Dhāraṇā: Memory and its Bearing on Avadhānam - 3

This article is part 3 of 5 in the series Memory and its Bearing on Avadhānam

The Role of Memory in Avadhānam   

            The five characteristics of retention (vastu, koṣa, dravya, lakṣaṇa, and hetu) and associative memory play an important role in Avadhānam. Associative memory is understood best in terms of the five characteristics enlisted above. We presented them individually only for the sake of analysis.

            We glean an important insight into memory by examining Avadhānam: an object is best retained in memory only when it is completely understood, and all tasks related to it are complete. Memory is not very sharp when one is in the process of understanding the object or is absorbed in an activity connected with it. In Avadhānam, the performer must remember both challenges and solutions. This doubtless makes the whole process more complex.

            The duration of a typical Aṣṭāvadhānam is three to four hours. It is a single-session programme that proceeds in four rounds and has just the right ambiance for composition and retention. Śatāvadhānam, on the other hand, spans three to four days. Memory has a greater role to play in the latter than in the former. However, Śatāvadhānam has multiple sessions, and this eases the burden on memory a little. Śatāvadhānam performed in a single day poses the greatest challenge to memory.

            Many people think memory by itself is sufficient to perform Avadhānam. Nothing is further from the truth. Avadhānam is based on spontaneity and creative imagination. Memory aids neither of this. It is a mere tool that helps retain information. There are yet other people who speak of Quiz and Avadhānam in the same breath. This is demonstrably unfair. While Quiz is purely based on memory (dhāraṇā), Avadhānam has an additional aspect of instantaneous creativity (pūraṇa).      

            As far as the present art is concerned, structural nuances of versification bolster memory. While it is easier to remember a verse replete with figures of speech and compounds, it is difficult to retain in memory a bald composition. This is because repeating patterns of metre and words are conducive to retention. It is therefore hard to remember prose.[1] Free verse, self-styled metres, and prosaic compositions do not freely yield themselves to retention. Verses composed in time-honoured metres—which adhere to the natural rhythm of the language in which they are composed—are easiest to remember. Similar is the case with verses composed in metres that offer great scope for alliteration, assonance, rhyme and the like.

            An example serves well to illustrate this point. We take a verse composed by Paṇḍita-rāja Jagannātha that is replete with long compounds and internal rhymes and capture its idea in two forms—one, in a verse composed in the same metre as the original (Śārdūla-vikrīḍita) but without internal rhymes; and two, in a straightforward prose passage.

            The original:


ध्वस्तोद्दण्डविपक्षमण्डलमथ त्वां वीक्ष्य मध्येरणम्।


भ्रश्यत्खाण्डवरुष्टपाण्डवमहो को न क्षितीशः स्मरेत्॥[2]

When they see you in the battlefield, destroying a fierce circle of enemies with the terrible arrows fired from the mighty quivering bow strung by your powerful arms, which king will not think of the Pāṇḍava (Arjuna) angry at the Khāṇḍava forest, which is being destroyed by the dances (tāṇḍavas) of the flames arising from the swarm of arrows dispatched by (his) springing Gāṇḍiva bow?[3]

Verse rendering:

बाहुभ्यामवकृष्य चापमतुलं शत्रून्निहत्याशुगैः

सङ्ग्रामाजिरमध्यसंस्थमनघं त्वां वीक्ष्य विस्मापिताः।

गाण्डीवेन शरान्विमुच्य सरुषं ज्वालामयं खाण्डवं

यश्चक्रे तमहो स्मरन्ति न कथं भूमीश्वराः फल्गुनम्॥

Prose rendering:

दोर्भ्यां बाणासनम् अवनमय्य तीक्ष्णैः शरैः शत्रून् मारयित्वा रणाङ्गणे लसन्तं त्वं वीक्ष्य विस्मिता राजानः के वा न स्मरन्ति गाण्डीवेन बाणान् विसृज्य खाण्डववनं भस्मसात्कृतवन्तं कुपितम् अर्जुनम्।

Evidently, the original is eminently suited to immediate and long-time retention because it has as many as eleven internal rhymes (ṇḍa) and two towering compounds. The altered verse, on the other hand, is stripped of rhymes and is thus inconducive to retention. But it is still better than the thoroughly lacklustre prose passage.

            Additionally, the performer is completely at home while composing in metres familiar to him. Knowing this, the questioners can force the performer to come out of his comfort zone by asking him to employ rare and difficult metres. Therefore, it is imperative for the performer to acquaint himself with at least thirty varṇa-vṛttas and a few mātrā-jātis.[4] He must be able to effortlessly compose verses in these metres on any given topic. This doubtless requires a sensitive feel for, and a keen understanding of metrical rhythm. Constantly mulling over verses of master poets composed in these metres[5] and reciting them aloud in such a way that the intrinsic rhythmic pattern is felt help develop a feel for metrical rhythm.

            Questioners, at times, pose challenges that are daunting in terms of metre and topic. Typically, verses composed as answers to such questions are easy to remember. This is because the poet spends a good amount of time with each word that goes into the verse. (A mother loves that child the most during whose conception she underwent unspeakable pain!) We can best witness this in verses composed under pratyakṣara-niṣedha, wherein a linguistic tug-of-war ensues between the questioner and the performer in each letter. Challenging varieties of samasyā, datta-padī, and citra-kavitā also fall under the same category. Varṇanā is outside the pale of this rule because it offers minimal constraints, thus making the process of versification simple. Extempore poetry, by its very nature, is not conducive to retention; poems composed far too quickly seldom stay in memory. Only a performer with supreme mental abilities can remember verses of this kind. The retentive span is however limited.

            A unique verse is best suited for retention. Indeed, uniqueness is the secret of retention. Worldly experience corroborates this fact: We remember objects and events that stand out in some way, and not those that are uninteresting. Further, it is most easy to remember verses composed in an unusual style, dotted with compounds and embellished with striking figures of sound. Long compounds almost always ensure unfailing retention. Just like we can unfurl an entire garment by merely pulling at its edge, we can bring to memory an entire compound-laden verse by tugging at the first link of the compound-chain. Only a performer with prodigious erudition can compose such verses on the fly. Therefore, in the context of our art, erudition and practice buttress memory.

            The following is the typical sequence of recalling a verse during performances: the performer initially looks at the questioner; this brings to his memory the topic that the questioner posed. The topic helps recall the metre of the verse, which in turn unveils figures of sound and diction. The whole verse then presents itself quite easily. In the case of samasyā, datta-padī, and citra-kavitā, key letters and phrases assist in recalling the entire verse. [6]  

            The proverbial statement “first impression is the best impression” may prove wrong in other aspects of the performer’s life, but it unvaryingly holds true with respect to his memory. Engaged in extempore versification, the performer must not dilly-dally with words; he should march on with whatever words he thinks of first. He must not be too choosy, wanting to replace, polish, or otherwise modify the words. During a performance, the avadhānī’s memory-space is fluid-like, as though made of molten lac. In this state, the mind embosses on itself words that first strike it. These words form concrete impressions on memory. Fiddling with words, even inadvertently, spoils these impressions and thereby corrupts memory. If one does this, words that he revised and are therefore unwanted, show up whenever he tries to recall the verse. Needless, this applies only to form and not content. (Form comprises the metre, figures of sound, and diction; content consists of the idea, emotions, and figures of sense.)     

            In a nutshell, the performer should be a vaśya-vāk (gifted wordsmith) of Bhava-bhūti’s mould.

[1] Since knowledge in ancient India was handed down orally, works related to all branches of knowledge were typically composed in the form of verses. This helped people to readily remember those texts. The following is a list of such works: Amara-koṣa (Lexicon cum Thesaurus), Bṛhat-jātaka (Astrology), Vākya-padīya  (Grammar), Śloka-vārttika (Vedic Hermeneutics), Aṣṭāṅga-hṛdaya (Medicine), Kāvyālaṅkāra (Poetics), Viveka-cūḍāmaṇi (Philosophy), Samarāṅgaṇa-sūtradhāra (Architecture), Nīti-kalpataru (Polity), Līlāvatī (Mathematics), Saṅgīta-ratnākara (Music and Dance), and Mānasollāsa (Encyclopaedia).  

[2] Prāṇābharaṇa, verse #14

[4] Many renowned performers (in Telugu) restrict themselves to a maximum of eight metres—Śārdūla-vikrīḍita, Mattebha-vikrīḍita, Utpala-mālā, Campaka-mālā, Skandhaka (Kanda), Āṭavèladi, Teṭagīti, and Sīsa. This is unfortunate. These performers really employ just four or five metres, for certain pairs among the said metres are patently similar. Even upon insistence, they do not wish to compose in metres such as Mālinī, Pṛthvī, Hariṇī, Śikhariṇī, and Sragdharā. Exceptions to this are accomplished artists such as Tirupati Veṅkaṭa-kavulu (they used a total of forty-six metres, both in Telugu and Sanskrit), Velūri Śivarāma-śāstrī (thirty-seven; both in Telugu and Sanskrit), and C V Subbanna (forty-four; in Telugu).

[5] Metrical rhythms of Anuṣṭup-śloka, Upa-jāti, Vaṃśastha, Indra-vaṃśa, Rathoddhatā, Vasanta-tilakā, Śārdūla-vikrīḍita (sama-vṛtta); Viyoginī, Aupacchandasika (ardha-sama-vṛtta); Āryā, Gīti, and Āryā-gīti (mātrā-jāti) are natural to Sanskrit. The rhythm of a verse (padya-gati) has two components: chandaḥ-pada-gati (metrical rhythm), and bhāṣā-pada-gati (verbal rhythm). A seamless blend of these two marks an attractive verse. The natural linguistic rhythm of Sanskrit finds maximum representation in the metrical rhythm of the aforementioned metres. It is therefore easy, convenient, and effective to compose in them. It is also easy to remember and recall verses composed using these metres.

               On the other hand, metres such as Rucirā, Praharṣiṇī, Mālinī, Mandākrāntā, Pṛthvī, Śikhariṇī, Hariṇī, Narkuṭaka, Vaṃśa-patra-patita, Suvadanā, Sragdharā (sama-vṛtta); Apara-vaktra, and Puṣpitāgrā (ardha-sama-vṛtta) pose difficulties of composition and retention because one cannot freely use phrases that are natural to Sanskrit in them. This fact becomes evident upon reading verses composed using these metres, in which derived words override their natural counterparts.

               All metres until the Aṣṭi family (metres that have sixteen syllables in each foot) and have one caesura (yati) are generally hard to handle. This is true of metres that appear after the Ati-śakvarī family (metres that have fifteen syllables in each foot) and have two caesurae. [In both cases we have not considered the obvious caesura at the end of each foot (pādānta-yati)]. Furthermore, all such metres have strong caesurae, the junctions of dissimilar rhythms.  

               Metres such as Toṭaka, Sragviṇī, Bhujaṅga-prayāta, Cāru-cāmara, and Pañca-cāmara have identical patterns of gaṇa and this leads to monotony in rhythm. Since natural linguistic rhythm abhors a multitude of monotonic words, metres such as these, just like the previous variety, accommodate derived forms more readily than their natural equivalents.

               While the former set has a restricted scope because of its convoluted metrical nature, the latter set is crippled because of its monotony. These sets have another similarity: they cannot communicate great content within a small frame. The first set appeals to prudes since an element of pedantry inexorably creeps in in it; the second set appeals to simple-minded sentimentalists since it readily offers easy beauty. As a result, the former best serves scholastic poetry and the latter, devotional poetry.

               An avadhānī must have these points in mind and should employ metres as per requirement.   

[6] Ādi-prāsa (initial rhyme) and its sub-variety Khaṇḍa-prāsa (rhyme that is carried over) help in recalling verses composed in Kannada. (Unlike Sanskrit, Kannada and Telugu offer the liberty to flout the caesura at the end of each foot of a verse. Khaṇḍa-prāsa comes to existence because of this.) In the case of verses composed in Telugu, Yati-maitrī (phonetic match at caesura) adds to these factors. It is possible to construct an entire verse with a single compound-word in Kannada and Telugu (because of the freedom with respect to caesura, as noted above). This naturally serves retention well. Velūri Śivarāma-śāstrī referred to this in his maiden Śatāvadhānam (Avadhāna-bhāratī, p. 6).

To be continued.



Dr. Ganesh is a 'shatavadhani' and one of India’s foremost Sanskrit poets and scholars. He writes and lectures extensively on various subjects pertaining to India and Indian cultural heritage. He is a master of the ancient art of avadhana and is credited with reviving the art in Kannada. He is a recipient of the Badarayana-Vyasa Puraskar from the President of India for his contribution to the Sanskrit language.


Shashi Kiran B N holds a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering and a master's degree in Sanskrit. His interests include Indian aesthetics, Hindu scriptures, Sanskrit and Kannada literature and philosophy.

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इदं खण्डकाव्यमान्तं मालिनीछन्दसोपनिबद्धं विलसति। मेनकाविश्वामित्रयोः समागमः, तत्फलतया शकुन्तलाया जननम्, मातापितृभ्यां त्यक्तस्य शिशोः कण्वमहर्षिणा परिपालनं चेति काव्यस्यास्येतिवृत्तसङ्क्षेपः।


इयं रचना दशसु रूपकेष्वन्यतमस्य भाणस्य निदर्शनतामुपैति। एकाङ्करूपकेऽस्मिन् शेखरकनामा चित्रोद्यमलेखकः केनापि हेतुना वियोगम् अनुभवतोश्चित्रलेखामिलिन्दकयोः समागमं सिसाधयिषुः कथामाकाशभाषणरूपेण निर्वहति।


अस्मिन् स्तोत्रकाव्ये भगवन्तं शिवं कविरभिष्टौति। वसन्ततिलकयोपनिबद्धस्य काव्यस्यास्य कविकृतम् उल्लाघनाभिधं व्याख्यानं च वर्तते।

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the third volume, some character sketches of great literary savants responsible for Kannada renaissance during the first half of the twentieth century. These remarkable...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the second volume, episodes from the lives of remarkable exponents of classical music and dance, traditional storytellers, thespians, and connoisseurs; as well as his...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the first volume, episodes from the lives of great writers, poets, literary aficionados, exemplars of public life, literary scholars, noble-hearted common folk, advocates...

Evolution of Mahabharata and Other Writings on the Epic is the English translation of S R Ramaswamy's 1972 Kannada classic 'Mahabharatada Belavanige' along with seven of his essays on the great epic. It tells the riveting...

Shiva-Rama-Krishna is an English adaptation of Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh's popular lecture series on the three great...


ಮಹಾಮಾಹೇಶ್ವರ ಅಭಿನವಗುಪ್ತ ಜಗತ್ತಿನ ವಿದ್ಯಾವಲಯದಲ್ಲಿ ಮರೆಯಲಾಗದ ಹೆಸರು. ಮುಖ್ಯವಾಗಿ ಶೈವದರ್ಶನ ಮತ್ತು ಸೌಂದರ್ಯಮೀಮಾಂಸೆಗಳ ಪರಮಾಚಾರ್ಯನಾಗಿ  ಸಾವಿರ ವರ್ಷಗಳಿಂದ ಇವನು ಜ್ಞಾನಪ್ರಪಂಚವನ್ನು ಪ್ರಭಾವಿಸುತ್ತಲೇ ಇದ್ದಾನೆ. ಭರತಮುನಿಯ ನಾಟ್ಯಶಾಸ್ತ್ರವನ್ನು ಅರ್ಥಮಾಡಿಕೊಳ್ಳಲು ಇವನೊಬ್ಬನೇ ನಮಗಿರುವ ಆಲಂಬನ. ಇದೇ ರೀತಿ ರಸಧ್ವನಿಸಿದ್ಧಾಂತವನ್ನು...


“वागर्थविस्मयास्वादः” प्रमुखतया साहित्यशास्त्रतत्त्वानि विमृशति । अत्र सौन्दर्यर्यशास्त्रीयमूलतत्त्वानि यथा रस-ध्वनि-वक्रता-औचित्यादीनि सुनिपुणं परामृष्टानि प्रतिनवे चिकित्सकप्रज्ञाप्रकाशे। तदन्तर एव संस्कृतवाङ्मयस्य सामर्थ्यसमाविष्कारोऽपि विहितः। क्वचिदिव च्छन्दोमीमांसा च...

The Best of Hiriyanna

The Best of Hiriyanna is a collection of forty-eight essays by Prof. M. Hiriyanna that sheds new light on Sanskrit Literature, Indian...

Stories Behind Verses

Stories Behind Verses is a remarkable collection of over a hundred anecdotes, each of which captures a story behind the composition of a Sanskrit verse. Collected over several years from...