“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 tight rope-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 read 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 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 the 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 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 (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 poeticians 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 choses 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 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 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, 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 play of letters have already been provided above (the verse that uses only
two consonant, the verse in zig-zag pattern).

There
are also other types of Citrakāvya where the focus is 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 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. There are several
Sanskrit enthusiasts who 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
a 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 poeticians 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 displeasurable 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 are 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/displeasurable 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.