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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?

Other notes

* 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.]

Further reading

* 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!

* Edit: See this post (“A Modern Day Ashtavadhanam”) by Venetia Ansell. As she notes, “Highbrow Sanskrit arts are far from dead.”
* Another post

* 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.


Written by S

Mon, 2011-12-19 at 01:44:48

Posted in sanskrit

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