Shatavadhani Dr. R. Ganesh's Ashtavadhana at Vijaya College

[Edit 25 Sep 2:30 PM: Several very useful edits by Shreevatsa.]

I attended my first ever 'ashtAvadhAna' by the effulgently brilliant ShatAvadhAni Dr. R. Ganesh today (thanks Shreevatsa for the invite), and to say I was impressed would be the understatement of a lifetime [1] I learnt more in those few hours than I probably did in the past few months. Anything I might say to describe the experience would be a pale shadow of the real thing, so here is an attempt to reconstruct the event with some of the notes I managed to take.


There are 9 people on stage - the avadhAni (the person answering, the performer) and 8 pRcchakas (the questioners). The performer has a chat with each of the 8 questioners in series, for a total of 4 rounds (these numbers can vary in general, but the one yesterday had these). The performer has no paper or pen, and has to rely entirely on memory. The questioners yesterday had the following roles, and I've filled in details of what happened with each of them yesterday. Above all, this is a test of concentration because ALL 8 conversations are interwoven.

(The program was in a mix of Kannada and Sanskrit, with almost no English; I didn't remember exactly what they said at times, so I have glossed over them in English)

1. niṣedhākṣari ("Forbidden letters")

The questioner suggests a topic and a metre for the performer to compose a poem. He also prohibits the use of a certain opening letter. In each round with this questioner, the performer must compose one line of the poem (so 4 rounds would make a full verse). But there's a catch: every line must be composed interactively with the questioner, letter by letter, and at each letter, the questioner can prohibit the use of any letter of his choice for the next letter!

For example, suppose the questioner asked a verse on Gaṇeśa, in the śloka metre and the first letter prohibited was 'ga', in the hope that the performer couldn't start off with anything like 'gaṇeśa', 'gajAnana', 'gaapati', etc. Suppose the performer thought of the line 'śuklāmbaradharam viSNum' - he has to say -'śa' first. The questioner would immediately know he's onto this verse, and prohibit 'ka' next!

The example here uses a known verse - but in the avadhAna, the verse is being composed on the fly. This levels the playing field - the questioner doesn't know what the performer is thinking, and has to guess at the next possible letter to ban, while the performer can think of huge array of alternatives if he has the vocabulary. It is absolutely BRILLIANT in how it engages the questioner and the performer.

The questioner for niṣedhākṣari yesterday was Prof. Kannan, Sanskrit lecturer at National College, Jayanagar. The topic he gave was "What would happen if Modi became the PM of India?". The metre he prescribed was pramANikA which had the syllable form

short-long short-long short-long short-long for 4 lines [The 4 together is called pañca-cāmaram]

If you think about it, it's a very clever choice - the questioner knows that the next letter WILL be a short or long, so the number of possibilities is greatly reduced!

The first letter prohibited was 'pa' - presumably to prevent any opening like 'pradhAna mantri'. Here is how it transcribed: (SRG is Ganesh; Q is the questioner)

Q: Alright, let's start, 'pa' is banned
SRG: bha
Q: He's probably going to try a variant of 'bhavati'. va banned next!
SRG: Ah, you got me there. Let me try this: bha-jE
Q: He's going to use a form like 'bhaje-ham'. ha banned next.
SRG: Nope. bha-jE-ta
Q: This is the end of the word. No matter what I ban,  he can find another word. But I think 'modi' has to come somewhere, so I'll ban ma next.
SRG: bha-jE-ta na
Q: Is he trying narendra? ra banned
SRG: Good one.  bha-jE-ta na-ndi
Q: Something with milk? nandini? na banned next
SRG: Nope! bha-jE-ta na-ndi-tam
Q: Aargh. Ok, end of the word again. Have to shoot in the dark. Ok, 'ta' banned next
SRG: pa. bha-jE-ta na-ndi-tam pa
Q: He's definitely trying something like 'patha', path. 'tha' banned.
SRG: Come now, that is nothing. de.  bha-jE-ta na-ndi-tam pa-de

That finishes the first line!

[The performer then moves on to the other questioners for the rest of the 1st round. I'll collect each of the questioners here in serial order. Note that in doing so, I'm gliding over a very, very difficult part: the performer comes to the second line only after 40-50 minutes with the others. I couldn't even remember what I had WRITTEN DOWN, but he had to start perfectly right from memory.]

Q: Let me ban 'ra'. No reason, just a whim.
SRG: sva
Q: Likely going to be 'da'. da banned.
SRG: sva-bhU
Q: Surely he's trying 'bhUmi'. ma banned.
SRG: Ah good one. But I can get around that. dha. sva-bhU-dha
Q: Is he trying 'dhana'? na banned.
SRG: Got me again. But how about a va? sva-bhU-dha-va
Q: Aaargh. vasu? vasati? sa banned.
SRG: Not even close! ccha!  sva-bhU-dha-va-ccha
Q: This completely beats me. The only word that strikes me now after 'Cha' is 'Chala', cheating. la banned.
SRG: ("Enu swamy nammanu mosagaararendu nemisibittiri?") vi. sva-bhU-dha-va-ccha-vE
Q: The word ends there. Have to shoot in the dark. 'ma' banned.
SRG: pa. sva-bhU-dha-va-ccha-vEH pa
Q: pada? position? da banned
SRG: No! ra! sva-bhU-dha-va-ccha-viH param

That's the second line. Note how the metre is being perfectly adhered to, and how it's almost like a chase sequence out of Catch Me If You Can!

Q: Third line. Surely he has to use 'modi' SOMEWHERE! ma banned.
SRG: Tch tch, why? hi. hi
Q: Something like hita, I'm guessing. 'ta' banned.
(Brilliant quip by SRG: "Nodi sir, ivaru endU nanage 'hita' bayasolla")
SRG: hi-mA
Q: Talking about himalayas? something about siva? sa banned [I didn't get this, he could have banned la]
SRG: You can't stop a mountain! ga! hi-mA-ga
Q: End of the word. Maybe next is dharma? dha banned. [Didn't follow reasoning for this either]
SRG: va. hi-mA-ga-va
Q: ta banned. vatamsa something.
SRG: cchi [Made a nice joke about deriding the questioner].  hi-mA-ga-va-cchi
Q: Aaargh, the Cha again. Maybe it's a sandhi he's talking about shikhara. 'kha' banned.
SRG: Devaranne maretubittira sir? vam. hi-mA-ga-va-cchi-vam 
Q: End of word. Pure guess, 'sa' banned.
SRG: va. hi-mA-ga-va-cchi-vam-va
Q: vara? 'ra' banned.
SRG: het. hi-mA-ga-va-cchi-vam-va-het. 
End of third line!

It was very late by the time the 4th round came to this questioner, so he gracefully said he'd troubled the performer enough, and so in the interests of time he could compose the 4th line as he pleased.  SRG took less than a few seconds to compose the last line:


The full poem reads:

bha-jE-ta na-ndi-tam pa-de
sva-bhU-dha-va-ccha-viH param

At this point, I still wasn't sure how this was making sense, but he gave a brilliant explanation. "nanditam means 'one who is happy' - that's the same etymology behind 'modi', so it is a fair synonym. bhajeta nanditam pade endaru "modi pradhAna mantriya padaviyannu paDedare" endu.

'dhava' is "King" or "Lord". 'svabhU' is "our land". sva-bhU-dhava is "The ruler of our land". Chavi endare sundara. Andare, adu ati sundaravAgi iruvudu endu.

himAga is himAlaya (aga is mountain). vat - like. vahet - will carry. Himalayavu Shivannanu hotta haage Modiyavaru Shivavannu (oLLeyadannu) horuvaru. A second interpretation via [S] "Like the Himalayas he will protect us from invaders, harsh winters and is the fount of the rivers that are the lifelines of India"

'Shakuntala's son (Atmaja) is Bharata. "anvaya" is that which follows, in this case our country, Bhaarata.

Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant stuff!

There was an apocryphal anecdote about Nehru here: the ink hadn't yet dried on the Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai agreement when China attacked. Nehru tried a sheepish defence: "Not even a blade of grass grows there anyway". A senior bald person in his cabinet is quoted to have pointed to his bald head and said "Not a hair grows here either, would you allow it to be chopped off?" [It was mentioned this person was Sardar Patel, but that's historically impossible]  

2. samasyA-pUrti (Making sense of a 'bad' line by introducing context)

samasyA-pUrti is a classic round where one line is given to the performer, and  he must compose a poem with that line as the last one. This line is nonsensical, or contradicts a well known truth, or is not fit for recital in public (has dirty or vulgar references, say). The rule is, the line must be heard as the final line in the poem. The typical way to 'solve' it is to add a letter at the beginning so that the meaning changes (but the context must make sense, so the first 3 lines are used for that purposes); or to identify an alternative sandhi than the ones that are originally apparent.

Let me dive straight to what happened yesterday. The questioner posed this as the last line:
"stana doDDatanadalli shobhisuvudu" (crudely "The breasts are beautiful because they are big"). Now obviously this is not fit for a public performance! How can this be modified?!

He started off with a lovely joke, "noDi, namma uttara kannaDadalli doDDastana (local variant of doDDatana) shobhisutte, neevu stana doDDatanavannu shobisibittiri" [S]

Just like the last, in each round the performer gives one line. This keeps the audience on tenterhooks. The first line which he gave right away was:

anurAgavati geLati modala rAtriya baLika

("The curious friend, after the lady's first night with her beloved...")

(At least 40-50 mins till he speaks to the other participants)

mana bicci nuDiyutirpe Alige embaL
(asks her when she's in a good mood)

I'm amazed at how he's almost speaking in perfect verse effortlessly!

"binadi enE nallanu?" ella bageyinda

("Is your lover a fun guy? It looks like it, because...")

"hya-stana doDDatanadalli shobhisihudu"

(hya: yesterday; hyastana - something that happened yesterday; he split hyastanadoDDatana as hyastanada-oDDatana. oDDatana is coyness or roughness)

"Neenu nenne enAyitu endu heLalu oDDutana (shyness, roughness) torisuttiruvudarinda nanage haage annisuttide!"

"You're so coy about what happened yesterday, that tells a lot!"

Again, pure brilliance!

The questioner had a different but equally interesting solution, where he spoke about kri-stana doDDatanadalli shobhisihudu
 - how Christianity shines because of Christ's sacrifice. No sandhi magic,  so I am inclined to like SRG's better :-)

3. datta-pada ("Given word")

Here, the questioner specifies a topic and a metre. Then, he rules that in each line, a certain word must appear. This word can be anything, even something from another language! Yesterday, the topic was "In the Ramayana, what did Hanuman feel when he was just about to jump across the ocean?". The questioner did not specify a metre, so SRG chose mattebha-vikrIdita - and what a choice! It is a very rare, very difficult metre! The required words from the questioner blew me off. They were:

In the first line: Ape
2nd: Lemur
3nd: Monkey
4th: Gibbon

!!! These 4 must appear - or sound like they appear. Here are the lines he composed. Again, these had 40-50 mins gap between each line, so he had some time to think but he was answering other questions in the gap. That makes it even harder!

vibhu ramEpse vasanta maNgaladakam mAtanga kandAspadam

"The wish (IpsA) of the lord (vibhu, i.e. Rama) is like an auspicious spring, dignified, beautiful and playful as an kid elephant"

svabhavOddeshame swAmigAgali murOdhAryam tadIyam matam |

"Let it be the purpose (uddesham) of my life (sva-bhava) to serve him (swaamige aagaLi) - I should take on (dhAryam) a gigantic form (mura)" - thinking thus (tadIyam matam)

shubha sandEshavan Ivenendu nabhaman kIkhEshvaraM muTTutum

"I will bring him good news" - thinking thus, he grew skyward, touching the sun

prabhavippam migilAgi bandhura mahAkAyam nikAyOcitam  ||

"He took on (prabhavippam) the beautiful (bandhura) enormous (nikAya) form"

This poem is at the level of classical poetry! The construction, the metre, the alankaras - they can beat ANY classic, and yet this was composed on the fly in a very noisy and deliberately distracting environment!
4. citrakAvya - Constrained writing 

The questioner gives a topic and metre, and some constraint. Yesterday, the topic was 'saraswati', and metre was 'rathoddhata' and the constraint was 'gUdha chaturtha' - in this constraint, the performer has to first compose the LAST line of his verse and say it out aloud. Then, in the subsequent rounds, he has to compose the first 3 lines, in which the letters in the last line must appear sequentially.

SRG gave the last line in an instant:

shAradE rasika vAgvishAradE

The first line was:

sharadindu kamanIye

Oh you who are as beautiful as the post-monsoon season moon, 
lAsikA AsphAla camatkriye

Oh you whose movements are magical like that of a dancer,

AsaradaNte poreyamma sragviNI

Protect us, oh garlanded one, like a savior

shAradE rasika vAgvishAradE

Oh Sharada, one adept at speech

5. AshukAvya

In this round, the questioner gives a topic and the performer must compose a poem instantly in a metre that is "appropriate" to the topic.

Topic 1, The end of the rainy season

SRG's instant answer:

kAmana billekhaniyane

("With the rainbow pen...")

stOmam kondirpa mugila hALegaLol

("On the paper of the skies")

[Couldn't transcribe the next two lines]

(To the extent I remember, he compared the end of the rainy season to that of a poet writing the last verse of his epic, with the rainbow compared to his pen, the skies to his paper, the clouds to his inkpot and the earth to the subject of the epic.)

Topic 2: How should a husband balance his duties to his mother and his wife? How should his relationship with them be?

[Several brilliant jokes on how Ganesh is a brahmachari, and he seem adept at a lot of questions about married life; several anecdotes also related: from a Kailasam play, a character always calls his horrible, domineering wife "Dolly". A friend asks, what's so cute about her, why do you call her dolly. The chap says "Well, I say "cham" in my head every time" (chan-dali :D :D :D)]

He composed this poem in the sAngatya vritta - Brilliant choice! (sangati - companionship). Apparently this vritta has a lot of very interesting metrical and tala properties - it can be sung in any tala very nicely.

smara-rati bANagaLirpa chandassante

"Like a story involving Kama, Rati and Kama's arrows: i.e, Kama chooses when to fire his arrows to seduce Rati"


"Like the vritta which has smara, rati and bAna (i.e. sAngatya) - alternating attention, can go at any pace, etc."

merevudu maga mEN patiyu

"The role of both the husband and the child could be played perfectly"

doreyada hAge tAyige heNDatige

"If he slips away from both his mother and his wife"

[Not transcribed correctly]

Holy amazing self reference Batman!

Topic 3: On the feeling of a parent seeing his child take its first step

[Not transcribed correctly]

A nice poem comparing the feeling to how a guru would feel seeing his discipline complete his first avadhAnam!

Topic 4: What would Bali feel when he comes to visit the earth this Deepavali?

mitApi viSNunA pUrvam
"Even though it was measured by Vishnu"
amitA nu vasundharA
"The earth was still an infinite bearer of wealth"
hatA adya hatOsmi iti
"Oh, I am ruined! I am ruined!"
vairochaniH arochakaH
"The son of virochana will be desolate"

Then followed a BRILLIANT commentary on the Reddy brothers. His humour is incredible!

6. kāvya-vācanaIdentify the verse

(I could not transcribe the questions as they were too fast) 

This round has a lot of music fundaes, which went right above my head. The questioner sings a verse from ANY work, and the performer must compose a verse explaining the reference, context and include his opinion. 

Verse 1: prapancha-sriSti ... the seventh verse from the ardhanarIshvara stotra. 

The lines had alternating feminine and masculine genders, so it was mostly something on shiva and parvati, so it was somewhat straightforward. SRG immediately composed a reply in the same metre in the same style of language, sung it in the same raaga, and gave a very beautiful commentary on the concept and about Shankaracharya. 

Verse 2: murallIlAlola ... a lovely poem with lots of 'las' and concluded with a salutation to Ganga. 
SRG got this one too, it turns out to be from the Ganga Lahari from Panditaraja Jagannatha. Again beautiful reply verse, and a lot of quizzing trivia! It turns out Jagannatha was given great patronage by Dara Shikoh, the brother that Aurangzeb killed. He translated the Upanishads to Parsi, which was later translated into Latin, which Schopenhauer read and pretty much started a new wave of the Indology craze in Europe.

Verse 3: Something from the Mudrarakshasa, written by Vishakhadatta 

SRG answered this in a jiffy, and then made a wish list of films that he'd make if he had the money :D 
Also some lovely lines "apEkSeyilladavarige devaru kasave allave?". Astounding! 

Verse 4: A verse from Raghavanka's Harishchandra Kavya 

SRG GOT THIS TOO! HOW HOW HOW HOW HOW HOW! He also related several anecdotes about Raghavanka, his life, EVERYTHING. He also told of a brilliant connection between the scene where Harishchandra's wife is begging the cemetary man not to throw away the corpse of her son ("bisuDadiru bisuDadiru...") and she can't get herself to call the corpse "It". She still calls it "Him", and cries that the child will be hurt if he falls down - and the last scene in King Lear where he is carrying Cordelia's corpse. 

[S] Nice anecdote: after RaghavAnka had composed his Harishchandra Kavya and showed it to his guru Harishvara, the guru slapped him for having composed a 'nara-stuti' instead of a 'hara-stuti', and RaghavAnka lost four of his teeth. In repentance, RaghavAnka composed works like SomanAthacharita, SiddharAmacharita etc., which are all nothing in comparison to Harishchandra Kavya, being sectarian and propaganda works rather than true poetry.

In all of these, SRG mentioned several gems a verse of [S] rAjashekhara's "nAstyacauraH kavijanaH nāstyacauro vaNigjanaH | sa nandati vinA vAcyam yo jAnAti nigUhitum" (There is no poet or tradesman who is not a thief; he who knows how to hide enjoys without blame) compare "The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources." attributed to Einstein; a verse from Jagannatha which ended "..vACam vipAko mama", which was about the difficulty a poet faced - many, many others 

7. aprastuta-sangati - Distractions 

In the middle of all this, there is a questioner who keeps asking the performer about random stuff, trying to make conversation and trying to distract him. The questions can be facile - there was one about Yeddyurappa and Shobha Karandlaje - or very deep, like a question between personal morality and public justice. The performer must answer these in good spirit, and must not lose his temper. This is also an opportunity for the performer to demonstrate his public speaking and conversational skills : and did SRG rock it! He answered the Shobha question beautifully - "Namage swayam-shobhe-ne saaku swamy" - ROFL! 

This questioner was easily the most voluble of the lot, and he did a good job.  This is easily the most difficult of the questioners' roles - the conversation has to be kept up, must be meaningful, funny and yet should distract the performer. 

8. Magic square

I consider this just another distraction, but a very tough one. The questioner had a 5x5 square, and his requirement is every row and column of which must sum to 975, a number announced on the spot. The performer is given no pen or paper, and must remember the square in his head. The questioner randomly interrupts and asks him stuff like "What is on the 3rd row 2nd column?" or inverse questions like "Does 202 appear in this square?". SRG, needless to say, cracked this with consummate ease. The most difficult part is to keep in the square in mind amidst all the action! 


This is a partial transcript from my notes, and I will update this as I remember more stuff / talk to people. Please do comment with any questions/suggestions, that will help me remember and order this better. 


1. The contents are themselves so vast and amazing that I don't even know where to begin commenting. A chat on any one topic itself could go on for hours! I've tried to be judicious in my commentary, but if there is any part that needs expanding, please do let me know and I will be glad to answer. 

2. One thing that gets elided over is the extraordinarily 'high' level of poetry and conversation. These poems are almost epic-class, and yet they are being spoken around like in normal conversation! For example, just knowing the metres and ragas itself is an achievement in normal times, while here you not only must know it, you should be able to compose in it, and play with it! 

3. I've separated out the threads, but they are fully interwoven during the performance and that adds an enormous systemic level of complexity. 

4. Please pardon and notify me of any transcription/kAguNita errors. I initially had plans of having this in Kannada, but lost enthu in the middle (that's why you see the 'za's - they are the 'sha's in ITRANS) Maybe I'll reformat when I have more time. Edited for easier readability, and with deference to the fact that these maybes most likely will never be. 


If I am to dare to give an analogy to how I felt after this: "To say I was impressed is like saying the lower bound of Graham's number is 6". And it's true, and what I can manage to say about it is as paltry as 6 compared to Graham's number! And the only reason it is finite is because SRG claims there are people more brilliant than him! 

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