Avadhanam is a literary performance popular from the very ancient days in India, cultivated by the Telugu speaking community. It involves the partial improvisation of poems using specific themes, metres, forms, or words.
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. Avadhanam 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.
Avadhani (Telugu: అవధాని) refers to the individual who performs the Avadhanam; the group who queries the performer are the prucchaka(One who asks questions, Telugu: పృఛ్ఛకులు). The first person to ask the question is called "Pradhana prucchaka;" he is the same as any other prucchaka except that, he asks the first question. The Prucchakas put forth questions to the avadhani which are primarily literary in nature. The Prucchakas can optionally place additional constraints. Though it is not stated explicitly, conformation to Chandassu (Poetic Meter) is mandatory. Avadhani should answer them in the form of a poem. The literary questions generally consist of a description given in prose and the avadhani has to express it as a poem. The additional restrictions placed by the Prucchakas can be anything like asking the avadhani not to use a given set of alphabetical characters in the entire poem or to construct only a particular type of poem etc.
Characteristics of Avadhanams
The beauty of Avadhanam is, the avadhani is not allowed to recite the entire poem in a single go. After listening to the Prucchaka's question, the avadhani constructs the first line of the poem, recites it and moves to the next Prucchaka. After listening to all the Prucchakas, and reciting one line of poem each, the avadhani shall return to the Pradhana prucchaka (in Round-Robin fashion) and continues with the second line of the poem. The beauty and challenge here is that, the avadhani 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 entitled to "Avadhani". Every poem has 4 lines, so every Prucchakas turn comes 4 times. Avadhaani has to recite the full poem once he finishes constructing all the lines of the poems. This is called "dhaarana" and forms the culmination of the Avadhanam. Avadhani should use only his memory for all this. Some times, Avadhanam goes for days at an end!!!
It is a general practice for one of the Prucchakas to keep ringing a bell randomly and avadhani has to keep track of number of bell rings. The multitutde of all these constraints make Avadhanam one of the greatest arts to master.
Of the remaining Prucchakas, one person is in charge of "aprasthuta prasangam" (Telugu: అప్రస్తుత పృఛ్ఛకురు). 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 Prucchaka 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 'aprastutha prasangam' but also should give witty answers spontaneously to the silly questions.
Because of the memory intensive nature of Avadhanam, the number of Prucchakas plays a major role. The more the number of Prucchakas, the higher the challenge. Besides conducting Avadhanams, 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 Telugu literature in their own uniquely rich ways.
Types of Avadhanams
The number of Prucchakas can be 8 (ashtavadhanam) or 100 (shathavadhanam) or even 1000 (sahasravadhanam). A person who has successfully performed Ashtavadhanam is called as Ashtavadhani, a shatavadhanam is called a Shatavadhani and sahasravadhanam is called Sahasravadhani. The other lesser known forms of Avadhanam are Chitravadhanam (painting), Nrutyavadhanam (Dancing) and Ganitavadhanm (Mathematics).Netraavadhaanam (using the eyes) is another important form of avadhanam.
The evidence of first Avadhanam is seen in Kannada literature. It is said that Kavi Kaama was the first scholar to perform Avadhanam in Kannada in 12th Century.
The trend of Avadhanam was later 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 Avadhanam 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.
Some of the Avadhanis
- Dr. Garikipati 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 popularising Annamayya works at Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam.
- Dr. Nagaphani Sarma - He performed many Asthtavadhanams, Satavadhanams and also Sahasravadhanam. He performed avadhanams in both Telugu and Sanskrit languages. He also lead 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 is referred as Wikipedia of ASHTAVADHANAM prakriya and completed more than 150 asthavadhanams. He also built a unique temple for goddess Saraswati in Medak, Telangana.
- Dr. Rallabandi Kavitha Prasad - (Director, Dept of Culture, Govt of Andhra Pradesh,presently posted as secretary,dharma prachara parishad (dpp),in T.T.D tirupathy) 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.
- Dr.R.Ganesh - (Research Officer at Southern Regional Centre, Bangalore). He performed over 400 Astavadhanams and 4 Shatavadhanams. Dr.R.Ganesh is fluent in more than 17 languages (Indian and foreign).
- Muni Mahendra Kumar - A Jain monk and disciple of Acharya Shri Tulsi and his successor Acharya Shri Mahaprajna. He is professor at Jain Vishva Bharati Institute, deemed university, Ladnun, Rajasthan, India, departments ‘Science of Living’ and ‘Preksha Meditation’.He is a versatile scholar having mastery over diverse disciplines such as Physics, Mathematics, Biology, Philosophy, Psychology, Ancient History, Meditation, Spirituality and several languages like Sanskrit, Prakrit, English, Hindi, Gujarati and Rajasthani. 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.
- Dr. Shankar Rajaraman - He is presently a programme officer at Foundation for Revitalization of Local Health Traditions, Yelahanka. He has taken part as pruchaka in several avadhana and has done 6 ashtavadhana as an avadhani.
- Vidhwan Ambati Subbaraya Chetty - 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.
- 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 31st December 2008, a commemorative postage stamp on him, was released.
- Amaresh Datta, The Encyclopaedia Of Indian Literature, v. 1, "Avadhanam" (Sahitya Akademi, 2006; ISBN 8126018038)
- Computer Science department - IIT-Madras
- The Hindu - November 2010
- IISc-bangalore-broadcast messages-2006
- Jain monk - ashtavadhani
- IISc-bangalore-broadcast messages-2009
- Ashtavadhani - Ambati Subbaraya Chetty