The Art of Avadhana in Poland

The Art of Avadhana in Poland

Hermina Cielas developed an interest in Sanskrit while pursuing Indology at Jagiellonian University. Although her goal was to learn Hindi, she studied both Hindi and Sanskrit. Having very little knowledge about Sanskrit, she quickly fell in love with the subject. Subsequently, she chose Sanskrit as her MA specialisation, while she was still in her second year of BA. 

Hermina graduated from Indian studies at the Faculty of Philology. In the 2010 - 2011 academic year, she studied at the Sampurnanand Sanskrit University in Varanasi, under the Indian government scholarship granted by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR). In 2018, she defended her Ph.D. thesis entitled “Sanskrit figurative poetry. The theory and practice, based on the example of citrabandha”. 

She is currently a researcher in the Department of Languages and Cultures of Indian and South Asia of Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland. Her research interest, previously focusing on citrakāvya and Indian theory of literature. Currently, it concentrates on avadhāna and modern Sanskrit literature. Avadhāna is the subject of her ongoing project funded by the National Science Centre. 

How was your experience in India? How did you learn about the scholarship from ICCR and how did it benefit you?

I came to know about the ICCR scholarship at the university. Every year, the Embassy of India in Poland announces the possibility of applying. I got the scholarship after completing my BA in Indology. It gave me the opportunity to travel to India for the first time and study at Sampurnanand Sanskrit University for a year. At that time, without the financial benefits of the scholarship, I would not be able to do this. 

Staying and studying in India taught me many things, not only in terms of education, but also being independent and resistant. It gave me the opportunity to see all the things I was reading and learning about in person, practice Hindi and experience the culture. Studying at Sampurnanand showed me different ways of studying Sanskrit and Sanskrit literature. One year in India expanded the foundations of my future research and initiated during my BA studies in Poland. 

We have seen that Poland has an increased interest in Sanskrit over the years. The Upanishad wall in the University of Warsaw was one such indication. In your opinion, how has Sanskrit's influence spread across Poland? 

As I mentioned before, Indian studies have a long tradition in Poland. For centuries, India and Sanskrit fascinated travellers, missionaries, linguists, philologists, and other researchers. Translations from Sanskrit literature into Polish, English, and other Western languages only increased curiosity. In recent decades, the growing popularity of Indian film industry, yoga, meditation, or religious-philosophical traditions of India in Poland has nurtured this interest. There are also many initiatives that promote Indian culture in Poland, such as Indian festivals, Hindi Divas, and International Yoga Day. The Indo-Polish Cultural Committee (IPCC) and its President, Umesh Nautiyal, a Hindi teacher at Jagiellonian University, organise many events to promote India in Poland. Thanks to these initiatives, people have become interested in India. Some of them decide to study Indology or learn Sanskrit or other Indian languages.

Can you tell us about the kind of work that has been going on in Sanskrit in Poland?

The interest in India, Sanskrit, and Sanskrit literature has a long tradition in Poland. Jagiellonian University was the first academic centre for Indian Studies in Poland; the Department of Sanskrit was established in 1893. At the moment, in addition to Kraków, one can study Indian philology at the University of Warsaw, the University of Wrocław and Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. Sanskrit is not the only Indian language taught at Polish universities. Students can also learn Hindi, Tamil, and Bengali, to mention only a few. 

It is difficult to summarise briefly the extent of work conducted by Polish researchers in the field of Indology. When it comes to Sanskrit studies, our Department works great with Sanskritists, focusing on various aspects of Indian literature and culture. Prof. Lidia Sudyka focuses on Indian theories of literature, kāvya, and women's writing in Sanskrit. Prof. Marzenna Czeniak-Drożdżowicz and Dr. Ewa Dębicka-Borek work extensively on the pāñcarātra tradition. Prof. Halina Marlewicz studies the history of ideas within religious-philosophical traditions of India, particularly the early Advaita and Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta. Prof. Iwona Milewska focuses on epic literature. Dr. David Pierdominici Leão works on South Indian Sanskrit literature, especially connected to Vijayanagara, Nāyaka-Maratha Thanjavur, and the Pāṇḍya dynasty.

Several ongoing research projects are conducted at our Department, also in international cooperation. Researchers translate Sanskrit texts into Polish and English, publish on the subjects of their studies, and take part in international conferences, such as the World Sanskrit Conference organised at various locations worldwide. Along with the University of Milan, the Charles University in Prague, the University of Cagliari, and the University of Warsaw, our Department organises annual international seminars on Indian Literature and Art. The University of Calicut joined the group in 2010. In addition to researchers from the member centres, scholars from all over the world are invited to participate. In 1995, Cracow Indological Studies (CIS), an open-access periodical, was founded at the Department. Many volumes of CIS are devoted entirely to the study of Sanskrit and Sanskrit literature.

What made you want to work on Sanskrit poetry? How intricate is Sanskrit poetry when compared to world poetry? 

One of the reasons for my choice of specialisation was the beauty of Sanskrit poetry. It is very different from Western poetry. I very much like the balance between the formalisation of kāvya and the gentleness of the content. Even the harshest and most violent descriptions are charged aesthetically. In Sanskrit poetry, the union between the sound of the word (śabda) and its meaning (artha) is the basis. To read kāvya and fully appreciate the scholarship of the poet, one has to take into consideration various components. None of the elements of the text, whether it is the sonic or semantic layer, the metre, alaṅkāras, or others, is random. Sanskrit is a complex language with intricate grammar, but once mastered, it opens up the whole universe of possibilities. The strength and uniqueness of kāvya come from the language itself. Sanskrit is a great tool for composing poetry, with numerous synonyms, sandhi rules allowing multiple divisions of the text, many monosyllabic words, and compounding, to mention only a few features. All these also occur in other languages, although usually to a lesser degree. 

Your current work on Avadhana is fascinating. Have you had the chance to attend an avadhana event? What was your experience like? 

Unfortunately, I have not had the opportunity to attend an avadhāna yet. In 2020, I was about to come to India and, among other things, attend avadhānas but the COVID-19 pandemic thwarted these plans. I have seen many recordings of avadhānas, though. The experience of attending the live performance is certainly different than watching the recording and I am waiting for the opportunity to do this. Hopefully it will happen this year, as I am going to visit India soon, on the occasion of the first international conference on avadhāna which will take place on 17-19 June, organised by the Centre for Avadhanam initiated by Chinmaya Vishwavidyapeeth (CVV) and Indic Academy (IA).

You worked with Dr Shankar Rajaraman, who happens to be a very close friend with Indica Soft Power. Can you tell us about your experience working with him?

I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Shankar Rajaraman in August 2015, thanks to the help of Venetia Kotamraju. We met at his place in Bangalore. It was a great experience to meet such an accomplished avadhānī and poet. Dr. Shankar Rajaraman patiently replied to all my questions about citrakāvya and avadhāna, we discussed various forms of figurative formations in Sanskrit poetry. I was amazed how humble he is. I admire Dr. Shankar Rajaraman for his work and for the kind of person he is. I also had the unique opportunity to see the preprint and receive a copy of his latest citrakāvya, “Citranaiṣadham. The picturesque tale of King Nala”, published later, in 2016, by Niraamaya Publishing. He was always very kind and willing to help: thanks to him, I had the opportunity to meet another great avadhānī, Dr. R. Ganesh.

Why did you want to work on this aspect of Indian art? What do you intend to study on this further? 

For the first time, I have heard about avadhāna from Prof. Lidia Sudyka, while working on my Ph.D. thesis devoted to citrakāvya. Citra was also the subject of my previous research project financed by the National Science Centre. In the scope of that work, I travelled to India twice, in 2015 and 2016, and had the opportunity to meet three famous avadhānīs, Dr. R. Ganesh, Dr. Shankar Rajaraman and Dr. Medasani Mohan. At that time, we mostly talked about the presence of citrakāvya in avadhāna, as it was the main subject of my research. Fascinated by the idea of avadhāna, I wanted to know more and more about this art and its practitioners. I realised that the art of avadhāna is very much understudied and has remained outside the academic interest for a very long time. I have decided to dedicate my next research project exclusively to the study of avadhāna. Since starting the project at the end of 2018, I have published several articles on the subject and presented the results at international conferences. Currently, I am finishing a book on avadhāna, which summarises my work on the art. I hope to also investigate more epigraphic sources that mention avadhāna and the activity of women in the field of the art.