Thursday, 11 April 2013

Pandit Narayana Das & Avadhanams


The year beginning August 31 this year is Adibhatla Narayana Das’ sesquicentennial as he was born on August 31, 1864. Over the next few weeks we will present you interesting snippets (excerpts from a new biography) from the life of the great man. The biography is planned to be released during the sesquicentennial.

Narayana Das performed ashta-avadhanams to exacting standards and stipulations. Ashta-vadhanam is the literary equivalent of psychometrics that puts to test the creativity, intelligence and phenomenal memory of the Avadhani (performer). A panel of eight members (pruchchakulu, singular pruchchakudu) puts the Avadhani through the paces to perform eight different tasks in a given sequence relying only on his memory without any external aid. According to his biographers, the Ashta-avadhanams Narayana Das performed, varied in content depending on the occasion.

For example, an Ashta-avadhanam he performed during his student days while studying for his F.A. examination at Vishakhapatnam (1887-88) comprised the following: 
  1. Unravelling and arranging in proper sequence a jumbled fifty-word Greek passage. 
  2. Reciting a specified puranik passage and composing music for it. 
  3. Reading from a book that is being spun
  4. Solving an algebra problem. 
  5. Keeping a count of flowers thrown at him. The flowers were thrown from behind and the Avadhani had to count them from touch on his bare back. 
  6. Conversing with a panellist in a way that the output results in a poem of a given prosody. 
  7. Composing poetry extempore on a given topic in Samskrit and Telugu
  8. Composing poetry excluding a specified letter.  
(Gundavarapu Lakshmi Narayana. 1983. Narayana DarsanamuFootnote 12, p 14.)

Another Ashta-avadhanam performed in Bandar (1988-89) which included a music component for the first time had thirteen instead of the usual eight panellists and comprised the following:
  1. Singing a pallavi while playing two different talas with the shoulders and two more with the palms, at a beat specified by a panellist.
  2. Mentally solving a mathematical problem.
  3. Composing poetry extempore in specified prosodies as stipulated by four panellists in Samskrit and four in Telugu.
  4. Unravelling and arranging in proper sequence a jumbled passage.
  5. Composing poetry excluding a specified letter.
  6. Extempore speech on a specified subject in English. (According to Rallabandi, this element was introduced and performed only by Narayana Das).
  7. Keeping a count of flowers thrown at him.
  8. Conversing with a panellist in a given prosody. Narayana Das termed this Asadhya-ashta-avadhanam presumably meaning that it was very difficult to perform. 
(Gundavarapu Lakshmi Narayana. 1983. Narayana Darsanamu. Footnote 14, p 17. and Rallabandi Kavita Prasad. 2006. Avadhana Vidya - Arambha Vikasalu. p.48. & 237.)

Rallabandi mentions Sangeetha-ashta-avadhanam, another variation of Asadhya-Ashta-avadhanam performed by Narayana Das. It includes composing a kriti based on a specified raga and tala; singing a kriti synchronising it with the three different talas played by three different panellists. (Rallabandi Kavita Prasad. 2006. Avadhana Vidya - Arambha Vikasalu. p.113).

These musical feats in the variations of Avadhanam (Asadhya-ashta-avadhanam and Sangeetha-ashta-avadhanam) were Narayana Das’ initial experiments with tala which evolved into panchamuki and shanmukhi in later years.


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