounced. Indian learners of English often complain about the ad-hoc inconsistent spelling of English; it seems a bigger deal than it should be. From this point of view, the fact that it is claimed that for German, “After one short lesson in the alphabet, the student can tell how any German word is pronounced without having to ask” means that that aspect of German is easier to learn.
The harmony of sound and sense
This is extremely subjective and will be controversial, and perhaps I will seem biased, but to me, in Sanskrit, it seems possible to pick words whose sounds match the desired feeling, better than in other languages. I have seen people who knew many languages say the same thing, and also Western translators from Sanskrit etc., so it is interesting for me to see Twain make a similar remark about German. Anyway, this is subjective, so I’ll not dwell on this much.
There are of course many; e.g. Sanskrit does not have articles (the, etc.) unlike German. It also has very few prepositions (has only a few ones like “without”, “with”, “before”), as the work of prepositions like “to”, “from”, or “by” is handled by case. The difficulty of German prepositions does not seem to be present in Sanskrit.
Some alleged difficulties of learning German, such as cases, long compounds, and word order, are present to a far greater extent in Sanskrit, so in principle someone who knows Sanskrit may be able to pick them up more easily than someone trying to learn German without this knowledge. However, this may not be saying anything more than that knowing one language helps you learn others.
Here’s a great, simple write-up aimed at a Western audience, from the Clay Sanskrit Library edition of Kālidāsa’s The Recognition of Shakuntala, written by Somadeva Vasudeva:
Imagine that you find yourself going to see a performance of “Romeo and Juliet.” You are in the right mood for the play, no mundane worries preoccupy your mind, you have agreeable company, and the theatre, the stage, the director and the actors are all excellent—capable of doing justice to a great play. Your seat in the theatre is comfortable and gives an unobstructed view.
The play begins and you find yourself drawn into the world Shakespeare is sketching. The involvement deepens to an immersion where the ordinary, everyday world dims and fades from the center of attention, you begin to understand and even share the feelings of the characters on stage—under ideal conditions you might reach a stage where you
begin to participate in some strange way in the love being evoked.
Now, if at that moment you were to ask yourself: “Whose love is this?” a paradox arises.
It cannot be Romeo’s love for Juliet, nor Juliet’s love for Romeo, for they are fictional characters. It cannot be the actors’, for in reality they may despise one another. It cannot be your own love, for you cannot love a fictional character and know nothing about the actors’ real personalities (they are veiled by the role they assume), and, for the same reasons, it cannot be the actors’ love for either you or the fictional characters. So it is a peculiar, almost abstract love without immediate referent or context.
A Sanskrit aesthete would explain to you that you are at that moment “relishing” (āsvādana) your own “fundamental emotional state” (sthāyi-bhāva) called “passion” (rati) which has been “decontextualised” (sādhāraṇīkṛta) by the operation of “sympathetic resonance” (hṛdayasaṃvāda) and heightened to become transformed into an “aesthetic sentiment” (rasa) called the “erotic sentiment” (śṛṅgāra).
This “aesthetic sentiment” is a paradoxical and ephemeral thing that can be evoked by the play but is not exactly caused by it, for many spectators may have felt nothing at all during the same performance. You yourself, seeing it again next week, under the same circumstances, might experience nothing. It is, moreover, something that cannot be adequately explained through analytic terms, the only proof for its existence is its direct, personal experience.
It is, moreover, a blissful experience. The fact that sensitive readers often weep while reading poetry does not mean that they are suffering, rather the tenderness of the work has succeeded in melting the contraction of their minds or hearts.
The non-ordinary nature of such aesthetic sentiments makes it possible for the spectator or reader to derive a pleasurable experience even from what in ordinary life would be causes of grief.
The Indian scholarly tradition has a lot more, including some very thoughtful deliberation and perceptive observation, but it seems good to start a discussion of rasa with an example like this, than to start with the technical details.
[Another good start may be via film. See for instance:
How to Watch a Hindi Film: The Example of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai by Sam Joshi, published in Education About Asia, Volume 9, Number 1 (Spring 2004).
and perhaps (and if you have a lot of time):
Is There an Indian Way of Filmmaking? by Philip Lutgendorf, published in International Journal of Hindu Studies, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Dec., 2006), pp. 227-256.
Previously on this blog: On songs in Bollywood]
Famous verses appear in many variants. Thanks to Google, it is easy to find many of them. For “paropakāraḥ puṇyāya, pāpāya parapīḍanam”, Google throws up a lot of variants for the first half.
The Vikramacarita has:
śrūyatāṃ dharmasarvasvaṃ, yad uktaṃ śāstrakoṭibhiḥ /
paropakāraḥ puṇyāya, pāpāya parapīḍanam
Other variants are:
saṅkṣepāt kathyate dharmo janāḥ kiṃ vistareṇa vaḥ |
paropakāraḥ puṇyāya pāpāya para-pīḍanam ||Panc_3.103||
aṣṭādaśapurāṇeṣu vyāsasya vacanadvayam /
paropakāraḥ puṇyāya pāpāya parapīḍanam //
ślokārdhena pravakṣyāmi yaduktaṃ grantha-koṭibhiḥ
paropakāraḥ puṇyāya pāpāya parapīḍanam
Going by the first line gives other verses:
śrūyatāṃ dharmasarvasvaṃ śrutvā caivāvadhāryatām | (or caiva vicāryatām ।)
ātmanaḥ pratikūlāni pareṣāṃ na samācaret ||
[Cāṇakya-nīti, Pañcatantra, Subhāṣitāvalī etc.]
prāṇā yathātmano ‘bhīṣṭā bhūtānām api te tathā |
ātmaupamyena gantavyaṃ buddhimadbhir mahātmabhiḥ
तस्माद्धर्मप्रधानेन भवितव्यं यतात्मना ।
तथा च सर्वभूतेषु वर्तितव्यं यथात्मनि ॥ Mahābhārata Shānti-Parva 167:9
05,039.057a na tatparasya saṃdadhyāt pratikūlaṃ yadātmanaḥ
05,039.057b*0238_01 ātmanaḥ pratikūlāni vijānan na samācaret
05,039.057c saṃgraheṇaiṣa dharmaḥ syāt kāmād anyaḥ pravartate
As Hillel says, the rest is commentary.
For (some) commentary, go here.
To type IAST (English letters with diacritics, for Sanskrit transliteration) on Mac OS X, perhaps the easiest way, rather than to use transliteration tools, is to get a keyboard layout that does it. Just to be clear, this is the alphabet we want:
a ā i ī u ū ṛ ṝ ḷ ḹ e ai o au ṃ ḥ k kh g gh ṅ c ch j j ñ ṭ ṭh ḍ ḍh ṇ t t d dh n p ph b bh m y r l v ś ṣ s h
In other words, the special characters needed are:
- Letters with macron above: ā ī ū ṝ ḹ plus it may be occasionally useful to have ē and ō as well
- Letters with dot below: ṭ ḍ ṇ ṣ (the retroflex consonants), also the vowels ṛ ṝ ḷ ḹ, plus ṃ and ḥ (anusvāra)
- Letters with other marks above: ṅ ñ ś
There is a keyboard layout that does this: It’s called “EasyUnicode”, created by Toshiya Unebe (Nagoya University), and is documented at http://ebmp.org/p_easyunicode.php (“EasyUnicode version 5″ it says) (PDF version), and you can download it from http://www.ebmp.org/p_dwnlds.php (EBMP) (=Early Buddhist Manuscripts Project, University of Washington) or also http://www.palitext.com/subpages/PC_Unicode.htm “Pali Fonts for PC and Unicode”. (Page in Japanese.)
This keyboard layout is just like the usual (US English) layout ordinarily, but when you hold down the Alt (Option) key and press a, you get ā, similarly Option+s gives ś, Option+n gives ñ and Option+g gives ṅ, etc. The full mapping is available along with other documentation in the download above.
This is very convenient. One issue with the layout is that also overrides a lot of keys for no apparent reason (Ctrl-A / Ctrl-E etc. stopped working for me), so I got Ukelele from SIL, and wrote my own keyboard layout. I’ve called it EasyIAST, and it is available here for now. I plan to add a README etc. and distribute it in some proper way later; for now you can use the instructions from EasyUnicode above. If you find it useful and/or make any improvements, please let me know as well.
If some time is available, it would be good to make a Devanagari keyboard layout along the same lines.
In a book called A History of Kanarese Literature, by Edward Rice (1921), he makes the following comment (p. 106):
The other is that a Kanarese poem defies anything like literal translation into another language. To give any idea of the spirit of the original it would be necessary to paraphrase freely, to expand the terse and frequent metaphors into similes, and to give a double rendering of many stanzas. An example will make this clear. The opening stanza of the Jaimini Bharata is given in Sanderson’s translation as follows:
May the moon-face of Vishnu, of Devapura, always suffused with moonlight smile, full of delightful favour-ambrosial rays—at which the chakora-eye of Lakshmi is enraptured, the lotus-bud heart of the devout expands, and the sea of the world’s pure happiness rises and overflows its bounds—give us joy.
The following is an attempt, by means of a freer rendering, to retain something of the spirit of the original:
When the full moon through heaven rides,
Broad Ocean swells with all its tides ;
The lotus blossom on the stream
Opens to drink the silv’ry beam ;
And far aloft with tranced gaze
The chakor bird feeds on the rays.
So, when great Vishnu’s face is seen,—
Whom men adore at Devapore—
Like to the sea, the devotee
Thrills with a tide of joy ;
Like to the flower, that blissful hour
The heart of the devout expands ;
And Lakshmi Queen, with rapture keen,
Watches with ever-radiant face
For her great Consort’s heavenly grace.
O may that grace be ours !
I’m wondering about this change. Apart from the versification—you know, being an actual poem instead of stilted prose—when it comes to just the idea, is it better? Why? How? Is it more readable? More understandable? Most importantly, does this change better “retain the spirit of the original”?
[Aside: just to be mischievous, we can with the wonders of technology do the following:
|Vishnu's face||smile||his grace||Lakshmi's eye||heart of the devout||world's happiness|
to ruin the poem.]
For one thing, he has changed the metaphor (rūpaka) of the original into simile (upamā).
Probably the reason is that the compressed quality of the original, a prominent characteristic of Sanskrit and other classical Indian literature, is unsuitable for English, whose readers are typically unprepared for it. Is there more to it? Is this a general difference between the two literary cultures?
I’m wondering all this because Daniel Ingalls says something along similar lines in his honestly-written general introduction “Sanskrit poetry and Sanskrit Poetics” (from his translation of the Subhāṣita-ratna-kośa anthology):
As a result, Sanskrit is lacking in what is perhaps the chief force of English poetry: its kinesthetic effect. What I mean can be shown by an old ballad:
Martinmas wind, when wilt thou blow
and shake the green leaves off the tree…
One can feel the leaves shaking, and one shivers in the next line to the “Frost that freezes fell / and blowing snow’s inclemency.” One can find verses that produce this muscular effect in Bengali, and although I cannot speak at first hand of other modern Indian literatures, I imagine that one can find the effect in them as well. But it is only rarely that one finds it in Sanskrit. The powers of Sanskrit are of a different order.
[The following verse] is by Yogeśvara, an excellent poet who is capable of better things. In it he uses a strikingly elaborate metaphor:
Now the great cloud-cat,
darting out his lightning tongue,
licks the creamy moon
from the saucepan of the sky.
The effect here is gained by intellectual, entirely rational means. The metaphor is complete in every detail: cat, tongue, cream, and saucepan—cloud, moon, lightning, and sky. It is almost like an exercise from a manual of logic under the chapter “Analogy.” Compare the verse with a well-known passage of T. S. Eliot which uses several similar ideas, but uses them very differently:
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains, …
This from one who is often called an intellectual poet. And yet Eliot gets his effect in every line from the irrational, the strong but imprecise memory we have of fog and cats, the childhood associations of certain words and idioms. Consider the line: “Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening.” It brings to sudden flower certain homely and completely natural phrases: “licks his tongue around the bowl,” or “licks his tongue into the corner of the dish.” The idiom is suddenly transfigured by bringing it into juxtaposition with the last three words, “of the evening.” This transfiguration of language becomes impossible without a natural-language basis.
Is there a general point here that English poetry uses vague, fuzzy, but “kinesthetic” effects where Sanskrit (or classical Indian) poetry uses compressed metaphors that paint a precise and detailed picture? I think there is some merit to the idea that, by and large, Sanskrit poetry is “static”, not “dynamic”. It is not a stream in motion; it hasn’t any “flow”. It is more a pearl in itself, that dazzles as you read. If poetry is imagination and the evocation of something other-worldly, it seems to me that Sanskrit poetry in general / at its best, conjures a world that one can calmly dwell in for a while, not an evocative fleeting idea that escapes as you try to grasp it, one which has appeal more in the chasing. Consider the importance accorded ultimately to stability / sthāyī-bhāva in all Indian arts, from poetry to theatre to dance.
This requires more thought and elaboration, but one may as well quote the final lines of Ingalls’s introduction (emphasis mine):
One may argue today, as the Sanskrit critics argued in the past, the relative importance of the various factors of Sanskrit verse which I have discussed. Vocabulary, grammar, meter: these are all necessary. Figures of speech, both verbal and intellectual, furnish delight. Mood is what is sought, though the grand successes of Sanskrit I would say go beyond mood to a sort of universal revelation, to what James Joyce, drawing on the vocabulary of religion, called an epiphany. To achieve this success impersonality is a prerequisite and suggestion is the chief instrument. If I were to single out for admiration one factor above the others in this complex it would be suggestion, not because it is unknown in other languages but because the Sanskrit poets use it with such brilliance and because it seems to me the most intimately connected of all the factors with the excitement, the sudden rushing of the mind into a delightful, calm expansion, that one occasionally derives from Sanskrit poetry and that brings one who has once known it constantly back for further draughts.
How many things can you do simultaneously in your head?
Yesterday A couple of weeks ago Nearly three months ago, I attended an avadhana, by Shatavadhani Dr. R. Ganesh. Already (the very next day) my friend Mohan has written about it in great detail, but since I had started scribbling something down then, I thought I should write a post anyway: it is easily the most incredible feat of the human mind I have ever witnessed. (Unfortunately this may not be saying much, for I have not seen, say, George Koltanowski play 34 games of blindfold chess simultaneously. So suffice it to say that repeatedly we in the audience had trouble believing that what we were seeing was really happening!)
The word avadhāna, in common usage, means “concentration” or “attention”. In the specialised sense here, an “avadhana” is a performance of sorts, an exhibition of mental concentration, multi-tasking, literary skill, erudition and wit.
The basic format is this: there is a performer (avadhani) seated on stage, and also with him are several “questioners” (pṛcchakas). The performer has no access to pen or paper or any resources other than his head. The questioners give him various tasks in parallel, and he must answer them all, dividing his attention between them.
And these are no simple tasks! Some are harder than others, but all require great skill and concentration, especially to do them without any secondary memory (like, say, a piece of paper). Some are scheduled to happen in order, some are interrupt-driven, and all require concentration. This was an “Ashtavadhana”, so there were eight questioners/tasks (five of them had to do with composing poetry, and the rest were of a different nature):
1. Nishedhakshara (“letters forbidden”): the questioner gives him a topic on which to compose a verse in Sanskrit, and a metre to compose it in. Already a difficult task for mortals — metres in Sanskrit are to be strictly adhered to in every syllable; there is no amount of permitted variation as in English — but it’s nothing compared to the devilish twist here: the performer must compose the verse interactively, one letter at a time, and after each letter that he announces, the questioner imposes a constraint on what the next letter must not be. Thus for instance, each time the performer appears to be using a word, the questioner can prevent him from completing that word. He must find a way around this constraint, and so on till the entire line is completed.
This is done in four rounds: he composes one line at a stretch (along with the back-and-forth with the Nishedhakshari) in one round, and when the next round arrives, after some 40–50 minutes during which he has been facing other questions, he must pick up where he left off, relying on his memory with no external assistance. (E.g. he isn’t read back what he had composed as the first line.)
2. Samasya-purti: A traditional challenge, in which a line is given, and the performer has to compose a verse with it as its last line. Often the “problem” line will be nonsensical, or wholly inappropriate or even obscene, and the poet has to compose his “solution” poem such that the line makes sense in context. Usually, this involves clever tricks to engineer a radical reinterpratation of the line. Ganesh gave an example from one of his earlier programmes: a line like “Hari-worshipping atheists are numerous” was worked into a poem about music, describing a raga and ending with “Bila/hari-worshipping atheists are numerous”. (Bilahari is a popular raga in Carnatic music.)
In this instance, this round was in Kannada. Also done in four rounds, one line at a time.
3. Datta-pada (“given words”): Poem. Given topic, given metre. The catch: he is given four words that must occur in the poem, but the words are from another language. For instance, here the questioner wanted words like “ape” and “monkey” to appear in each line, and the performer’s task is to compose a poem in Kannada, with the English words occurring as segments of Kannada words. One line per round.
4. Chitrakavya (constrained writing): At the fringe of Sanskrit literature is an incredible body of constrained writing, of everything from palindromes to verses which satisfy difficult constraints on their letters, or which can be re-arranged into certain “shapes”, and so on. Here the performer is asked to compose a poem on a given topic, satisfying the constraint. One line per round.
5. Magic square: At the start of the performance someone from the audience (or the questioner) calls out a number, and the task is to construct a 5×5 magic square — a square of distinct numbers, such that every row, every column, and both diagonals sum to that number. This task is interrupt-driven: at any time during the performance — such as when he is composing a line of some poem — the performer is interrupted by the questioner who asks him for the entry in a particular row and column; the performer must give him a number and return to this task. (So 25 interruptions in all, throughout the performance.) Of all the tasks, this is the only one I feel even remotely confident of doing with a little practice, but it seemed to be the one that impressed the audience the most! Nevertheless, it is not trivial, and is definitely a distraction that can draw one’s full attention for at least a few moments. (Other avadhanas sometimes involve someone who, say, rings a bell at random moments, and the avadhani has to maintain a count of how many times the bell has rung, even as he concentrates on other tasks. A magic square is probably more impressive.)
6. Aprastuta-prasanga: Various meddling distractions and banter. This is interrupt-driven too. This questioner interrupts frequently, asking questions and making comments, and in general needling the performer and pulling his leg. This may include random humorous remarks, or the latest news, politics, celebrity gossip, whatever. The performer comes up with witty replies (well, Dr. Ganesh does, at any rate), deflects the question (or answers it if it’s a serious one), and moves on. I’ve heard it said that while most avadhanis treat this part as something to be endured, Ganesh actually grants this role a big part in the proceedings and even delights in it. This may be a sign of his wit and confidence, or (considering that there will be people in the audience who are impaired in their ability to follow the poetry, and who enjoy this part the most) a generous concession towards the modern-day audience. Either way, this role is a hard task for the questioner as well, and one fraught with danger: apparently, during a previous avadhana of Ganesh that was being conducted at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan with (I think) Dr. S R Leela in this role, at one point during the event Mattur Krishnamurthy who was in the audience stood up and yelled at her: “he’s trying to compose a serious poem; why do you distract with such trifles?” — but of course, that is precisely the job. And it appears Ganesh can handle any distraction. :-)
If one imagines the setting of erudite scholarship in an ancient language as a stuffy one, then this sits rather incongruously in that context. So this may serve as “comic relief” from the serious stuff. But actually, I think what this round suggests is that for the avadhani, unlike for us, even arcane metrical composition is at the same level of difficulty as small talk!
7. Ashu-kavitva: Compose a poem quickly. While the other four poem-composing tasks involved composing a single poem, one line in each round, here he is given a topic and must compose a complete poem on it immediately. Ganesh even offered to do it in any metre specified, but as the questioner in this case didn’t specify metres, he picked different metres appropriate to the topic himself. This is one poem per round.
8. Kavya-vachana: Identifying poems. The questioner reads out a poem, which could be from a rather obscure work in the literature, and the performer must identify where it is from. That already requires a deep knowledge of all the literature and a great memory besides, but apparently Ganesh finds that too easy. So what happened here was that the questioner would sing the poem, and instantly, as soon as the singing ended, Ganesh would reply, identifying both the poem and the raga in which it was sung, in verse and in the same metre as the original poem, and singing it in the same raga that was used!
Those are the tasks. So at any given point of time, the perfomer must remember and keep in his head, at minimum, the current state of composition of four poems-in-progress, and the constraints that were imposed on them in the first place, and also the state of the magic square, all the while responding to distractions, and this over a period of several hours — nearly an hour elapsing between working on one line of the poem, and returning to it again.
It is hard to describe how incredible this was to witness in person. For one thing, all the questioners are demanding and trying to trip up the performer, so there’s an elaborate cat-and-mouse game going on. On top of that, when even the audience, who don’t have to do anything but watch, have trouble remembering what has happened in the previous round — even those who have been taking notes — for the performer to resume everything from memory does make one’s jaw drop.
At the end of the performance, the questioners (2), (3), (4) and (7), who had asked for certain poems composed, read out their own creations, that they had composed before the performance at their own leisure. More than once, Ganesh’s compositions created in such a harsh setting were still more beautiful than the ones that had been composed with as much time as desired!
In an age where we’re beginning to feel in the face of technology that perhaps that we’re not so good at multitasking after all, a traditional performance like this feels a bit like the old world turning up in style and showing us how it’s done. Whatever happened to The Magical Number 7±2?
* This was in a mixture of Sanskrit and Kannada, but he has given performances that have been entirely in Sanskrit (even the banter), those in which there are eight questioners in Kannada and eight in Sanskrit, etc.
* OK, all this is great, but this must be a once-in-a-lifetime performance, right? The culmination of a life of practice, that happens but once?
Nope. This was Ganesh’s 917th—NINE HUNDRED AND SEVENTEENTH—avadhana. He did another one two weeks later.
* EIGHT people! Four hours! Must be exhausting, and about the limits of what the human mind can do? Nope. He is called “Shatavadhani” because he has at least once performed a Shatavadhana, involving a hundred questioners in parallel rather than eight. Not only that, but he has said he is prepared to do a Sahasravadhana, with a thousand questioners, but it would take over a month to perform, and it is hard to find the people to ask the questions! (And an audience, I imagine.)
* How did he think of doing an avadhana in the first place? What I’ve heard is that he attended one, and felt “I can do this too”. Just like that.
* Of the eight “questioners” (pṛcchakas), only two were professionally related to Sanskrit (they were teachers/professors). The rest were from various fields — software engineers, hardware engineers, teachers of other subjects, and so on — who only pursue their love of Sanskrit in their spare time. (One of them has apparently read through the entire Apte’s dictionary several times, which is an activity I find hard to even imagine.) The audience, too, had a fair number of young people, which Ganesh commented positively upon. (“Gratifying to see a lot of black-haired heads, not just bald or grey-haired ones.”)
* [Other stuff which I had thought of then, but forgot to note down. Will expand if I remember.]
* A detailed account of the entire proceedings is in Mohan’s post, as mentioned above. Besides the parallelism and concentration that I have described above, which is the immediately stunning fact to a newcomer, there was a striking beauty in the way he actually handled each of the problems. This is more apparent from Mohan’s post; I have intentionally emphasized the former to (sort of) complement that one. Do go and read it!
* Dr. Ganesh has written a large monograph on avadhana in Kannada, for which he was awarded the first D. Litt. by Kannada University (Hampi).
* If you have trouble believing any of this, there are a few recordings of earlier avadhanas available, and you can try attending the next one.
* Update: The video of this avadhana is now online. The video cannot reproduce the atmosphere, but it’s something:
A few more Avadhanas have been uploaded online, on the Padyapaana YouTube channel.