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Citrakavya : The Wonder Poetry – An Interview with Dr Shankar Rajaraman

“An “aha” moment in Citrakāvya will go a long way in sustaining interest in Sanskrit” – Dr Shankar Rajaraman

Dr Shankar Rajaraman will be speaking at an event organised jointly by the Center for Soft Power, Indic Academy and Heritage Trust ‘Uncovering the Layers of History and Kavya’ on August 31 in Bangalore

Psychiatrist and Sanskrit poet Dr Shankar Rajaraman likens Citrakāvya or Sankrit ‘wonder poetry’ to tightrope-walking. First, there is the constraint of having to walk in the extremely narrow space provided by the rope that is tied at some precarious height. Second, when the rope-walker makes it to the end, the spectators are jubilant.

Recently honoured with the Presidential Award ‘Maharshi Badrayan Vyas Samman’ for his outstanding contribution to the field of Sanskrit language and literature, Devīdānavīyam and Citranaiṣadham are two of his Citrakāvya-based works.

Dr Shankar says ‘Citrakāvya’ is usually translated into English as ‘wonder poetry’ or ‘constrained poetry’.  It is a genre of Classical Indian (particularly, Sanskrit) poetry in which the poet composes verse/s amidst apparently difficult, self-imposed constraint/s (which is why it is ‘constrained poetry’). The purpose of Citrakāvya is to baffle the reader (which is why it is ‘wonder poetry’).

Citrakāvya can be of several types. One may compose a verse that employs only one, two, or three consonants. He says “To my knowledge, the best among Sanskrit verses that employ only two consonants is the following one, quoted in Vallabhadeva’s Subhāṣitāvalī :

tāratāratarairetairuttarottarato rutaiḥ | ratārtā tittirī rauti tīre tīre tarau tarau ||

The following is an English translation of this verse by Mrs Venetia Kotamraju and me – “A tittiri, in Ero’s snare, tires not as it tunes its strain. On trees it rests, on straits nearest, to raise its notes sans restraint.” The translation makes do with four consonants – t, r, s, n).

One may also compose a verse that gives one meaning when read forwards but another when read backwards. It is also possible that a Sanskrit verse may sound as if it is written in another language. One example is the following Sanskrit verse, composed by Dr Shankar which sounds when reading out as if it is in English. “Do not look at the written verse; just listen to it as someone reads it aloud: govinda vārdave yūno maitrī saṃsāraveśikā | ramāsarobālārko:’ si harīśo’sūnaveṭdaram || Doesn’t the verse sound like this – “Go win the war the way you know. My three sons are away shikar. Amass a robe all are cosy. Hurry, show soon, await the rum”?).”

There are also verses that evince a geometric pattern (say a zig-zag pattern) or a pattern that resembles a real-life object because of the repetition of certain syllables at specific places. For instance, read the following benedictory verse from his Citranaiṣadham –

namo nīrajanābhāya nityāya karuṇābdhaye | (first line)

tamonirasanārkāya daityānīkatṛṇāgnaye || (second line)

There seems to be nothing special about this verse at first glance. But look carefully, and you will see that each alternate syllable – a syllable is one/two/three consonants + a vowel – is the same in the first and second lines. Let us write this down as follows for greater clarity –

na mo ra ja bhā ya ni tyā ya ka ru ṇā bdha ye
ta mo ni ra sa rkā ya dai tyā ka tṛ ṇā gna ye

Such a pattern is known as the gomūtrikā (zig-zag pattern, called “gomūtrikā” because a meandering cow urinates in a zig-zag pattern). The zig-zag pattern can be represented as follows-

na mo ra ja bhā ya ni tyā ya ka ru ṇā bdha ye
ta mo ni ra sa rkā ya dai tyā ka tṛ ṇā gna ye

When one reads the letters in the direction of the arrows, one ends up with the first line of the verse itself. Likewise, when one reads in the following manner, one ends with the second line of the verse –

na mo ra ja bhā ya ni tyā ya ka ru ṇā bdha ye
ta mo ni ra sa rkā ya dai tyā ka tṛ ṇā gna ye

“The whole of Citranaiṣadham (consisting of more than 200 verses) is written in this pattern and narrates the story of Nala until his marriage with Damayanti. To my knowledge, this is the first full-fledged Sanskrit poem that narrates a story using the Gomūtrikā pattern in every verse. Devīdānavīyam, written prior to Citranaiṣadham, experiments with three different categories of Citrakāvya to narrate the story of Goddess Durga’s victory over the demon Mahishasura.”

In this interview, Dr Shankar speaks about Chitrakavya or Sanskrit ‘Wonder’ poetry.

How do you define Chitrakavya? Some say it is an imitation of poetry and not poetry itself. Is that correct? 

There is good poetry. And then there is bad poetry. Rules/constraints by themselves do not make poetry bad or good. One may write bad poetry even when one is under no constraint (say, metrical, which is the least of constraints imposed on a Sanskrit poet). On the other hand, one may be able to compose exquisite poetry even after imposing several constraints on oneself. It all depends on the sāmarthya (capacity) of the poet. Traditionally, poets have often composed Citrakāvya that, no doubt, is mind-boggling, but also gives the reader a headache. Such Citrakāya is not at all understandable without the help of a commentary. When I started writing Citrakāvya, I was pretty sure it must be easily understandable to someone with a basic understanding of Sanskrit. I, myself, had to be convinced about the meaning of what I wrote. Furthermore, while writing Citranaiṣadham, I had a Mahākāvya (an epic poem) as the model in my mind. A Mahākāvya brings within its ambit several descriptions (say, of the sunrise, seasons, cities, etc.). And I wanted to bring such descriptions even in my Citrakāvya without compromising on the lucidity of the language or the constraint imposed by the gomūtrikā pattern that I had chosen. Walking on a rope is difficult in itself. But if one must walk on a rope without the walk appearing strained and not just that, if one must, additionally, even dance and perform gymnastics on the rope, it requires extra effort and dedication. Traditional poets had, in front of them, Citrakāya verses that were not lucid and compromised on the poetic quality. Which is why, I feel, they called it inferior poetry or mere imitation of poetry. I, however, do not agree with this position.

What is the connection between Shabda and chitra and artha and chitra?

Citrakāvya can be of two types, arthacitra and śabdacitra. The former hinges on a clever idea while the latter is to do with jugglery using words, part of words, or syllables. In the former case, the reader may be amused (modern readers may even laugh at the idea or deem it crass) by, the manner in which, the poet has worked out an idea. The idea, however, doesn’t serve a greater purpose beyond amusement. To give an example, Magha, in his Mahākāvya Śiśupālavadha (that deals with Krishna’s killing of the wicked king Śiśupāla), compares the ocean with an epileptic. The frothing ocean, tossing its arm-like waves up and down, appears to the hero, Krishna, like a person having seizures. The poet has cleverly managed to convince us how the comparison is appropriate. But, beyond that, the verse does not contribute in any manner to the larger narrative. And of all things, why would the hero, who has set out with his army, conceive of the ocean in this manner? When we speak of Citrakāvya, it is śabdacitra that we are mostly speaking about. Here, it is evident that the poet chooses specific words or syllables to create an effect on the reader. A verse such as “tāratāratarairetairuttarottarato rutaiḥ | ratārtā tittirī rauti tīre tīre tarau tarau ||” gives away, at the very outset, that the poet’s intention is to use only specific consonants. I feel śabdacitra is more often effective than arthacitra in creating the wonder that Citrakāvya has as its goal.

In what ways can the poet create wonderment – play of words, play of meaning, play of letters?

All, in fact. Let me give an example for each – Yamaka is a type of Citrakāvya where a word/part of a word (often compound words) repeats with the difference in the meaning. In the sentence “She is his panicky Hispanic wife”, there is the repetition of the letters ‘h’, ‘i’, ‘s’, ‘p’, ‘a’, ‘n’, ‘i’, and ‘c’ that occur as part of different words with different meanings. All verses in the first chapter of my Devīdānavīyam illustrate this type of Citrakāvya. The following is the first verse from that chapter –

praśithilayatu me duritaṃ

praṇamadamaramaulikusumarasameduritam |

aruṇotpalacāru ciraṃ

padayugamīśasya nigamavācā ruciram ||

As for play of meaning, the commonest type of Citrakāvya that can be thought of here is śleṣa (pun). There is an entire work called “Rāghavapāṇḍavīyam” in 13 long cantos that uses the device of śleṣa to simultaneously narrate the stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata. There are two ways in which one can pun – one, in which a word with two dictionary meanings is used; another, in which a word, when split in two different ways, gives rise to two meanings. The former is called “abhaṅgaśleṣa” and the latter, “sabhaṅgaśleṣa”. An example of the latter, more difficult, the type would be the sentence “pūtanāmāraṇakhātaḥ sa me’stu śaraṇaṃ prabhuḥ” – “May the Lord who is famed for killing (the demoness) Putana be my refuge”. This sentence alludes to Krishna, vanquisher of Putana. If the same sentence is split differently as “pūtanāmā raṇakhyātaḥ sa me’stu śaraṇaṃ prabhuḥ” – May the Lord, whose name is sacred and who is famed in warfare, be my refuge – it becomes a prayer addressed to Rama, whose skill in war is well-known.

Examples for the play of letters have already been provided above (the verse that uses only two consonants, the verse in a zig-zag pattern).

There are also other types of Citrakāvya where the focus is on meter (you could have a verse that is set to one meter that hides within it another verse set to another meter) or even language (remember the verse quoted above that sounds like it is written in English but that is actually a Sanskrit one)

What are the earliest examples of Chitrakavya and which are the latest?  Are poets today using it? 

Some simple types of Citrakāvya are found even in Valmiki’s Ramayana. Kalidasa uses Yamaka in one canto of his Raghuvaṃśa. However, it is in works such as Bharavi’s Kirātārjunīya, Kumaradasa’s jānakīharaṇa, Magha’s Śiśupālavadha, Ratnakara’s Haravijaya, Shivasvamin’s kapphinābhyudaya, Vastupala’s Naranārāyaṇānanda, Harichandra’s Dharmaśarmābhyudaya, and Vedanta Deshika’s Pādukāsahasra and Yādavābhyudaya that we find the full-fledged development of Citrakāvya. Among the latest poets writing Chitrakavya, I must say there are very few. Shatavadhani Ganesh from Bangalore has composed several Chitrakavya-s, some even extemporaneously. I have been composing Chitrakavya-s for a couple of decades now. Sudhir Krishnaswami, Vasuki, Ganesh Koppalathota, Ramachandra, and Suhas Mahesh are among those I know personally that have been composing Citrakāvya verses now and then. Several Sanskrit enthusiasts are fascinated by Citrakāvya and want to try their hand at composing it. However, most of them are mediocre poets whose even normal verses are hard to comprehend. One must always gain good expertise in composing unconstrained poetry before venturing into the domain of Citrakāvya. After all, one learns to be surefooted on the ground before attempting to walk on a rope.

How many different kinds of Chitrakavya are there in all? 

There are numerous types and subtypes of Citrakāvya. Knowing their number is not very important. Some are even being created newly. For example, I have created Citrakāvya subtypes such as Anantarākṣarī and Pratipādāpunaruktasvara. In the latter subtype, there is no repetition of a vowel in each of the four lines of verse. For example –

kaivalyāmbhodhipūrṇendu- (ai, a, ā, o, i, ū, e, u)

strayīmṛgyo vibhātu me | (a, ī, ṛ, o, i, ā, u, e)

śūlī śailasutāceto- (ū, ī, ai, a, u, ā, e, o)

nīrajaikāruṇo hṛdi || (ī, a, ai, ā, u, o, ṛ, i)

Are Chitrakavyas respected among poets? Are they seen as being on par with other forms of poetry?

Citrakāvya is indeed respected by Sanskrit poets who still write in the traditional style. Even Anandavardhana, who called it an imitation of poetry (and not genuine poetry), could not resist the urge to write a “Devīśatakam”, a century of verses on the Mother Goddess that illustrates complicated forms of Citrakāvya. Traditionally, Citrakāvya has been relegated to the status of inferior poetry since it is, unlike superior poetry, not intended to communicate a character’s emotional state to the reader and evoke a joyful aesthetic response in him/her. However, I believe that a whole lot is to do with the poet’s capacity (as already pointed out). A good citrakavi will write a Citrakāvya that is easily understandable and that hides the wonder-evoking element in such an adept manner that the reader is doubly surprised when it is pointed out to him/her later by the poet. The reader would then remark thus – “Wow!! I never knew that such a difficult constraint was lurking beneath an, apparently simple, poetically rich, easily understandable verse”

Being a psychiatrist and poet requires great sensitivity and use of language. Is there a connection between Sanskrit and modern psychology?

Now, this is a territory about which much can be said. My thesis topic, in fact, was situated in the interface between contemporary psychology, Sanskrit poetics, and Sanskrit literature. To put in a nutshell, Sanskrit poets were keen observers and astute theoreticians of mental states and behaviour. Bharata had already worked out the number of mental states that could possibly be communicated by actors to the audience. Furthermore, since others’ (including those of actors and of the characters they imitate) mental states cannot be experienced first-hand, Bharata also theorized that they need to be communicated through their antecedents and consequents. So, for example, if you are aware of the fact that your friend has lost a loved one recently (antecedent) and see him/her shedding tears (consequent), you immediately infer that he/she is going through the mental state of sadness. Bhoja made a significant contribution by linking pleasurable and disagreeable mental states with particular life-goals, personalities, and personality-specific traits. There may be several antecedent-consequent pairs through which a mental state such as pride is communicated. However, none of these pairs is relevant to a character such as Rama because he is never portrayed as experiencing pride in the first place. On the other hand, several of these pairs can communicate pride in Ravana because Ravana repeatedly experiences this mental state. Bhoja theorized that this difference is because of the different life-goals that Rama and Ravana pursue. The former’s life-goal is the ethical pursuit of material wealth and its enjoyment (Dharma) whereas the latter’s life-goal is only to pursue material objects whose acquisition will elevate his social status. Ravana’s pursuit is motivated by a desire to alleviate an underlying fear of losing status. Bhoja links artha (acquisition of material wealth), kāma (enjoyment of material wealth), dharma (ethical acquisition and enjoyment of material wealth), and mokṣa (eternal freedom from matter; abiding in what is unchanging about oneself, namely, one’s Consciousness) with progressively greater mental well-being. I feel, in psychiatric practice, one comes across people who are distressed mostly on account of pursuing the life-goals of artha and kāma. Rarely do people that are caught in an ethical quandary visit a psychiatrist. And seekers of mokṣa almost, never, ever visit one. The valence (pleasurable/disagreeable nature) of our mental states is an indirect indication of our life-goals. So, if I have been feeling down, angry, or fearful on a particular day, it would do me good to introspect if it is artha or kāma that I have been preoccupied with on that day. And if I feel happy, joyous, or contented on another day, it is equally important to introspect if that is because my thoughts and actions have been ethically sound on that day too. In understanding the characters that I chose for my thesis, I must say I understood myself much better.

What does Chitrakavya say about the creative mind of our ancients?

Like in the case of other knowledge domains, Citrakāvya reveals to us the zeal our ancients had to pursue a subject till its logical end. What are the boundaries of a language? What are the possibilities with the structure of language? How malleable is language? Can we play with the form of a language? Is it a worthwhile endeavour to play with the structure of a language? If yes, for what purpose? Does such an endeavour merit consideration within the larger ambit of poetry? What is the importance of sound in language? If literature is also about listening (and not just reading), then how can its sonorous beauty be enhanced? – these were some of the questions that drove them to theorize about and enlarge the domain of Citrakāvya

Sanskrit as a living language – how can chitrakavya help in creating an interest in Sanskrit?

As already mentioned, the prime objective of Citrakāvya is to create wonder in the reader. Anything that creates wonder can also become an object of admiration and emulation. Hence, Citrakāvya can be a very good starting point for entry into the world of Sanskrit literature. Unfortunately, even those in Sanskrit academia scarcely know about Citrakāvya. The world of wondrous poetry is definitely richer in Sanskrit than in English or other languages that students are exposed to. One “aha” moment while encountering Citrakāvya will go a long way in sustaining interest in Sanskrit.





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