Avadhānaṃ is a literary performance popular from the very ancient days in India. Avadhānaṃ originated as a Sanskrit literary process and is revived by Kannada and Telugu poets in modern times. It involves the partial improvisation of poems using specific themes, metres, forms, or words. The true purpose of an Avadhanam event thus is the showcasing, through entertainment, of superior mastery of cognitive capabilities - of observation, memory, multitasking, task switching, retrieval, reasoning and creativity in multiple modes of intelligence - literature, poetry, music, mathematical calculations, puzzle solving etc.
It requires immense memory power and tests a person's capability of performing multiple tasks simultaneously. All the tasks are memory intensive and demand an in-depth knowledge of literature, and prosody. The tasks vary from making up a poem spontaneously to keeping a count of a bell ringing at random. No external memory aids are allowed while performing these tasks except the person's mind. Avadhānaṃ can be considered as the Divided attention (clinical model of attention) as it is the highest level of attention and it refers to the ability to respond simultaneously to multiple tasks or multiple task demands.
Avadhāni refers to the individual who performs the Avadhānaṃ; one of the many individuals asking questions is a Pṛcchaka (questioner). The first person to ask the question is called "Pradhāna Pṛcchaka" (s)he is the same as any other Pṛcchakaexcept that he asks the first question. The questions asked are primarily literary in nature. The Pṛcchakas can optionally place additional constraints. Though it is not stated explicitly, conformation to Chandas (poetic metre) is mandatory. Avadhāni should answer them in the form of a poem. The questions generally consist of a description given in prose and the avadhāni has to express it as a poem. The additional restrictions placed by the Pṛcchakas can be anything like asking the avadhāni not to use a given set of the alphabet in the entire poem or to construct only a particular type of poem etc.
Characteristics of Avadhanas
The avadhāni is not allowed to recite the entire poem at once. After listening to the Pṛcchaka's question, the avadhāni constructs the first line of the poem, recites it and moves to the next Pṛcchaka. After listening to all the Pṛcchakas, and reciting one line of poem each, the avadhāni shall return to the Pradhana Pṛcchaka (in a round-robin fashion) and continues with the second line of the poem. The beauty and challenge here is that the avadhāni has to remember the question, the line of poem said before and all the additional constraints placed. They shall not be repeated and any mistake shall disqualify the person from being titled "Avadhani". Every poem has 4 lines, so each Pṛcchaka's turn comes 4 times. Avadhaani has to recite the full poem once he finishes constructing all the lines of the poems. This is called "dharaṇa" and forms the culmination of the Avadhana. Avadhani should use only his memory for all this. An Avadhana can run for multiple days (especially Śatāvadhāna).
It is a general practice for one of the Pṛcchaka to keep ringing a bell randomly and avadhani has to keep track of number of bell rings. The multitutde of all these constraints makes Avadhana one of the greatest arts to master.
Of the remaining Pṛcchakas, one person is in charge of "aprastuta-prasangam" (irrelevant incident). His responsibility is to distract the avadhani with questions and topics unrelated to the avadhanam and the avadhani has to reply to his questions and riddles. The Pṛcchaka who manages this should also be equally intelligent and witty to entertain the audience with his questions. An additional challenge for Avadhani here is not to get distracted by these digressions and give witty answers spontaneously even to some of the silly questions.
Owing to the memory intensive nature of Avadhana, the number of Pṛcchakas plays a major role. The more the number of Pṛcchakas, the higher the challenge would be. Besides conducting Avadhanas, which in itself is a great feat, many Avadhanis also left a longer and lasting legacy by penning works and mentoring students who often grew up to contribute to Kannada and Telugu literature in their own uniquely rich ways.
Types of Avadhanas
The number of Pṛcchakas can be 8 (Aṣtāvadhānaṃ) or 100 (Śatāvadhānaṃ) or even 1000 (sahasrāvadhānaṃ). A person who has successfully performed an Ashtavadhana is called as Aṣtāvadhāni, a Śatāvadhānaṃ is called a Śatāvadhāni and a sahasrāvadhānaṃ is called Sahasrāvadhāni. The other lesser known forms of Avadhana are Chitravadhanam (painting), Nrutyāvadhānaṃ (Dancing) and Gaṇitāvadhānaṃ (Mathematics). Netrāvadhānaṃ (using the eyes) is another important form of avadhānaṃ.
Several Jain Avadhanis displayed the art of Avadhanam in front of Mughal emperors and their Subahdars (governors). Nandivijay, a disciple of the monk Vijayasen Suri, performed the Ashtavadhana in front of Akbar. Akbar was very impressed with the art and conferred the title of Khushfahm (one of a brilliant intellect) on Nandivijay. Siddhichandra, a disciple of the monk Hiravijaya Suri, performed the Shatavadhana in front of Akbar where he performed 108 simultaneous tasks testing his miraculous memory. Akbar conferred the title of Khushfahm on Siddhichandra as well. Siddhichandra stayed in the Mughal court till the last days of Jahangir. Yashovijay Suri, the author of the work Jain Tarka Bhasha, performed several Avadhanams at Ahmedabad in the 17th century, including 18 Avadhanams in the presence of Mohabat Khan, who was the Subahdar of Gujarat under Aurangzeb.
19th and 20th centuries
- The trend of Avadhana in Telugu was popularized by Divakarla Tirupati sastry (1871–1919) and Chellapilla Venkata sastry (1870–1950) who were popular as Tirupati Venkata Kavulu. Contemporaries of Tirupati Venkata Kavulu that are famous for enriching the heritage of Avadhana include Kopparapu Sodara Kavulu and Venkata Raamakrishna Kavulu. Kopparapu Sodara kavulu are well known for their speed in composing poems. Students of Tirupati Venkata Kavulu include famous Gnanapith award winner Viswanatha Satyanarayana and well known Subbanna Satavadhani. Sri Paada Subrahmanya Sastri, a well-known short story and novel writer is a student of Venkata Rama Krishna Kavulu.
- Sathavathani Sheikh Thambi Pavalar - He was a Tamil poet, Scholar and a freedom fighter. He has performed sathavadhanam on 10-March-1907, at Madras Victoria Town hall. In 31 December 2008, a commemorative postage stamp on him, was released.
- Raychandbhai, a Gujarati Jain poet was a Shatavadhani whose skills impressed Mahatma Gandhi greatly.
- Vidwan Ambati Subbaraya Chetty (March 22, 1906 – June 19, 1973) - He is a scholar known for his contributions to history, literature. He contributed to the freedom efforts of India. He was the first district magistrate of Indian origin in the entire state of Andhra Pradesh under British rule.
- Pandit Veni Madhav Shukla - He was a famous scholar as well as a Shatavadhani who lived in Jaunpur in the 20th century. He was a family relative of Rambhadracharya.
- 30 day duration avadhanam called "Apoorva Pancha Sahasra Avadhanam" was performed by Dr. Medasani Mohan of Tirupati is considered as a record breaking performance, which included producing poetry (extempore rendition) in various forms like seesa padya, champakamala, sardulam, mattebhavikriditha, thetageetha etc. The avadhanam was conducted from February 18 to March 20, 2007 and more than one thousand poets participated as Pruchaka (questioners). The subjects of poetry included untouchability, AIDs, women power, internet, computers, students etc.
- Thirukural Rama. Kanaga Subburathinam - He is a Sodasa Avathani (16 skills). He performed avadhanams in Tamil Language. He also running a Tamil Monthly named "Kavanagar Muzhakkam". He also led a Charitable trust names "Kavanagar Muzhakkam Charitable Trust". He is the only Tamil Avathani in present date.
Sanskrit and Telugu
- Sri Narala Rama Reddy – He is leading Astavadhani. He is from Proddatur, Kadapa district. He performed his 1st Avadhanam in 1965 at the age of 16 and also performed more than 1000 Avadhanams in prominent towns and cities of Andhra Pradesh and also in Madras, Bangalore, Delhi and Jamshedpur and many Cities in USA. His recent book Gatha Trisathi received many accolades. Govt of Andhra Pradesh announced Hamsa Puraskara (Kala Rathna Award) to him on the eve of Ugadi Puraskaralu 2013.
- Dr. Garikapati Narasimha Rao - He is referred to as Maha Sahasraavadhani for having subjected himself to thousand Prucchakas. He is well known for amazingly fast recollection of hundreds of verses composed and recited earlier and has the title 'Dhaarana Brahma Raakshasa'. His 'Saagara Ghosha' is an acclaimed literary work.
- Dr. Medasani Mohan - He performed many Ashtavadhanams, Satavadhanams, a Sahasravadhanam and a panchasaharsravadhanam i.e. answering five thousand Prucchakas. Besides being Avadhani he also heads the Annamacharya Project involved in uncovering, compiling, classifying and popularizing Annamayya works at Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam.
- Dr. Nagaphani Sharma - He performed many Asthtavadhanams, Satavadhanams and also Sahasravadhanam. He performed avadhanams in both Telugu and Sanskrit languages. He also led the Telugu Adhikara Bhasha Sangham.
- Kadimalla Varaprasad - He conducted many Ashtavadhanams, Satavadhanams and also a Sahasravadhanam. His students include Satavadhanis like Vaddiparti Padmakar and Kota Lakshminarasimham. In past, "Jamta kavulu" conducted Ashtavadhanams and Satavadhanams, but Kadimalla Varaprasad and Kota Laksminarasimham pioneered as "Jamta kavulu" in conducting Sahasravadhanam together.
- Astakala Narasimha Rama Sharma - A teacher by profession, he has performed more than 150 Asthavadhanams, and built a unique temple for goddess Saraswati at Ananthasagar near Siddipet (22 km) in Medak district of Andhra Pradesh. His versatality includes, vastu, Jyothishya vignaanam, apart from temple vastu. He is also famous for his writings in Sanskrit mainly aiming praying Goddess saraswathi. He is on raw food (raw milk and fruits, food that is not heated) for past 23 years and dedicated himself to the development of skethram. Under his leadership, so far 275+ saraswathi Yagnams were performed by Saraswathi seva samithi.
- Dr. Rallabandi Kavita Prasad - (Director, Dept of Culture, Govt of Andhra Pradesh, presently posted as secretary, Dharma Prachara Parishad (DPP), in TTD, Tirupati) has performed more than 500 avadhanams, including satavadhanam and dvisatavadhanam. He also performed various avadhanas such as navarasavadhanam, and astadasavadhanam, etc. and introduced various new trends in avadhana vidya. Osmania University awarded him a Doctrate degree for his thesis on avadhanam vidya. He hails from Nemali Village, Gampalagudem Mandalam in Krishna District of Andhrapradesh. Recently he has published "ontari poola butta" an anthology of modern poetry. He is the author of several books such as Kadambini.
- Amudala Murali: He entered into avadhanam on 2nd dec 2008. Till now(10-20-2011) he performed 37 astavadhanams and one Dwigunita astavadhanam(16 pruchakas) at Shad nagar and titled "Avadhana Kalanidhi". His avadhanams were performed in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu also. His earlier work was Pachani Telegu and the latest work is Swarna Thusharam (a golden snowfall of poetry).
- Gandluri Dattatreya Sarma – He is a leading Satavadhani from Dhone (Dronachalam) in Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh.
- Surabhi Sankara Sarma – A teacher by profession. He is a leading Satavadhani from Tripuranthakam Mandal of Prakasam district of Andhra Pradesh.
Sanskrit and Kannada
- Shatavadhani Ganesh - (Research Officer at Southern Regional Centre, Bangalore). He performed over 1004 Astavadhanams and 4 Shatavadhanams. Also known as, Dr. R. Ganesh, he is fluent in more than 18 languages (Indian and foreign). Dr. Ganesh performed his 915th Ashtavadanam on Saturday, August 27, 2011 at Sri Vani Education Centre, Rajajinagar, Bengaluru 560 010, India, as part of the school's annual Avadhana presentation. His recent Ashtaavadaana was performed at Infosys, Bengaluru on Wednesday, November 16'th 2011. He performed Shathavadhana at Bangalore, a first in Kannada, from 30 November 2012 to 2 December 2012.
He performed his latest avadhanam at NMKRV College on February 16, 2014 marking his 1000th feat.
- Dr. Shankar Rajaraman - He is presently a Research Scholar at National Institute of Advanced Studies, IISC. He was earlier a programme officer at Foundation for Revitalization of Local Health Traditions, Yelahanka. He is also credited with introducing chitrakavya into avadhana, previously considered impossible to do in an avadhana. He has taken part as pruchaka in several avadhana and has done 6 ashtavadhana as an avadhani.
- Muni Manak Maharaj - He was born in Sujangarh in Rajasthan and is a disciple of Acharya Tulsi. He is fluent in nine languages and has in-depth knowledge of Buddhism, Vedas and Indian philosophical schools in addition to Jainism. He knows astrology, palmistry and numerology. He has displayed Shatavadhan many times in Indian cities and also in other countries like the UK, the USA and Canada.
- Muni Mahendra Kumar - He was born in 1937. He was initiated into monkhood in 1957 and was an associate of Acharya Tulsi and his successor Acharya Mahaprajna. Muni Mahendra Kumar is a professor at Jain Vishva Bharati Institute, Ladnun, Rajasthan, serving in the departments of Science of Living and Preksha Meditation. He is a versatile scholar across diverse disciplines like Physics, Mathematics, Biology, Indian and Western Philosophy, Psychology, Parapsychology, Ancient History, Meditation, and Spirituality. He knows many languages including Sanskrit, Prakrit, Pali, English, German, Hindi, Gujarati and Rajasthani. He has authored, translated and edited more than 60 books. He is a practitioner and instructor of Preksha Meditation. His work "The Enigma of the Universe" and "Vishva Prahelika" (Hindi Version) is a research in the field of cosmology of modern science and ancient Jain philosophy. He has demonstrated Shatavadhana at various universities and international conferences and is sometimes referred to as the "Human Computer".
- Muni Ajitchandra Sagar - Born in 1990, Ajitchandra Sagar is a self-taught Shatavadhani. He has performed several Samyukta Avadhana and Mahashatavadhana where he has subjected him to up to 200 questioners. He performs the "Netravadhana" (Avadhana using eyes) and "Ganitavadhana" (mathematics) also. He demonstrated the Shatavadhana at a conference of Jain Doctors' Federation in Ahmedabad in 2009. He demonstrated the Dvishatavadhana in March 2012 in Mumbai where he first heard with closed eyes 200 questions including puzzles, names of objects, places and persons, Sanskrit shlokas, factual and philosophical questions, foreign language words and complex mathematical problems. He then opened his eyes and answered all of them in addition to reciting the questions and answers in ascending, descending and random orders. Ajitchandra Sagar holds a Guinness record for being the world's second-fastest speaker.
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