Avadhana is a literary performance popular from the very ancient days in India, cultivated by the Jains in ancient India and revived by Telugu and Kannada poets in modern times. It involves the partial improvisation of poems using specific themes, metres, forms, or words.
It requires immense memory power and tests a person's capability of performing multiple tasks simultaneously. All the tasks are memory intensive and demand an in-depth knowledge of literature, and prosody. The tasks vary from making up a poem spontaneously to keeping a count of a bell ringing at random. No external memory aids are allowed while performing these tasks except the person's mind. Avadhanam can be considered as the Divided attention (clinical model of attention) as it is the highest level of attention and it refers to the ability to respond simultaneously to multiple tasks or multiple task demands.
Avadhani refers to the individual who performs the Avadhanam; one of the many individuals asking questions is a prcchaka (questioner). The first person to ask the question is called "pradhana prcchaka;" (s)he is the same as any other prcchaka except that he asks the first question. The questions asked are primarily literary in nature. The prcchakas can optionally place additional constraints. Though it is not stated explicitly, conformation to Cchandas (poetic metre) is mandatory. Avadhani should answer them in the form of a poem. The questions generally consist of a description given in prose and the avadhani has to express it as a poem. The additional restrictions placed by the prcchakas can be anything like asking the avadhani not to use a given set of the alphabet in the entire poem or to construct only a particular type of poem etc.
Gamaka includes rendition of the verses in epics like Torave Ramayana and Kumaravyasa Mahabharata set to a classical raga, and an interpretation of the same with a brief explanation generally called vyakyana.
Earlier Gamakis were part of Maharaja's court, but their art was not limited to the palace. They sang at temple, wedding, village katte, popularising it among the people. The art slowly faded away but was revived during the 1900's by eminent persons of literature like Prof. A.R. Krishna Shastry, D.V. Gundappa and others. Gamaki gained ground during G. Narayana's tenure as Kannada Sahitya Parishat's President and later as Karnataka Gamaka Kala Parishat's President since 1982.
Some of the early Gamakis included Abhinava Kalidasa Late Basavappa Shastry, Late Bharat Bindurao, Late Krishnagiri Krishna Rao and Late Shakuntalabai Panduranga Rao while the recent names include B.S.S. Koushik, Hosahalli Keshavamurthy, Gangamma Keshavamurthy and others.
Characteristics of Avadhanas
The avadhani is not allowed to recite the entire poem at once. After listening to the prcchaka's question, the avadhani constructs the first line of the poem, recites it and moves to the next prcchaka. After listening to all the prcchakas, and reciting one line of poem each, the avadhani shall return to the Pradhana prcchaka (in a round-robin fashion) and continues with the second line of the poem. The beauty and challenge here is that the avadhani has to remember the question, the line of poem said before and all the additional constraints placed. They shall not be repeated and any mistake shall disqualify the person from being titled "Avadhani". Every poem has 4 lines, so each prcchaka's turn comes 4 times. Avadhaani has to recite the full poem once he finishes constructing all the lines of the poems. This is called "dhaarana" and forms the culmination of the Avadhana. Avadhani should use only his memory for all this. An Avadhana can run for multiple days (especially shatavadhana).
It is a general practice for one of the prcchakas to keep ringing a bell randomly and avadhani has to keep track of number of bell rings. The multitutde of all these constraints makes Avadhana one of the greatest arts to master.
Of the remaining prcchakas, one person is in charge of "aprasthuta-prasangam" (irrelevant incident). His responsibility is to distract the avadhani with questions and topics unrelated to the avadhanam and the avadhani has to reply to his questions and riddles. The prcchaka who manages this should also be equally intelligent and witty to entertain the audience with his questions. An additional challenge for Avadhani here is not to get distracted by these digressions and give witty answers spontaneously even to some of the silly questions.
Owing to the memory intensive nature of Avadhana, the number of prcchakas plays a major role. The more the number of prcchakas, the higher the challenge would be. Besides conducting Avadhanas, which in itself is a great feat, many Avadhanis also left a longer and lasting legacy by penning works and mentoring students who often grew up to contribute to Kannada and Telugu literature in their own uniquely rich ways.
Types of Avadhanas
The number of Prucchakas can be 8 (ashtavadhana) or 100 (shatavadhana) or even 1000 (sahasravadhana). A person who has successfully performed an Ashtavadhana is called as Ashtavadhani, a shatavadhana is called a Shatavadhani and a sahasravadhana is called Sahasravadhani. The other lesser known forms of Avadhana are Chitravadhanam (painting), Nrutyavadhana (Dancing) and Ganitavadhan (Mathematics). Netraavadhaana (using the eyes) is another important form of avadhana.