Avadhānam and Audience
Avadhānam sets a higher bar for an audience than most arts. It is probably at the other end of the spectrum to music, whose bar is the lowest purely from an enjoyment perspective. In that sense, a person simply cannot walk into an Avadhānam and start enjoying it. One needs to attend a few Avadhānams simply to get a hang of the framework. He also needs to be lucky to attend the performances of the really good avadhānis to be able to realize the true possibilities of the medium. It is akin to watching test-match cricket, where there can be relatively quiet periods between bursts of action. So, patience is expected of an audience witnessing an Avadhānam. If a person wants to truly appreciate an Avadhānam in all its nuances, he needs to have or cultivate an above-average feel and grasp of the language. For the ones who cannot understand the nuances, āśukavitā, aprastutaprasaṅga and kāvyavācana serve to provide the necessary entertainment. In this sense, these vibhāgas are crucial from the perspective of sustaining the interest of an audience. Since Avadhānam is based purely on language, it cannot have the universal appeal that music or dance can have where the barrier of language is not so decisive. It also limits the reach of an avadhāni.
Avadhānam and Pṛcchakas
The pṛcchakas are the first row among the audience in an Avadhānam. It would be a sorry sight for any audience to see pṛcchakas on stage who are dull or drab. Hence, it is important that they are connoisseurs who can instantly appreciate the happenings on stage and highlight the important aspects to the audience, if the avadhāni for some reason misses out on elaborating. It is also a need for the avadhāni to have a few connoisseurs who can appreciate the nuances of his oratory or verses. If pṛcchakas can serve the purpose, nothing like it for an avadhāni. Also, if the pṛcchakas are good connoisseurs, the chances of them coming up with aesthetic questions are higher. This will in turn raise the quality of the Avadhānam. Also, pṛcchakas have the responsibility to make ensure that the avadhāni is not erring on grammar or meter during his creative flows. This way, pṛcchakas serve the dual purpose of policing and embellishing an Avadhānam.
Avadhānam Compared with Other Arts
Avadhānam has a few critical differences when compared with other fundamental arts. First and foremost, here the performer has no choice on the topic or meters he will be versifying in. It is the equivalent of a musician tuning hitherto unheard of kṛtis on the fly and rendering them extempore on stage; or of a dancer looking up a piece and choreographing on the fly and rendering it on stage. These things don’t happen really. On the contrary, most musicians and dancers plan and prepare elaborately for their public performances to mitigate the risk of underperforming. In this light, the risks than an avadhāni takes are humongous.
Secondly, as seen before, the quality of an Avadhānam depends to a large extent on the quality and questions of the pṛcchakas. And yet, the avadhāni cannot talk to them or work with them to get it right. It is the equivalent of a musician not allowed to talk to his accompanying artists before a concert; or a dancer not allowed to talk to his ensemble artists. Hence, ideally, at least the pṛcchakas should discuss among themselves to ensure no glaring loopholes show up on stage. At the same time, this is again another uncertainty for an avadhāni when it comes to the quality of performance and it is outside his control.
Thirdly, an avadhāni cannot use the same idea more than once for the same topic; at least he should not. Using the same idea in a different meter is also forbidden. On the contrary, nobody complains if a musician sings the same kṛti in consecutive concerts; or if a dancer performs the same ballad across multiple performances. They can live with incremental differences in raga elaboration or character elaboration and claim non-repetition. But, an avadhāni has to come up with an entirely new idea for the same topic every time he is asked to versify on it.
Finally, as seen before, Avadhānam is strongly coupled with the performing language. At best, it can be performed to an audience whose language the avadhāni is comfortable enough to translate in. This limits the reach of an avadhāni compared to his peers in other art-forms.
In summary, Avadhānam is arguably more complex than other fundamental arts. At the same time, it is inarguably more adventurous than any of them. Hence, it is rare to find a great avadhāni. Rarer still is to find an audience who can comprehend his skills in all its details.
Criticism of Avadhānam
Avadhānam, for all its merits, has its share of critics. We can look at a few of them. Firstly, there are a few who look at Avadhānam and versification in classical meters to be esoteric. This comes mostly from those who cannot compose any verses themselves in any classical meter and hence it serves them fine to call the grapes sour. This is an argument against excellence in language and does not deserve sympathetic treatment.
Secondly, there are eminent poets who criticize Avadhānam for producing verses lacking sufficient sophistication and finish. While the concern for quality here is understood, this is essentially an argument against āśukavitā. Taken to its logical extremity, it is an argument against spontaneity itself which is the heart of all great Indian art. Classical poetry already conforms to the constraints of meter, grammar and aesthetics. Avadhānam only imposes an additional constraint of time. It would be a stretch to call that a deal-breaker. Any lack of quality in verses, real or perceived, only means that the poet as yet is not comfortable enough with the constraint of time imposed by Avadhānam. If an analogy has to be drawn from cricket, it would be like a Test-match batsman underrating T-20 batting. It would discount all those players who excel in both forms. There is potentially an additional benefit that can accrue to a poet from Avadhānam. Since Avadhānam makes a poet to versify on anything and everything, he is forced to look beyond his comfort zone, read widely and in general widen his horizons. Although aestheticians like Kṣemedra prescribe it for every poet, it is hardly practised by everyone. Most stick to a restricted set of possibilities and hardly take notice of things beyond them. Avadhānam can be a good way of ice-breaking for such poets and in turn provide fresher perspectives for their leisure poetry.
Finally, there are people who mean well by Avadhānam but insist on simplifying it further for the benefit of the audience. Being aligned with the same goal, I would say it is a call to make the existing vibhāgas more entertaining or appealing without trivializing them. An example in this regard is substituting niṣedhākṣarī with vivargākṣarī. Here, instead of the pṛcchaka interjecting on every letter, he instead bars an entire varga of five consonants for every line of the verse. A similar experiment by Dr. R. Ganesh has been to substitute citrakāvya with nāṭakavācana. But, as we have seen, this is orders of magnitude more difficult than citrakāvya and hence there is little chance of this becoming popular with avadhānis. The limited point I am trying to make here is that this is a work in progress.
In the light of the preceding discussions, it can be safely concluded that Avadhānam pushes the envelope of classical literature at many levels. As with all classical arts, a certain degree of effort has to be invested to understand the basics of the medium. In this case, it would be a feel for the language, grammar, meters and aesthetics. A diligent reading of the masters of the language should be an enjoyable way of getting there. As with all classical arts, Avadhānam has had its ebbs and flows during the course of its long life. The very fact that an avadhāni like Śatāvadhāni Dr. R. Ganesh is among us today and redefining the limits of what is possible in an Avadhānam should be sufficient proof of the vitality it possesses many centuries after it was conceived. It is this vitality that will inspire someone else to be a torch-bearer and push the envelope of this art further. Everything we have discussed about the Avadhānam is summed up by an oft-mentioned line of Śatāvadhāni Dr. R. Ganesh – “It is tough to perform an Avadhānam, tougher to organize it, and toughest to witness it as an audience”. However, the fact that he has performed more than one thousand Avadhānams should tell us it is not as difficult as he makes it sound.
Since Avadhānam is a performing art, one cannot appreciate its nuances merely by reading about it. The best method is to watch it live and readily savour it. For those who haven’t had the opportunity to watch an Avadhānam, video recordings serve as good supplements. Here are links to a few performances performed in three languages – Kannada, Sanskrit, and Telugu.
Excerpts from a Sanskrit Aṣṭāvadhānam by Śatāvadhāni Dr. R. Ganesh –
Kannada Aṣṭāvadhānam by Śatāvadhāni Dr. R. Ganesh –
Aṣṭāvadhānam based on the novels of Sri S L Bhyrappa by Śatāvadhāni Dr. R. Ganesh –
Telugu Aṣṭāvadhānam by Sri. Garikapati Narasimha Rao –