A student of Sanskrit often finds himself overawed by two emotional crosscurrents: gratitude and frustration. Gratitude because he is heir to a carefully preserved five-thousand-year-old treasure. And frustration because his mortal means does not allow him to add to it qualitatively. It is the feeling one gets when in a multi-course buffet—the stomach is on fire and the dishes are unlimited, but the platter is small and appetite, limited.
If such is the state of a student who intends to just learn, need we say anything at all about one who wishes to create? He is so flustered that he is furious at himself.
Most of Sanskrit literature is in the form of verses. Composing verses is a frustrating experience. We spend endless hours poring over grammatical treatises and attuning our tools of speech and sound to the exact and subtle structures of a variety of metres. Even so, when we put pen to paper, expression hides cleverly while we limp and hop and huff and puff seeking it, feeling foolish the whole time. But the poets of the past make it seem so effortless! They are never lost for words. They know metre and grammar and literary subtleties like the back of their hand. No wonder we feel small and stupid. It is like a boy who has seen his father drive the car every day but feels absolutely stumped holding the steering wheel.
How wonderful would it be if there were someone to guide us! Fortunately, there is Kṣemendra. An accomplished poet himself, he holds our hands and walks us through the highways and byways of the sprawling city that is Sanskrit poetry.
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In eleventh century CE, Kashmir was abuzz with the sound of Sanskrit. Walking around the valley, one would hear delicate verses and vociferous debates at every turn and corner. Poets got each other’s creative juices flowing and wrote in a variety of styles ranging from the laboured and elaborate to one so gentle as to be described as “the birthplace of Sarasvatī’s grace,” in Bilhaṇa’s memorable phrase. Literary theory, in a way, overtook poetic creation. It was the cynosure of all eyes. By then, masters such as Ānandavardhana, Abhinavagupta, and Kuntaka had developed it to a degree of insurmountable precision. The time was ripe for a person to make the most of this milieu. Kṣemendra did exactly that.
He learnt the best of the subjects from the best of the teachers and liked to introduce himself as “the student of all great intellectuals.” Imbued with infinite curiosity, he took an active interest in the goings-on of his time. Exploring new themes and genres of poetry and abridging time-honoured works with aptness and charm, his extensive oeuvre effortlessly straddled biting satire and profound meditations on life. Around sixteen works of this prolific author are now available. Sadly, however, an equal number—if not more—of his works have not withstood the ravages of time. 
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In this article, I have picked the best of his advices for budding poets from Kavikaṇṭhābharaṇa, a manual of literary theory that represents the Kaviśikṣā genre and provides a delightful set of dos and don’ts from which poets can greatly benefit. The work has five sections (sandhis) and enumerates several topics such as embracing poetry, gaining mastery over language, comprehending clever turns of expression, understanding virtues and blemishes of speech, and grasping various arts and sciences.
Kṣemendra categorises aspiring poets into three types: 1. those who inculcate poetic talent with minimum effort (alpa-prayatna-sādhya), 2. those who inculcate it with much effort (bahu-prayatna-sādhya), and 3. those who are incapable of assimilating the art (asādhya). He then goes on to outline a few guiding steps for the first two categories:
An aspiring poet must learn from a master of literature. Mere logicians and grammarians do not allow poetic talent to bloom; one should never intern with them. A neophyte should initially learn the first principles of grammar, lexicon, thesaurus, and prosody, and then unremittingly lend his ears to charming and captivating poetry. He should develop an abiding interest in music, folk literature and works of regional languages, and participate in discussions about deft turns of phrase. Studying history and the complete works of master poets like Kālidāsa, he should keep away from dry logic that deters the inaugural flow of poetic fragrance. To explore new literary genres, he should devotedly serve great poets. And as practice, he must take up the completion of unfinished words and stanzas, constantly compose verses employing meaningless phrases, and modify popular verses by substituting their words with synonyms.
Although Kṣemendra did not have an insouciant disregard for logicians, he guards against the ill-effects they are likely to cause in the early stages of a poet’s life. His endorsement of regional languages and their literature is astonishingly significant today as it was during his own time.
As an illustration of composing verses using meaningless phrases, he gives the following verse that is rife with ‘nonsense rhymes.’ Taken as a whole, the verse has no meaning; but it certainly helps the neophyte to get a hang of the Indravajrā metre and develop a feel for figures of sound:
At the next stage, he advises students to take a popular verse and substitute its words with synonyms, without corroding the original meaning and metrical rhythm. As an example, he chooses the invocatory verse of Kālidāsa’s Raghuvamśa:
वागर्थाविव सम्पृक्तौ वागर्थप्रतिपत्तये।
जगतः पितरौ वन्दे पार्वतीपरमेश्वरौ॥
Upon replacing the words of this verse with synonyms, it reads:
वाण्यर्थाविव संयुक्तौ वाण्यर्थप्रतिपत्तये।
जगतो जनकौ वन्दे शर्वाणीशशिशेखरौ॥
Capital suggestions, indeed! At this juncture, we can gainfully recall his guidelines about metres. Grasping metrical rhythm is central to the poetic process. If one goes about this by reading at random, he is more likely to be frustrated than fulfilled. Realising this, Kṣemendra identifies poets who had a certain fondness for specific metres, and urges us to read their verses set to those measures: Abhinanda (Anuṣṭup), Pāṇini (Upajāti), Bhāravi (Vaṃśastha), Ratnākara (Vasantatilakā), Bhavabhūti (Śikhariṇī), Kālidāsa (Mandākrāntā), and Rājaśekhara (Śārdūlavikrīḍita).
He discusses erudition in the next section of Kavikaṇṭhābharaṇa. Creative imagination, erudition, and practice—pratibhā, vyutpatti, and abhyāsa—are the requisites of poetry. Creative imagination is a gem and wide-ranging erudition and constant, dedicated practice polish it to magnify the intrinsic lustre. Kṣemendra lists a hundred methods by which aspiring poets can gain or further strengthen erudition:
Completing unfilled stanzas of verses; constantly involving in literary pursuits (striving to understand grammar, lexica, prosody, figures of speech etc.); studying the compositions of other poets; learning about the various accessories of poetry (such as poetic conventions); solving literary challenges;
Fraternizing with accomplished littérateurs; contemplating on the import of literary classics; inculcating virtuous conduct; befriending the wise; maintaining an agitation-free mind-set; donning pleasant apparel;
Watching theatrical presentations; delighting in untainted śṛṅgāra (love); contributing to the welfare of the poetic community; refining one’s interiors by listening to music;
Knowing the ways of the world; treading uncharted paths; understanding the facts of history; looking at beautiful paintings;
Studying sculptures and architecture; witnessing feats of heroism; hearing cries of sorrow; visiting terror-inducing spots like forests and cemeteries;
Attending to people who lead a life of austerities; observing the nests of birds and residing places of animals; eating tasty and healthy food; maintaining health in a manner appropriate to balance the three bodily humours; cultivating an attitude of cheerfulness;
Waking at the last phase of the night; invoking imagination constantly; keeping memory active; respecting everyone and everything without prejudice; sitting in a comfortable posture; resting for a short period during the day; changing lifestyle according to the changes in season;
Gaining mastery in writing letters and drawing; delighting assemblies of scholars and connoisseurs with engaging banter; discerning the nature of animals; observing marvels of Nature such as seas and mountains;
Keeping track of the movements of sun, moon, and other celestial bodies; following the changes in season ardently; being a part of social gatherings; learning various regional languages;
Contemplating on the commission and omission of words; polishing compositions time and again; living independently; participating in Vedic rituals and literary conclaves;
Not being lost in thinking about one’s (potential) rise to fame; not being jealous of the prosperity of colleagues; desisting self-glorification; praising others’ virtues;
Explicating and / or clarifying one’s position; rising above hatred and jealousy; thirsting to trounce the opponent’s intellect; learning from one and all;
Knowing the opportune time to learn; inculcating skills that impress listeners; understanding unstated intents; assimilating literary techniques;
Elucidating one’s own kernels of thought and sharing those gleaned from others; keeping the presentation of a topic or rasa crisp so as to not prompt boredom; sending out one’s works to littérateurs; receiving the works of fellow writers;
Exhibiting erudition at favourable moments; invoking the power of intellect swiftly; having an impressive flow of speech and agreeable body language; coming out of congregations to experience solitude in seclusion; freeing oneself from the stranglehold of basal desires; maintaining happiness; inculcating strength of character;
Desisting from supplication; not slipping into vulgarity while chatting freely; persevering in poetic creation; resting adequately in the course of composition;
Desiring to adopt new themes and genres; maintaining equanimity in the veneration of various deities; receiving criticism positively; possessing a serious and profound outlook; having self-composure;
Abstaining from self-praise; rising above grovelling self-abnegation; completing unfinished compositions of others; acknowledging the opinions of colleagues; imitating the mannerisms of others jocularly;
Knowing the art of lucid writing; echoing the past in the present; blending moods and emotions seamlessly; having the correct knowledge of brevity and prolixity;
Persevering to complete undertaken works; possessing charming eloquence.
Poetry is a composite art and Kṣemendra consciously endeavours to preserve its all-encompassing nature. Consequently, this list has several elements far-removed from poetry but are essential to supply a well-rounded worldview to a poet. Literary theorists in India never thought of poets as feeble-minded people without an intellectual backbone. Far from it. They counted them on par with the best of intellectuals. Kṣemendra’s emphasis on erudition, therefore, is not out of place. Further, his list makes an express mention of purely human virtues such as charity and compassion. It warns against self-aggrandisement and encourages equanimity. Kṣemendra knows full well that poets indefinitely oscillate between the crests and troughs of surging waves of emotion. He calls out conformity and encourages individualism. Nonetheless, realising the ramifications of extremism, he urges poets to tread the path of the golden mean.
Further, he exhorts us to understand unstated intents. Proceeding on those lines, we surmise the following: In authoring Rāmāyaṇamañjarī, Bhāratamañjarī, Bṛhatkathāmañjarī, Bauddhā-vadānakalpalatā and such works, his intent was to set a model for retelling popular works or themes. According to him, abridged transcreations should strive to achieve non-prosaic narration and tasteful description without ever transgressing the spirit of the original. Aspiring poets can take up this exercise. Since the story and characters are all established, the aspirant has a great opportunity to master his craft.
Kṣemendra does not denounce people who believe in divine intervention. Before elucidating erudition in great detail, he caters to the needs of those poets who wish to invoke the Supreme to grant them poetic talent, by recording a sārasvata-mantra. Further, he traces the development of a poet from the stage when he was utterly uninformed to a stage when he becomes the gold standard. His interesting assessment includes poets who co-opt shades of others’ works, adopt words and stanzas composed by other poets, plagiarise entire compositions, develop poetic talent and stand on their own feet, and become a veritable model by the sheer force of creative genius. The terms he coined to represent these classes of poets are delightful: chāyopajīvī, padakopajīvī, pādopajīvī, sakalopajīvī, prāptakavitvajīvī, and bhuvanopajīvya. Kṣemendra mentions Bhagavān Vyāsa as emblematic of the final ideal. He could not have chosen a better example. Such a keen sense of propriety is unsurprising in the author of Aucityavicāracarcā, in one who proudly called himself Vyāsadāsa.
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Kṣemendra’s thoughts on literary theory are not ground-breaking. He does not rub shoulders with Bharata, Ānandavardhana, Abhinavagupta et al. Nevertheless, budding poets will do well to pay heed to his observations in Kavikaṇṭhābharaṇa.
 सरस्वतीविभ्रमजन्मभूमिः॥ (Vikramāṅkadevacarita, 1.9)
 सर्वमनीषिशिष्यः॥ (Aucityavicāracarcā, concluding verse #3)
 Kṣemendra’s body of work currently available includes the following titles: Bhāratamañjarī, Rāmāyaṇamañjarī, Bṛhatkathāmañjarī, Bauddhāvadānakalpalatā, Daśāvatāracarita, Nītikalpataru, Aucityavicāracarcā, Kavikaṇṭhā-bharaṇa, Suvṛttatilaka, Caturvargasaṅgraha, Cārucaryā, Sevyasevakopadeśa, Kalāvilāsa, Deśopadeśa, Narmamālā, and Samayamātṛkā.
 कुर्वीत साहित्यविदः सकाशे श्रुतार्जनं काव्यसमुद्भवाय। न तार्किकं केवलशाब्दिकं वा कुर्याद्गुरुं सूक्तिविकासविघ्नम्॥
विज्ञातशब्दागमनामधातुश्छन्दोविधाने विहितश्रमश्च। काव्येषु माधुर्यमनोरमेषु कुर्यादखिन्नः श्रवणाभियोगम्॥
गीतेषु गाथास्वथ देशभाषाकाव्येषु दद्यात्सरसेषु कर्णम्। वाचां चमत्कारविधायिनीनां नवार्थचर्चासु रुचिं विदध्यात्॥ (Kavikaṇṭhābharaṇa, 1.15–17)
पठेत्समस्तान्किल कालिदासकृतप्रबन्धानितिहासदर्शी। काव्याधिवासप्रथमोद्गमस्य रक्षेत्पुरस्तार्किकगन्धमुग्रम्॥
महाकवेः काव्यनयक्रियायै तदेकचित्तः परिचारकः स्यात्। पदे च पादे च पदावशेषसम्पूरणेच्छां मुहुराददीत॥
अभ्यासहेतोः पदसन्निवेशैर्वाक्यार्थशून्यैर्विदधीत वृत्तम्। श्लोकं परावृत्तिपदैः पुराणं यथास्थितार्थं परिपूरयेच्च॥ (Kavikaṇṭhābharaṇa, 1.19–21)
 Kavikaṇṭhābharaṇa, 1.22
 Kavikaṇṭhābharaṇa, 1.23, 24
 Suvṛttatilaka, 3.29–35
 वृत्तपूरणमुद्योगः पाठः परकृतस्य च। काव्याङ्गविद्याधिगमः समस्यापरिपूरणम्॥ सहवासः कविवरैर्महाकाव्यार्थचर्वणम्। आर्यत्वं सुजनैर्मैत्री सौमनस्यं सुवेषता॥ नाटकाभिनयप्रेक्षा शृङ्गारालिङ्गिता मतिः। कवीनां सम्भवे दानं गीतेनात्माधिवासनम्॥ लोकाचारपरिज्ञानं विविक्ताख्यिकारसः। इतिहासानुसरणं चारुचित्रनिरीक्षणम्॥ शिल्पिनां कौशलप्रेक्षा वीरयुद्धावलोकनम्। शोकप्रलापश्रवणं श्मशानारण्यदर्शनम्॥ व्रतिनां पर्युपासा च नीडायतनसेवनम्। मधुरस्निग्धमशनं धातुसाम्यमशोकता॥ निशाशेषे प्रबोधश्च प्रतिभा स्मृतिरादरः। सुखासनं दिवा शय्या शिशिरोष्णप्रतिक्रिया॥ आलोकः पत्रलेख्यादौ गोष्ठीप्रहसनज्ञता। प्रेक्षा प्राणिस्वभावानां समुद्रादिस्थितीक्षणम्॥ रवीन्दुताराकलनं सर्वर्तुपरिभावनम्। जनसङ्घाभिगमनं देशभाषोपजीवनम्॥ आधानोद्धारणप्रज्ञा कृतसंशोधनं मुहुः। अपराधीनता यज्ञसभाविद्या गृहस्थितिः॥ अतृष्णता निजोत्कर्षे परोत्कर्षविमर्शनम्। आत्मश्लाघास्तुतौ लज्जा परश्लाघानुभाषणम्॥ सदा स्वकाव्यव्याख्यानं वैरमत्सरवर्जनम्। परोन्मेषजिगीषा च व्युत्पत्त्यै सर्वशिष्यता॥ पाठस्यावसरज्ञत्वं श्रोतृचित्तानुवर्तनम्। इङ्गिताकारवेदित्वमुपादेयनिबन्धनम्॥ उपदेशविशेषोक्तिरदीर्घतरसङ्गतिः। स्वसूक्तिप्रेषणं दिक्षु परसूक्तिपरिग्रहः॥ वैदग्ध्यं पटुता भङ्गिर्निःसङ्गैकान्त्यनिर्वृतिः। आशापाशपरित्यागः सन्तोषः सत्त्वशीलता॥ अयाचकत्वमग्राम्यपदालापः कथास्वपि। काव्यक्रियासु निर्बन्धो विश्रान्तिश्चान्तरान्तरा॥ नूतनोत्पादने यत्नः साम्यं सर्वसुरस्तुतौ। पराक्षेपसहिष्णुत्वं गाम्भीर्यं निर्विकारता॥ अविकत्थनतादैन्यं परेषां नष्टयोजनम्। पराभिप्रायकथनं परसादृश्यभाषणम्॥ सप्रसादपदन्यासः ससंवादार्थसङ्गतिः। निर्विरोधरसव्यक्तिर्युक्तिर्व्याससमासयोः॥ प्रारब्धकाव्यनिर्वाहः प्रवाहश्चतुरो गिराम्। शिक्षाणां शतमित्युक्तं युक्तं प्राप्तगिरः कवेः॥ (Kavikaṇṭhābharaṇa, 2.3–22)
 Kavikaṇṭhābharaṇa, 1.6
 Kavikaṇṭhābharaṇa, 2.1