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Practice of Raga-Sangita in Pre-Sankaradeva Assam & Sankaradeva’s Initiation to the Tradition from Admin's blog

by Dr Pabitrapran Goswami

            Nothing can be definitely said about the exact form of Assamese music in the pre-Sankaradeva time. However, scholars have often tried to trace back the lineage of classical art and music in Assam right from the days of Bharata’sNatya sastra. Out of the four different forms of drama, viz., Daksinatya, Awanti, Pancal-Madhyama andOdra-Magadhi, referred to  in the Natyasastra, the form called Odra-Magadhi was, according to Bharata, in vogue in the entire north-eastern region covering Anga, Banga, Kalinga, Magadh, Nepal and Pragjyotispur (ancient Assam). During those days dance and music were indispensable parts of a drama. So  the art of music as a whole developed through the practice of drama. The Natyasastra also elaborately discusses various forms of Natyagiti (songs used in drama) such as Dhruwa, Brahma, Kapala, Magadhi, Odra-Magadhi orArdha-Magadhi etc. Now by co-relating the form of drama called Odra-Magadhi with Odra-Magadhi Natyagiti we may infer that Pragjyotispur or Assam has witnessed a rich tradition of dance, drama and music right from the days of Bharata’s Natyasastra (2nd century A.D.).   

The Bauddha Caryagits, that were in vogue between the 8th and the 12th centuries A.D., are a clear evidence to the practice of Raga-sangita in Assam during those days. Composed in the Apabhrangsa language, the Caryas represent a common literary and cultural heritage of a wide area covering Assam, Bengal, Mithila, Orissa and Nepal. Two of the composers of the Caryas, viz., Luipad and Sarahpad, belonged to Assam. The ragas mentioned in the Caryas are Bhairavi, Kamod, Gunjari, Mallari, Desakh, Malsi, Patmanjari, Barari, Dhansi, Bangal, Shavari, Gaura, Ramkri, Devakri, Dhvakri etc.A few of these names seem to resemble the names of some ragas of Bargit and Oja-pali too. All these ragas are mentioned in the ancient treatises like Matanga’s Brihaddesi, Parshvadeva’s Sangit Samayasar, Narada’s Sangit Makaranda and Sarngadeva’s Sangita Ratnakara. Sarngadeva in the 4th chapter of Sangita Ratnakara discusses the classical characteristics of the Caryas and recognises them, like Vyankatamakhi, as Prabandha Gits of the Taravali Jati and the Biprakirna class.

 From what has been discussed above, we may take an idea about the practice of raga sangitain Assam before Sankaradeva. Moreover, Sankaradeva’spredecessors, while migrating from Kanauj through Bengal to Assam sometime between the 11thand the 12thcenturies A.D., must have brought with them a rich heritage of Indian classical art and music. This hypothesis is supported by Sankaradeva’sreferring to his father in his Rukminiharana Kabyaas a Gandharva:

 “Vangsate prakhyata gandharva sakhyata jagate bakhane yaka1.

There are other evidences too in support of the thesis that Indian classical music was in practice in Assam even before Sankaradeva. Two of Sankaradeva’scontemporary poets and lyricists, Durgabar and Pitambarare known to have been trained in music in Assam itself. Durgabar Kayastha also mentioned one Bahubal Sikderas the incarnation of a Gandharva.


Sankaradeva’s Initiation to the Tradition of Raga Sangita:

Born in a cultural atmosphere described above, Sankaradeva must have got the initial exposure to the latest trends in Indian music in his early childhood. That he could appreciate the musical talent of his father, whom he lost at an early age, also supports this inference. That initial knowledge of music was theoretically streamlined through the study of the four Vedas, fourteen Sastras (including the Natyasastra) and eighteen Puranas in Guru Mahendra Kandali’stol, and further enriched and perfected from all sides by the practical experience he gathered during his pilgrimages for long twelve years.It is noteworthy that during those days the holy places and temples like those of Jagannatha of Puri and of Shrinathji of Vrindavan were the living centres of dance and music and the musical tradition in vogue everywhere was that of Prabandh Gana.The practice of the Astapadis of Jaydeva’s Gitagovinda, the last reminiscence of Prabandha Gana in the Indian context, is known to have been alive till then in those temples. Hence we may infer that Sankaradeva fully mastered the musical system of Prabandha Gana during his pilgrimages and afterwards composed Bargit on that model.The musical significance of Bargit must be assessed in that historical perspective.

In most of the writings on Bargit so far the question that has been invariably dealt with is whether Bargit can be assimilated to either of the two major schools of Indian classical music, viz.,Hindusthanior North Indian and Karnatik or South Indian. Almost all eminent writers, scholars and musicians, such as Dr. Banikanta Kakati, Jyotiprasad Agarwala, Bishnuprasad Rabha, Ambikagiri Raicaudhuri, Dr. Maheswar Neog, Cakradhar Mahanta, Birendra Kumar Phukan, Purusottam Das, Dr. Birendranath Datta, Dr. Kesavanandadeva Goswami, Bapcandra Mahanta, Golap Mahanta etc., have rejected such a possibility and vindicated the uniqueness of Bargit, highlighting its potentialities for being established as a separate school of classical music. They have observed that Bargit, in the form in which it has come to us through a continuous oral tradition right from the days of Sankaradevashows little affinity to either Hindusthanior Karnatik  music as we find them today, their mutual resemblances being confined only to the names of certain ragasand talasand a few general properties of classical music as such. Instead the scholars have often spoken about the probable affinity of Bargitto Prabandha Gana,the ancient form of Indian classical music prior to Dhrupadaand Kirttana.


Reference :

1.       Harinarayan Datta Barua; ed., Sri Sankar Bakyamrit; 1953, p.315, v. 532.

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