Srimanta Sankaradeva is regarded as the “Jagatguru”(Lord of the Universe) and “Mahapurush”(the great man or super human being) by the Assamese people. In fact he was the greatest Vaishnavite saint of Assam. Sankaradeva was responsible for ushering into Assam a wave of the new Vaishnavite(Bhakti) movement which flooded practically the whole of India. Sankaradeva’s Bhakti movement started after his return from first pilgrimage. Sankaradeva dispensed with the Vedic rituals and worship of diverse Gods and Goddesses. He enjoined adoration of one God and named his new faith as “ Ek Sarana Naama Dharma”, the religion of supreme surrender to the one, and that is one Vishnu who in the form of Narayana manifests Himself in various incarnations(Avataras) from age to age. The most beloved incarnation of Vishnu is Krishna. Sankaradeva says, “There is one God, single devotion, and there is none else.” According to Madhavadeva, the most beloved disciple of Sankaradeva, Sankaradeva himself is an incarnation (Avatara) of Vishnu.
In order to propagate his new faith, he adopted some means. He established Satras(monasteries) and Naamghars(village temples); composed kavyas(poetries), Geets(devotional songs), Nats(dramas), Shastras(holy scriptures) etc. He also created “khol”(a drum like musical instrument) made from earth or wood which is played along with Namprasanga, Borgeet, Satrirya Dance and Bhaona etc.
Sankaradeva’s seeds of dramatic talent got germinated at the age of nineteen when he preached Vaishnavism among his local people. On the request of Burha Kha, Jayanta, madhav and other Bhuyans, sankara staged a Drama of his own composition called “Chihnayatra”. This was his first drama. Of course, this is not available in the written form now. He himself painted the background scenery depicting the celestial world-Vaikuntha. For this purpose he created “ Khol” and “Tal”(Symbal). He taught the people to sing, dance and play Khol and to act in the Drama. Through the drama he showed seven vaikunthas- namely Shwetabilas, Shantanubilas, Puspabilas, Pankajbilas, Kanakdanta, Sanatan and Golok to the people. People were so astonished that they finally considered him to be an incarnation of Vishnu and begged for initiation for new faith.
There are six dramas composed by Sankaradeva which are now available. These are Kali-damana(Subjugation of serpent Kali), Patni-prasada(the offerings of the wives of the priestly Brahmanas to Krishna),Keli-gopala or Rasa Krida(the Ras sport with the milk maids), Rukmini- harana(abduction of Rukmini), Parijat-harana(the theft of the flower Parijat) and Rama-vijaya(the conquest of Rama). These dramas are popularly known as “Ankiya Nats”. Of course, Sankaradeva himself did not use the word”Ankiya”. He himself termed these dramatic compositios as Anka, Nat or Nataka after the Sanskrit names. Other titles used by other Vaishnava poets for this type of plays are Yatra, Nrita and Anka. The short plays of Madhavadeva are called Jhumuras. The ankiya Nats of Sankaradeva’s were not written in homely Assamese as the verses of kirtana or the kavyas. These were written in an archaic speech called Brajabuli or Brajawali, a mixed dialect of Maithili- Assamese-Hindi.
Sankaradeva’s first three plays were based on scriptural materials drawn mainly from the Bhagavata. Rukmini-harana and Parijat –harana are adaptation respectively from Harivamsa and Vishnu Purana; the story of Rama-vijaya is taken mainly from the Ramayana. The dramatic performance of these plays is known as “Ankiya Bhaowna”.
Though Sankaradeva was inspired by Sanskrit dramas prevailing at that time, yet he used some other techniques of his own. Ankiya nats follow certain techniques similar to that of Sanskrit dramas; particularly with reference to the use of Sanskrit verses(Slokas) and “Nandi”, the introduction of “Sutradhara” (the stage manager or the thread holder) and performance of the preliminary music called Dhemali or Purvaranga. Of course, the role of Sutradhara is something different in case of Ankiya Nats. In Sanskrit dramas, Sutradhara disappears altogether after invocation. But in Ankiya nats, Sutradhara plays a pivotal role. He appears on the stage as soon as the “Dhemali”(Purvaranga) by the Gayan-Bayan party (special musical party with Khol and tal) are over. He then dances with the orchestra in a special rhythmic way, opens the play by reciting the Nandi(the benedictory verses of a drama), introduces the characters, gives the directions, announces their entrances and exits by singing , dancing and narrating the ethical and spiritual points of the play. Further, there are no acts or scene divisions in an Ankiya Nat. The changes of scene are either announced by the Sutradhara or orchestral singing. The role of Sutradhara is therefore a very important in an Assamese Bhaona. So he must be a talented actor, musician and an accomplished dancer. After being completed “Nandi”, Sutradhara announces the subject matter of the play in Sanskrit verse known as “Prorochana”. This is followed by a long recital of Poem in assamese in melodious tone called “Bhatima”. Then is followed “Prastavana”. It is a short conversation between the Sutradhara and “Sangi”(mate). The Sutradhara tells his Sangi that he hears a celestial sound (Devadundubhi). Then he announces the names of the approaching characters (actors).At the end of this discussion the companion retires from the stage.
Like the beginning of the play with benediction, it is also ends with a prayer in Assamese called “Mukti mangal bhatima” where the Sutradhara begged forgiveness of God for any faults of omission and commission in staging the drama. Lastly, he emphasizes the moral effect of the play and desires the audience to follow the path of righteousness. The dances used in Ankiya nats are”Krishna nach”, “Gopi Nach”, “ Bor Pravesh Nach” and ‘Sutradhari Nach” etc. The ankiya Nats were written more with a religious motive than for secular enjoyment. Hence they wre staged in the village Namghar(the prayer-hall) on the auspicious occasions like Janmastami, Dolyatra and Ras purnima. Later on, the plays came to be stged on festive occasions like on Full moon nights, during seed time and harvest, and whenever villagers were free from agricultural works. Sometimes special houses and temporary sheds (Rabhas or pandals) are erected for Ankiya Bhaona. In Ankiya bhaona, all the characters move rhythmically from the beginning to end, in the form of dancing with appropriate steps with the Music party (Gayan-Bayan) and perform their dramatic postures (Abhinaya). The Characters use special kind of dresses according to their characters and get themselves attired with different colours and make-up befitting their roles. Sometimes some actors like Ravana, Kumbhakarna, Hanumana, Yama, Jatayu-bird, Garuda etc. have to use “Chho” (Effigies) and “ Mukha”(Masks) to fit their characters.
The Ankiya Nats have both sensuous and intellectual appeal. They play a tremendous influence on the national and cultural life of Assam. They led to the growth of popular stage and development of music and dancing. Although first used mainly as a means of propagating Vaishnavism, these plays of Sankaradeva have continued to exercise a never ending influence on the common folk of Assam to this day.
1) 1. History of Assamese literature-By Birinchi Baruah
2) 2. Shri Sankar Bakyamrit-Compiled by Harinarayan Dutta Baruah
By Laksheswar Hazarika