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Durable Link to this BlogSaturday, November 29, 2003

Ashtavadana

The Ashtavadana Performance

Eight-folded Alertness or Ashtavadahana is a public performance in general knowledge, displaying memory retention, mastery in languages and literature, and time-awareness.  Usually a well-known scholar in Sanskrit and two or three other Indian languages is in the "dock" or a platform surrounded by six or eight peers in an open-house program. A person with a bell keeps the time. The peers keep asking questions to the performer and keep distracting him (or her) with challenges. The show involves the performer (known as avadhani) answering every question to the satisfaction of the peer while adhering to the grammar and linguistic or musical semantics.

Eight Simulaneous Acts

Sky is the limit for the questions, and could cover such fields as astrology, history, geography, literature, and science. Avadhani might be asked to complete a half-finished verse or explain philosophical terms. The peers take turns to engage the Avadhani, except one "Idiot Peer" who follows no rules! The bell keeper doesn't ring at regular intervals, further distracting the Avadhani, yet the performer has to strictly adhere to timings and display his sense of time. Ashukavis or "born-poets" stand a very good chance in such pneumonic feats.

Depiction of Ashtavadana performances are found in period literature and inscriptions. In the ancient times, a poet was supposed to master various subjects including music, dance, painting, martial arts, sports, pastimes, and many other allied subjects. Memory training was given in their childhood, and the Indian method of oral education certainly helped memorizing innumerable subjects. Ashtavadhanis (those who can perform this eight-folded act) were common in Kannada and Telugu royal courts, duly honored by the kings. There were Dashavadhanis (those who could take on ten scholars) and Shatavadhanis (those who could answer a hundred simultaneous questions) !  Folks with these last names can claim their ancestors were such scholars.

There are a few Ashtavadhanis in Andhra Pradesh even now. I know of Mr. Ganesha R., an engineer by profession, has developed skills for this rare art of intellectual feat and has become an Ashtavadhani.

Amma's Column by Jyotsna Kamat

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Jyotsna Kamat

Jyotsna Kamat Ph.D. lives in Bangalore.


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