Shri Sricharan Paladugu
Shri Sricharan Paladugu is a well known Avadhāni based in California, USA. The Avadhānam is nothing short of an extempore literary feat requiring the performer to be challenged by questioners in round-robin fashion extending constraints and factors requiring the poet to compose on the spot—governed by strict poetic rules. Constraints can be as nitpicky as not using certain alphabets in a poem or sticking to a certain meter. The Avadhāni or practitioner of the Avadhānam has to have a prodigious memory, and mastery of prosody not to mention composure and almost blasé nonchalance rooted in the surety of deep scholarship and creativity. Click to read more about this ancient art form and one of its skilled scholars.
Interview by Usha Akella (2020)
Telugu, the South Indian language known as the Italian of the East for its sweetness traditionally
offers varied poetic forms—written, as well as formidable oral traditions such as the Avadhānam unheard of
anywhere else in the world. The Avadhānam is nothing short of an extempore literary feat requiring the
performer to be challenged by questioners in round-robin fashion extending constraints and factors requiring
the poet to compose on the spot—governed by strict poetic rules. Constraints can be as nitpicky as not using
certain alphabets in a poem or sticking to a certain meter. There is even an assigned distractor whose job is
to distract the poet from building his poem! The Avadhāni or practitioner of the Avadhānam has to have a
prodigious memory, and mastery of prosody not to mention composure and almost blasé nonchalance rooted
in the surety of deep scholarship and creativity. Even more confounding than the Avadhānam (eight
questioners) are other related oral traditions like the Śatāvadhāna wherein the poet accepts 100 constraints
posited by the questioners. All this is computed in the mind of the poet, on the spot, and can go on for days.
Usha Akella: Namaskaram Sricharan garu, I cannot express the delight I feel to chat with you, a contemporary
practitioner of an incredulous poetry form that is unheard of anywhere in the world. Let us begin with a brief definition first of Avadhānaṃ along with the differences between Ashtavadhanam and Śatāvadhānaṃ.
Shri Sricharan Paladugu: Namaste Usha garu. Thanks for giving me an opportunity to say a few words about one of the marvelous
literary regales, Avadhānaṃ. Avadhānaṃ is a highly difficult task, but the one who is performing doesn’t think of it as a big challenge, it is a sport to him. The meaning of the word denotes this attitude.
Ashtavadhānaṃ is the form in which eight scholars pose challenges to the Avadhāni (the poet-practitioner of Avadhānaṃ) who has to compose poems as per posed meter, content, puzzles and recollect and recite them at the end. In Śatāvadhānaṃ the poet has to compose 100 poems and 75 of them have to be recollected and recited at the end
UA: So, in Śatāvadhānaṃ are there 100 challengers who each pose a challenge? And, it is not a single poem but 100 poems? And the poet composes one poem for each challenge? How long is each poem? Help me understand this further please.
SSP: A. It is not a 100-rules applied to the composition of a single poem. It is the recitation of all the 75 at the end of the dual. Each challenger poses one question therefore there are 100 questions and 100 poems. The poet composes one poem for each challenge. Each poem is always four lines. The poet has to recite 75 poems at the end in the same order without any writing device on hand and no other external prompting and help; he has to remember the poems. He looks at the person who posed the question and offers him the poem verbally.
UA: Are there are any women Avadhānis?
SSP: Yes. Though traditionally it was a men’s literary sport, there is no technical restriction and women have come
into the fray. There are independent contests for women.
UA: Can you give us a brief historical peek into the origin and development of this oral tradition?
SSP: Avadhānaṃ is originally attributed to the Veda Pandits. Historically, they had to recollect and recite severalthousands of Veda mantras from anywhere in Veda, according to the context. But there is no compositionhere. Inspired by this memory feat, Sanskrit poets constructed a method of extempore composition, puzzlesolving and recollection. Celebrated poets like Kalidasa worked in this form. Later on, probably a thousandyears back, Telugu poets introduced it in Telugu. The modern form of Avadhānaṃ is coined by Sri Madabhushi Venkatacharyulu and got popularized by famous poets such as Tirupati-Venkata Kavulu,Kopparapu Sodara Kavulu and others.
UA: Is Avadhānaṃ practiced only in Telugu or is also practiced in other South Indian languages?
SSP: No. It started with Sanskrit. It’s at its peak in Telugu. Kannada also has it.
UA: Why is it such an incredulous and unique performance poetry genre?
SSP: Extempore composition based on several aspects simultaneously requires exceptional multi-tasking and
memory power plus the recital at the end—it is unheard of. Not just that the constraints such as meter, theme, grammar and minute prosody are implemented but a level of skill and beauty finally in the rendition is expected—providing delight to the audience.
UA: What drew you to it? How long did it take for you to study and prepare to become an Avadhāni?
SSP: My parents have great passion for this. My mother, especially introduced me to this when I was nine or ten years old and my interest developed after watching Avadhānaṃ by one of the greatest Avadhānis Sri Medasani Mohan garu, from Tirupati, my home town. After that it became an addiction. I watched Telugu-Sanskrit Avadhānaṃ by Sri Madugula Nagaphani Sarma garu, Sri Narala Rama Reddy garu and others. After moving to the USA, I had a chance to first participate in Avadhānaṃ thanks to my literature Guru
Brahmasri Vaddiparti Padmakar garu. He made me an Avadhāni, along with the blessings and encouragement from my Veda Guru Brahmasri Marepalli Nagavenkata Sastry garu, in May, 2017. I haven’t taken any formal training
UA: Do you have a literature background? Were you writing poetry or other forms of literature before? Is this a necessary first step? It seems astounding that such a consummate and complex poetry form does not require any training!
SSP: I don’t have any special education in Literature. I was not writing at all. I started composing Telugu and Sanskrit poetry only in 2011 when I was thirty-eight. I used to show my poems to my Veda guru from whom I am learning to recite the Vedas in Milpitas, and he used to recite them in his beautiful voice. I met my literature Guru Sri Padmkara garu at the same Veda temple through him.
I did two trials with him on the phone, and after a couple of months did the first Avadhānaṃ. He suddenly announced at a temple gathering his disciple was going to perform it a couple days later. Like being thrown into a swimming pool and learning how to swim. That’s how I began! He conducted it. My passion connects all the dots.
UA: Share with me your engagement and involvement with it?
SSP: After my first Avadhānaṃ, my well-wisher, the former Vice Chancellor of Dravida University, Sri Gangisetty Lakshminarayana garu invited me to do the first Sanskrit-Telugu Avadhānaṃ dual. It was held in September, 2017 at a cultural event, called ‘Vikshanam’ conducted by an eminent teluguscholar and poet Smt. Dr. Geetha Madhavi garu. From then on, I have been doing Avadhānaṃs regularly.
UA: Who are the well-known and contemporary poets who are involved with it? And are there other forms?
SSP: Sri Medasani Mohan garu – the Panchasahasravadhani (five-thousand scholar challenge), my Guru Sri Padmakar garu – the Tribhasha Mahasahasravadhani (1000 scholars challenging in three languages, Telugu, Hindi and Sanskrit.) Sri Madugula Nagaphani Sarma garu, Sri Garikipati Narasimha Rao garu, Sri Kadimilla Varaprasad garu, Sri Palaparti Syamalananda Prasad garu, Sri Amudala Murali garu and others. A child prodigy and an exceptional young Avadhāni, Chi. Gannavaram Lalith, born and raised in the USA, is an excellent Telugu-Sanskrit Avadhāni. There are many more.
UA: It is unimaginable—the 1,000 and 5,000 challenges! Unbelievable! Share with us an insight into the world of Avadhānaṃ in A.P and Telangana. What are the performance spaces like? How long does a contest last? How are candidates selected? How is the contest monitored? What are the established prizes, titles and honors associated with it etc.
SSP: There are more than a thousand Avadhānis in AP and Telangana. There are several organizations encouraging this and it is going on effectively even in Covid kind of situations, online. Ashtavadhānaṃ is usually done in 2-3 hours. Satavadhānaṃ in 1-2 days. An eminent scholar conducts this program. Titles and Honors are presented by the organizations conducting it along with prize money.
UA: Is there such a scene likewise abroad? How do you keep your art alive in the US?
SSP: Yes, there are 4-5 Avadhānis in USA. As I mentioned, the child Prodigy, Lalith, is doing great! It’s the passion that keeps it alive.
UA: Do you think it is possible to replicate this in English?
SSP: Yes, Shri Pudur Jagadeeswaran garu has done this in English and demonstrated it at Yale University. He was twenty-five at that time and articles appeared in newspapers and he also demonstrated it on TV.