The Telugu World column# 04
Avadhanam: For The West, A Miracle
A person performing Avadhanam, a literary feat in Telugu, faces 8 (in Ashtavadhanam), 100 (in Shatavadhanam) or 1000 (in Sahasravadhanam) questioners and what follows has to be seen to be believed. In the West, it would be considered a miracle.
The people around him/her ask questions and some do things like one throwing pebbles at him or clapping repeatedly. Then the performer answers the questions or recalls the acts (like how many pebbles hit him/her) in the order in which they take place.
One person may recite, by extempore composition, three lines of a verse and ask the performer to complete it (Samasyapoornam), another may ask him/her to recite a particular classical poem (say: the 56th verse of Valmiki Ramayana) the third may ask for the meaning of a sloka (classic verse) in Sanskrit or of a rare word and so on and on…..
And the performer does all these in that order. My father saw Ashtavadhanam (answering eight persons) and had heard or read about Shatavadhanam and Sahasravadhanam by Telugu scholars. Avadhanam is a feat unique to Telugu. It was once so common that Avadhani (one who does avadhanam) is both a surname and given name in Brahmins in the Telugu states today.
There was also a technique of developing photographic memory. I was told of a Telugu poet of Srikakulam district of Andhra going to neighbouring Odisha to see the famous Jagannadh temple (the English word juggernaut comes from the huge chariot of Jagannath). On the way he sees two persons quarreling. He does not know Odiya language. After some time one of the two stabs and kills the other. The man was caught and taken to the court. All who witnessed the incident deny any knowledge (as done even today), but the Telugu poet tells the court that he does not know the language but could repeat the whole conversation between them so the judge could decide what actually happened.
He could do so because he had a photographic memory like the bank cashier in Arthur Hailey’s ‘The Money Changers’ who could remember the numbers of all the currency notes she handled. All of Indian – and Telugu – classics as well as cultural practices depended on the oral tradition – passed on from one generation to the next by word of mouth. Vedas and other Hindu sacred texts were kept alive for thousands of years by memory as there was no printing,
Avadhanam (the process) and Avadhani (the performer) are even today Brahmin surnames in Andhra, but very few perform these literary miracles now. An Avadhanam can be believed only by those who witnessed it. No one abroad would even believe it.
Prof. Murali Ahobila Vajjula whose article I quoted before, however, says Avadhanam is still performed today by Telugu scholars and wants it revived internationally. “Avadhanam on stage is a unique scholastic feat performed by Telugu scholars. These literary. scholastic feats are referred to as Ashtaavadhanam, Sataavadhanam, Sahasraavadhanam or Dwisahasraavadhanam, etc., based on the number of scholar-experts (ranging from 8, 100, 1000 and 2000, respectively) who question the scholar on the stage. These demonstrations prove the scholastic versatility, memory power, and presence of mind of the Avadhani,” he says.
Prof. Murali says the Avadhani has to prove his scholarship by reciting readily from memory poetry from classical texts as demanded by the questioners and compose extempore metered poetry on a given topic on the spot. He has to prove his scholarship in unrelated fields as well, like proficiency in Sanskrit, grammar, logic, etc., to the satisfaction of the judges.
“An Avadhani excels as a human computer with an enormous database in its memory, capable of instantaneous data retrieval and data manipulation, tested through multiple questions in different fields simultaneously. His answers should satisfy the questioner as well as the impartial judges on the stage. More importantly, at the end the Avadhani has to recite all the questions as well as his answers one after the other (in the same order) from memory.
“A number of Telugu scholars perform such unique intellectual acrobatics even today. This is a proud heritage of the Telugu and Telugu alone among the living world languages. All Telugu people of the world should be proud of it. NRIs need to initiate scientific studies to examine how this unique intellectual prowess was developed in Telugu. Once classical Telugu scholars equally proficient in Sanskrit, could performed in it. NRIs should bring this to the attention of the world community and the international audience, Prof. Murali says.
To accomplish this, he wants NRIs from Telugu states to patronize and popularize the Avadhana Prakriya (feat), support and encourage Telugu and Sanskrit Avadhanis to add English to their literary repertoire and also train young Avadhanis in the field. This will enable the Western scholars not knowing Telugu to participate in the Avadhanams and recognize the greatness of this literary heritage. An Avadhanam at a UN literary and cultural session within the next 10 years should be planned, so that UN recognizes Telugu as a unique language of human heritage that needs to be encouraged, preserved, and protected for posterity.
Indians value only recognition abroad.