Dance of the monks

Published : Sep 24, 2010 00:00 IST

A GAYAN-BAYAN performance. It is a Sattriya dance style that originated from Ankia Nat, or one-act play. Music, dance and drama are interlaced in it.-

A GAYAN-BAYAN performance. It is a Sattriya dance style that originated from Ankia Nat, or one-act play. Music, dance and drama are interlaced in it.-

The neo-Vaishnavite monasteries of the Majuli island keep the Sattriya dance form of Assam alive.

BHABANANDA BARBAYAN was three and a half years old when his parents, upholding a family tradition for the tenth generation, gifted him to the Uttar Kamalabari Sattra (a Vaishnavite monastery) located in Majuli, a river island in Jorhat district of Assam. His family's earliest male representative in the sattra, a socio-religious institution, was sent there in the 17th century.

Bhabananda grew up in the monastery as a celibate bhakat (monk), and is now a proud torch-bearer of the five-century-old Sattriya culture, propagating the religious ideology of the medieval Vaishnavite saint, social reformer and creative genius Srimanta Sankardeva (A.D. 1449-1568). Bhabananda's expertise in singing, dancing and playing musical instruments, which he learnt in the monastery, earned him the coveted status of Barbayan, or principal exponent of Sattriya nritya, in 1993, at an early age of 17.

Sattriya, one of the eight classical dance forms of India, is preserved in several monasteries in the State.

The year 2008 marked an important phase in this living tradition when Bhabananda and his team of Sattriya performers gave 16 performances at six international festivals, held in France and Portugal. In 2009, he demonstrated and taught Sattriya at four workshops in France in Rodez, Toulouse, Montpellier and Paris and lectured on Sattriya dance and drama in three discussion sessions, held in Universite De Toulouse, Musee Du Quai Branly, and Centre Mandapa, a cultural centre in Paris promoting Indian dance and art forms.

Between May 31 and June 8 this year, Bhabananda conducted a workshop and delivered lecture-demonstrations on Sattriya Dance and Theatre Technique at ARTA (Association de Recherche des Traditions de I'Acteur), Paris, which was jointly organised by ARTA, Theatre Du Soleil and the Department of Performing Arts, University of Paris VIII. He also gave four performances at the Festival of Natya Danse Sacrees De L'Inde, organised by Musee Du Quai Branly, from June 10 to 13.

The French traveller-writer Nadine Delpech, attracted and impressed by the richness of the Sattriya tradition, wrote a book, L'ile Aux Moines Danseurs, based on her visits to the sattras of Majuli in seven consecutive years. Her creation inspired the French film-maker Emmanuelle Petit to make a 52-minute documentary, Dans Les Brumes de Majuli (In the Mist of Majuli), which has helped establish a bond between two different cultures, one sustained by the river Brahmaputra and the other by the Seine. Bhabananda has firmed up this bond by sharing his expertise on Sattriya with French artists and art lovers.

Sattriya evolved from Ankia Nat, or Bhaona (one-act play), created through the interlacing of music, dance and drama by Sankardeva, his chief disciple Madhavdeva and their apostles during the neo-Vaishnavite movement in Assam between the 15th and 17th centuries and preserved and developed by the sattras.

Experts say that while other classical dance forms have been reconstructed through the revival of a tradition that no longer exists, Sattriya is a living tradition, practised, preserved and performed consistently in the Vaishnavite monasteries. Two different types of dances can be seen in the Sattriya form. One evolved from Ankia Nat and the other evolved independently. Dances that originated from Ankia Nat include Gayan-Bayan, Sutrdhari, Gosain Prabeshor Nach (entry dance number of Krishna and Rama), Gopi Prabeshor Nach (entry dance numbers of gopis), Jhumura and Bahar (male dance numbers). Independent dances include Rajagharia Chali, Chal, Natua, Sattriya Ojapali and Nadubhangi.

In his book in Assamese, titled Sankardevar Silpalok (Purbanchal Prakash, 2007), a collection of essays on Sankardeva's visions of art as reflected in various art forms of the Bhakti Movement in Assam, Pradip Jyoti Mahanta, Head of the Department of Cultural Studies, Tezpur University, and an expert on Sattriya, has elaborated on the richness of the tradition and how the continuous experimentation in dance, music and drama by the sattras has added to the treasure trove left behind by Sankardeva and Madhavdeva:

For nearly 150 years after the passing away of Sankardeva and Madhavdeva, the tradition of establishing new sattras and adding to their creative work for spreading the religion and culture introduced by them continued. Simultaneously, various experiments on music, dance and drama also continued.

Mahanta also explains how the Sattriya dance tradition has become richer with the push and pull of liberal experimenters and conservationists.

Sankardeva propagated a form of Vaishnavite faith known as Eka-Sarana-Hari-Nama-Dharma, or Mahapurusia dharma, devoted to a single god, Krishna, and stressed upon unqualified devotion to him. He spread the liberal and humanistic doctrine of bhakti in Assam. The religious system of Sankardeva is monotheistic and the worship of deities other than Krishna is strictly prohibited.

Sankardeva used all audio-visual and performing arts to spread the neo-Vaishnavite movement initiated by him. He travelled far and wide to propagate the new faith. A prayer hall called naamghar or kirtan ghar was built at each place where he camped. Music, drama and dances he created were performed there to invoke devotion in his followers. After Sankardeva's death, a permanent organisation in the form of the sattra started taking shape as a repository of the Sattriya culture.

Simultaneously, architectural development also happened to sustain the institution, with Madhavdeva establishing a sattra at Barpeta and Damodardeva, another disciple of Sankardeva, starting one at Patbausi. Their apostles set up similar institutions at different places. Typically, each sattra has a large prayer hall , where monks perform various rituals every day. On the four sides of the naamghar are rows of huts for accommodating the monks. The house of the sattradhikar, or head of the monastery, is usually situated in one of the rows. However, architectural and structural variations can be noticed in the sattras.

After the passing away of Sankardeva and Madhavdeva, the Sattra Institution was divided into four sub-sects, namely Brahma-samhati, Nika-samhati, Purusa-samhati and Kal-samhati. Brahma-samhati consists of sattras set up by the followers of Damodardeva and Harideva; Purusa-samhati those set up by the descendents of Sankardeva; Nika-samhati those set up by the followers of Madhavdeva; and Kal-samhati those formed by Gopaldev Ata.

Sankardeva went on a pilgrimage, which lasted 12 years, at the age of 35. A popular perception is that he created Sattriya as an integral part of Ankia Nat on the basis of his experiences and the various elements he had gathered during the pilgrimage.

Elements of Natya Shastra

Mallika Kandali, who received her doctoral degree from Gauhati University for her thesis The Sattriya and the Odissi Dances: A Comparative Study, disputes this perception. She argues in her book in Assamese, Nritya Kala Prasanga aru Sattriya Nritya (Published by Kaushik Thakur; The Written Word, 2007), that more than the resources gathered by Sankardeva during his pilgrimage, the application of classical elements contained in Natya Shastra and the elements collected from different indigenous art forms of Assam are seen prominently in the dramas written by him. Natya Shastra, the treatise of Indian performing arts, is also the foundation of the Sattriya tradition. Sankardeva studied Natya Shastra along with the Vedas and the Upanishads under his teacher Mahendra Kandali.

Mallika Kandali, who is also a Sattriya exponent, argues that apart from the classical characteristics, the influence of Assam's traditional and folk dances, sculpture and other images, are also noticed in the Sattriya dance. Colourful cultural elements of various tribes and nationalities living in Assam, such as the Mishings, the Bodos and the Deuris, can be found in Sattriya. Many folk characteristics like hand gestures found in the dances of the Mishings, footwork and body movements in Bodo dances, and the gait of the Deuri folk dance are present in Sattriya, Mallika says. She says the influence of Devadasi and Ojapali, which were practised in the pre-Sankardeva period, can also be noticed in Sattriya.

Sattriya has a number of characteristics that make it unique. One of these is Mati Akhora (ground exercise), considered an unwritten rule of the dance form. The ground exercises help make the body of the learner flexible. According to Mallika Kandali, 64 ground exercises are peculiar to Sattriya.

The Sattriya form uses a variety of hand gestures and foot positions. It also has its own style of music, based on classical ragas and the talas (rhythm) of borgeets (devotional songs composed by Sankardeva and Madhavdeva) and the songs of the one-act-plays. Tala plays the most predominant role in sattra music. All the instruments used in that circle (the drums mridanga, khol, nagara, tambourines, or khanjaris; the cymbals bartal, patital, khuti-tal or manjira) are meant to keep the beat. The vayanas (drummers) and gayanas (cymbalists, singers) have to master various useful talas before they can give performances, especially in dramatic representations. ( Early History of Vaishnava Faith and Movement in Assam: Sankardeva and his time by Maheswar Neog.)

Mahanta writes in his book that the number of talas used in Sattriya music has increased from 10, developed by Sankardeva and Madhavdeva, to more than 40, adding that neither Carnatic nor Hindustani music has such a large number of talas.

From Sattra to stage

In the 1950s, Sattriya emerged from the confines of the monasteries to the platforms in metropolitan cities. In the same decade, women started learning the dance form, which until then was a male preserve. However, women cannot learn Sattriya in the sattras.

It was Rasheswar Saikia Barbayan of Kamalabari Sattra who took the bold step of training women learners against the wishes of the conservative sattra society. For this act he was asked to leave the sattra. In 1967-68, he set up an institute called the Bayanor School, which later came to be known as the Sangeet Sattra, to impart formal training in Sattriya in Guwahati. It also marked the beginning of the expansion of Sattriya learning outside the sattra.

In 1958, Maheswar Neog, an eminent scholar and an authority on the Sattriya culture and heritage, attracted the attention of experts and enthusiasts of Indian dance forms to three traditional dance forms Sattriya, Nati and Ojapali at a national-level seminar organised by the Sangeet Natak Akademi in New Delhi. A Sattriya recital by a team of bhakats, led by the late Maniram Dutta Muktiyar of the Kamalabari Sattra, illustrated Neog's erudition. It was the first major national-level exposure of the dance form. Subsequently, the Akademi constituted a committee to explore the possibility of recognising Odissi and Sattriya as classical dance forms along with Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Mohiniyattam, Kuchipudi, Kathakali and Manipuri.

In 1959, the committee, which included experts such as Neog, Dr V. Raghavan and Rukmini Devi Arundale, recommended the special inclusion of Sattriya for conferring the Akademi award. Accepting the recommendation, the Akademi declared Maniram Dutta Muktiar the first recipient of the Sangeet Natak Akademi award for Sattriya in 1963.

Sattriya got its first international exposure in 1975 when President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed took the initiative to showcase Ankia Bhaona and Sattriya during his visit to Indonesia. A troupe of Sattriya artists from Kamalabari Sattra, which was led by the acclaimed dance exponent Parmananda Barbayan and included Sharodi Saikia, a leading present-day exponent, and Dipali Das Bhuyan, performed in Indonesia.

The celebrated Sattriya guru and scholar Ghanakanta Bora Barbayan, who received the Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 2001, has adapted Sattriya for stage performance without diluting the purity of the form.

Even though the sattras consider Sattriya as an exclusive dance for men, it is women Sattriya exponents who have been playing an important role in popularising this form of dance. They include Garima Hazarika, Sharodi Saikia, Pushpa Bhuyan, Mallika Kandali, Indira P.P. Bora, Menaka P.P. Bora, Anwesa Mahanta, Tanmana Choudhury, Sangeeta Hazarika, Sitarani Hazarika, Pratisha Suresh, Satarupa Chatterjee, Anita Sarma, Tarali Das, Aparajit Dawka and Usharani Baishya.

Through a series of performances and workshops, Indira Bora and her daughter Menaka introduced British and American audiences to Sattriya. In 2000, they undertook a dance tour, which they described as Sattriya dance from Luhit to Thames and Mississippi, which helped create awareness about Sattriya in the United Kingdom and the United States. In 2002, the mother-daughter duo performed in mainstream British and South Asian dance platforms in London and at the Leicester City Museums Festival.

Akademi support

Sattriya was recognised as a major Indian dance form by the Sangeet Natak Akademi on November 15, 2000, when Bhupen Hazarika was its Chairman. The formal recognition created great enthusiasm among the people of Assam in general and among Sattriya exponents, academics and sattra institutions in particular. More and more enthusiasts started taking an interest in learning Sattriya.

In November 2002, the Akademi launched a project to support Sattriya and allied traditions of Assam. The project envisaged support for training programmes in dance institutions and identified sattras. It also supports research, documentation and publishing in the subject. An annual festival of Sattriya and presentation of the dance outside Assam are also part of the project.

On July 15, 2008, the Akademi set up a Centre for Sattriya Dance, Music and Theatre Traditions, named Sattriya Kendra, in Guwahati. It also sponsors Nritya Parva A festival of Sattriya Dance, in association with the Directorate of Cultural Affairs, Assam, with the broad objective of featuring the creative efforts of young artists. This has provided Sattriya gurus and senior dancers a national platform to present their compositions and choreography.

However, there is controversy and debate over the nomenclature of Sattriya as the Sankardev Sangha wants the dance form to be named as Sankari Nritya after Sankardeva. It has taken the issue to court. The sangha, established in the 1940s, is engaged in practising Sankari Nritya and Sankari Sangeet as part of its efforts to propagate the religion and tradition of Sankardeva.

With Sattriya gaining popularity, the volume of academic work to support it has also increased. Mallika Kandali and Anwesa Mahanta stress the need for performing artists and dance exponents to adhere to the correct form and grammar of Sattriya and ensure that the dance remains free from the influence of other styles.

The traditional Sattriya style is not likely to get diluted given the number of gurus and exponents in the State. But the unabated erosion caused by the Brahmaputra poses a threat to Majuli, and this may call for the shifting of the 31 sattras on the world's largest river island. There were 64 sattras on the island. Thirty-three have moved out as the river eroded their land.

In 2005, the State government constituted a Sattra Preservation Committee, which has identified 862 sattras for the release of financial assistance by the State Directorate of Archaeology. The government has submitted a Rs.96.59-crore plan to the Central government for providing assistance to 135 sattras.

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