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Creativity in Sattriya from Sanjib Kumar Borkakoti's blog

by Dr Arshiya Sethi

The Sattras were born out of the Bhakti movement as it came to Assam. Like the Bhakti movements in many other parts of India, the Bhakti movement in Assam, called the Eka Sarana Nama Dharma, had a creative audio visual aspect for its propagation. Through his creative genius Sankaradeva was able to mould the Cultural life of Assam. The epicenter of the cultural life of Assam was the Sattra, which for five centuries has been the crucible of the Sattriya cultural tradition.  

The earliest religious performance associated with Sankaradeva was the staging of Chihna Yatra in Bardowa, which incidentally was the place where he was born. The Bardowa Charita, the Katha Guru Charita and the Sankara Charita contain vivid descriptions of his first performance, Chihna Yatra, wherein the scenes of seven Vaikunthas were painted by Srimanta Sankaradeva. Each Vaikuntha had a Vishnu presiding over each. 

Sankaradeva himself participated in it, playing more than one role. It was staged on a raised platform, against a painted background. Sankaradeva trained dancers (natuwa) singers and musicians (gayan-bayan), prepared masks (mukhas) and accessories (cho) and made all necessary arrangements for the success of this dramatic spectacle, including getting the potters of Kapilimukh and the cobblers of Salmara make the drums which came to be known as Khol. Several varieties of cymbals, like the manjira, khutital and Bhortal were also made to his specification. Illuminations and fireworks were part of the presentation.

The arts of the Sattras were ever fired by creativity. Within the world of Ankiya Bhaona, we get a glimpse of the saint poet’s aesthetic vision set in the context of the classical theatre, local life, colours of ethnicity with the joyous expressions of his faith and experiences. The Ankiya Bhaonas based on the Ankiya Nats written by Sankaradeva, heralded a new and complete language of theatre. It did not break away from previous theatrical and performance traditions, but was itself a dexterous and creative combination of poetry, multi lingual skills, music, dance drama and related crafts. Ankiya Nats were the first regional form of theatre, which marked the second flowering of theatre, post the classical theatre boom. It retained some elements from the classical form of theatre, often dressing it up differently. For instance as a Purvarnga it introduced the attractive Gayan Bayan, by itself an aesthetically mounted dance and song choreography. Then in the Prarocana segment the Sutradhar introduces the subject matter both in Sanskrit and the vernacular. It changed its lingual aural-scape to include the vernacular in Assamese, the fantastical in Brajavali, employing elements of Assamese, Maithili and Braj Bhasha which Sankaradeva used liberally in his Ankiya Nats, and even retaining a smattering of Sanskrit.

He set the standards and template for future writings by the next generation. His principal disciple Madhavadeva wrote a series of plays called Jhumura. Because there is a tradition in many Sattras for the Sattradhikar as part of his duties to create a new bhaona, many new works got added to the scribal wealth of the Sattras over the centuries. Thus the Sattras came to be centers for scribal excellence and the crucible for the birth of two linked languages - Assamese and Brajavali. It was a master stroke of creative genius that while one helped link the various ethnicities in Assam, the other helped link Assam to the rest of India.

As early as in the play “Chihna Yatra”, Sankaradeva used masks. The tradition of masks is very rich in the Sattras but regrettably is dwindling because the ‘Khanikars’ are fast disappearing, even though all the most fantastical characters in the Bhaonas wear masks. The mask is simultaneously an object of concealing as it is of revealing. Some of the ‘puthis’ or old texts found in the Sattras refer to ‘Mukha’ and ‘Cho’ (even the green room or room for storing properties for bhaonas in a Sattra is called a ‘cho ghar’) but it would be better to describe them as ‘Mukh Mukha’, covering the face and maybe the neck, the ‘Latukai Mukha’, or the mask which covers most of the body and the ‘Bor Mukha’, which as its name suggests is big, big enough to hide the entire body, often several bodies. These masks have to be made with adequate joints to allow for movement. The masks are made with natural materials including cane, clay, roots, coconut and jute fibers, cloth and paints. They have to have the right features and the appropriate expression. This is a remarkable example of creativity. Today the Sattras of Chamaguri Sattra in Majuli, the Kathpar Sattra in Sibsagar and the Bogi Aai Elengi Sattra in Titabor continue this practice.  


In the seventeenth century itself, Barpeta Sattra’s Mathuradas Burha Atta reorganized the ritual calendar of the Sattra introducing the variations in the congregational services, and distributing the canonical texts of Sankaradeva, Madhavadeva and the other Aatas in such  manner that they all found representation through the year. For instance, dance and music elements from the bhaonas, as well as ‘Chalis,’ were made part of the sacred calendar. ‘Chalis’ were part of the occasional services associated with Madhavadeva, their creator, but when the request for the Chalis to be danced in court came about, the sacredness of the original challis could not be diluted and so, a new set of four Rajaghariya Chali came into existence with the express purpose of being performed in court. Thus even several centuries ago, the Sattras had demonstrated their creativity in how to balance sacred purposes and secular demands. It could have well served as a template for subsequent and similar endeavours.  

As a result of this ordering of the calendar, dance, music and theatre became a strong and vibrant tradition in the Sattras in and around Barpeta, especially among the Nika Samhati Sattras. The Kamalabari group of Sattras set forth a new discipline of pedagogy and evolved a methodology by which these arts were pursued by the celibate bhakats who lived in the Sattras. With far fewer distractions than family based Sattras, the celibate Sattras could dedicate themselves more completely to the pursuit of creative excellence. 

The Kamalabari Sattras were instrumental in enlarging the Sattriya dance space- by way of stylizing and individuating individual items. They not only had different positions and movements based on gender lines, but they also played differently for males and females. They added on where ever they felt was necessary, a flourish of rhythms, and they played musically and with ‘bhava’ rather than by beat and count. This introduced just that amount of unpredictability, which enhanced excitement and simply made the piece glow from within. For instance there is a Raga-tala link that is dependent on the prayog and expertise of the practitioner. Experts are known to weave in many patterns of rhythm so deftly and so subtly that they do not distract from the fundamental agenda of the exercise, which is evoking the spirit of Bhakti. The music in the Sattras knows 42 talas but commonly employs 29 talas, all played in creative manners. Further, the same tala, when played in different Sattras, could be different. For instance, the Thak tala of the Bali Sattra and the Chamaguri Sattra are different even though they bear the same name. 

In the Bhaonas, while the narrative did not need the pure dance segments, they introduced brilliant portions, which serve to embellish the narrative, or allow for a breather. In the dances of the Sattras, all four abhinayas are used. The four Vrittis are also employed, including the Kaisiki vritti although the female roles were enacted by males. However, undoubtedly, the bhaonas are biased towards the extended use of Bharati vritti.  A clutch of forty four nrittya haath (in the Sattriya tradition they are called Haath and not hasta) and thirty two nritta haath are used to embellish the movements and the abhinaya. The abhinaya was both shabdarthak and padarthak. The viniyog, or the use of hand gestures to suggest a meaning, is nuanced, with certain gestures suggesting specific things. It also has a special category of haath that suggest only Dashavatar, Devas, Nakshatras and Sambandhas. All this provides much scope for experimenting with new choreographies and creating afresh, while remaining within the parameters of tradition. Thus, the Kirtanghar within the Sattra, as the centre for congregational prayers and practice, served as the crucible for creativity.

But it is equally true that the spaces outside the Sattras are often very vibrant spaces for creativity to burgeon forth. Many are convinced that Jatin Goswami and Anand Mohan Bhagawati’s choreographies came forth so effortlessly because of the experience they had had with the challenges of the Department of Information and Public Relations. Today Goswami’s son Gunakar is doing some remarkably creative and internationally acknowledged work with Ojhapali and Ankiya Bhaona.

Not only did the Eka Sarana Nama Dharma faith challenge caste divides, it reinforced this message in many ways. The fact that the Bhaona happens with people seated all around with no deference to high and low, somewhat akin to the ‘langar’ seating in Sikh Gurudwaras, is an example of this reinforcement. Further given the fact that the play occurred amongst the audiences composed of many castes, classes and ethnicities, with all the characters played by the ‘bhokots’, right there besides them, was also an equalizer. The democratic participation itself was a perfect example of the pronounced social revolution, questioning some of the dogmatic discourses of the society. References to the equal status and rights to all sections of people in the texts of the saints, aptly declares the significant social change that the Sattras were introducing.

The enactment of the play was smooth, seamless and driven by creative moments, which called on the imagination. For instance, since the stage space was narrow and often crowded, imaginative cues were given to mark a change of scene. A deft twirl was often enough. Sometimes two scenes would play out at the same time in the oblong corridor. The Sutradhar would explain how one compliments the other. The interactive and continuous role of the Sutradhar was built keeping a neo literate audience in mind. It was his job to make sure that they did not miss the message and that they did not forget that they were here for a sacred Bhakti oriented experience. 

The underpinning of Bhakti was writ across the performance in many ways. For instance the characters emerged out from under a nine lamp gateway, agnigarh, suggesting ‘navadha bhakti’ the nine modes of Bhakti. Then there is the tradition of carrying two torches to light up some important moment. These were called the Aariyan, and reflected Sankaradeva’s belief that even the practice of two modes of worship sravana and kirtana were an adequate path to pursue. In the same fashion, the single lamp called mahta, or mata was to illustrate Sankaradeva’s belief that even one of the modes of worship was sufficient to stay in the universe of bhakti. 

One of the macro levels at which creativity played out was in creating the dance called Sattriya and naming it so. Sattriya dance is a recent nomenclature. What existed earlier were individual items not given a common name. There were Jhumura, Pravesaar Nac, Yudhar Nac, Nadu Bhangi etc- dances known by individual names. All those were enriched by the Natar Geet. It was in 1958, to be precise, that the dance was given the name Sattriya by Borbayan Maniran Dutta Mukhtiyar from the Kamlabari Sattra, in consultation with Dr Maheswar Neog, the foremost scholar of Sattra arts and advocate for its national recognition. They were preparing to make a presentation of Sattriya’s classical features, at the National Dance seminar organised by the Sangeet Natak Akademi in Delhi in 1958, and felt that the name Sattriya would represent best the entire range of dances that flourished in the Sattras. 

Many changes began to be introduced rather rapidly thereafter the decade of the fifties. The first was the introduction of girls in performance. This reduced the cross gender double artistry that was required from male dancers. Secondly, the adhyapaks that came from the Sattras to teach the girls seemed to doubt their physical capacities and were anxious about the massage called ‘khosoka’ that is given to the ‘bhokots’ to prepare their bodies for dance, and so many of them left out certain basic elements including the massage and the training exercises- the “Mati akhara”. Secondly less demanding items from the male repertoire were taught and so the male part of the repertoire suffered. The process of gender shift created a problem of costuming too, as the costume of male dancers and female dancers were radically different. Here dancers like Garima Hazrika, Indira P. P. Bora, Pushpa Bhuyan and Sharodi Saikia played an important role and used their aesthetics, creativity and experience with other dance forms, to employ Assam’s rich weaves and textiles, to create an elegant and ergonomic costume. 

The reduction of the performance repertoire for women outside the Sattras, was offset by certain developments and enrichments that had not happened before. Raseswar Saikia, while teaching outside of the Sattras, introduced mnemonics to which the 64 mati akhara were to be practiced. Later, a few years after his demise, with scant attention to the essential role they played in preparing the body for the dance, they were to become an item performed on stage, to resemble the acrobatic ‘bandhas’ of the ‘akhada pillas’ or ‘Gotipua’ dancers from Odisha. Further, to enrich the Abhinaya segment, Raseswar Saikia also introduced the tradition of doing abhinaya to ‘bhatimas’, which were then presented as an item. The first such experiment was to Madhavadeva’s “Darashita Sundara Gaura Kalevar”. In the two Raga oriented music forms in the Sattra, namely the Ankiya Geet and the Bargeet, in both the name of the Ragas is written in the text. In the Ankiya Geet the tala is also mentioned. But in the case of the Bargeet, the singer has the freedom of showing creativity and selecting any tala or a group of talas to sing it in, as emotion has to reign supreme in a Bargeet.

One element of creativity, changes and transformations in recent times have been driven by the comparisons with other dances. Regrettably, Bharat Natyam has captured the imagination of dancers, as being the most privileged and hence desirable form. Thus, there is an attempt to mimic it and arrange the garland of items, in a ‘margam’, which is the structured line up of items in a concert format, as Bharat Natyam uses. But the core of Sattriya is different. It is not a dead art form that needs to be laid out in a museum. It is a living and thriving cultural expression and deals with the challenges of a twin life- one sacred and the other secular. It cannot be straight jacketed into a determined structured, as it has too much variety and wealth of different types. Given the wide repertoire that Sattriya boasts of, no one evening can do justice to its repertoire. The performances that are more representative of its unique journey are those that bring the robust sacred and the stylized secular on stage together. 

While talking about creativity, mention must be made of Narahari Burha Bhakat of the Barpeta Sattra, who in the first half of the twentieth century, created a dance that that employed the use of a pair of large cymbals in the hands of each dancer, and is danced to Nagara Nam. Nagara Nam are devotional songs sung to the beats of the Nagara. The songs are taken from the “Dasham Skanda” of the Bhagavata and use the rhythmic composition of Thiya Nam that is sung inside the Barpeta Sattra. This rhythmic composition uses as many as five talas. As it is from the Sattra tradition its use as part of the repertoire of Sattriya is unquestionable. It has grown in popularity, and is often the finale in an ensemble performance. This is an example of creativity within the tradition. In turn it has generated the second generation of creativity, in the experiment that Menaka P. P. Bora, daughter of Indira P. P. Bora conducted under the guidance of Aswini Kumar Bayan who had learnt the Bhortal Nritya from Narhari Burha Bhakat. They attempted to create pieces in Sattriya’s repertoire that were performed not to the percussive accompaniment of the Khol, but the nagara and bhortal that had rather vigorous percussive traditions. 

Some rather dramatic numbers from the Ankiya Bhaona and Jhumura tradition that are ensemble based lend themselves to recasting as solo pieces. To do so requires deep knowledge of the text, melody and percussion. It may need the inclusion of select mati akharas, and powerful abhinaya. Some such pieces that come to mind are Anwesa Mahanta’s Poothana and Srijaani Mahanta’s abhinaya to the song written by Madhavadeva- “Soi Boney Banmali” arranged in raga Tur Basanta. While Anwesa depicted Poothana strongly using the ‘lons’ amongst the mati akharas to depict Poothana’s death throes, Srijani after describing the beauty and aesthetic appeal of the landscape where Krishna roams around with the other cowherd boys and plays haunting melodies on his flute, introduces the demon stork, Bakasura. Bajasura’s beady eyes close in on Krishna and he closely observes him before attacking and attempting to devour him. But ultimately, Krishna emerges triumphant by slaying the demon. Often in the Bhaonas presented in the Sattras, Bakasura’s demonic presence is established via a mask. In fact Sattras are known to have Bakasura masks so large that a line of young monks playing the role of Krishna’s cowherd friends appear to be swallowed by this avian demon, as they enter its cavernous stomach via the beak! But on the dance stage, the same impact is created out of the careful selection of movements for both, the demon and for Krishna, with an eye to dramatic choreography. Both dancers were guided by the eminent Sattriya scholar and practitioner, then late Dr Jagannath Mahanta, whose loss is immense, and will be greatly felt as Sattriya spreads its wings and pushes its boundaries.

Mention must be made about two choreographies done recently by Bhabanand Borbayan of the Uttar Kamalabari Sattra. This Bismillah Khan Awardee created a dance piece on the environment based on carefully selected excerpts from the sacred texts that described the beauty of the environment. That in itself was a modernist treatment of the content of Sattriya’s literature, but more interesting was the forum at which he performed – an award function in Mumbai, testifying to the fact that Sattriya has acceptance even on non traditional stages. More recently he choreographed a work on the weaving of the Vrindavani Vastra, the Vrindavani Vastra was a fabric that told the tale of Shri Krishna and was woven in the 16th century under the supervision of Srimanta Sankaradeva. Today, only a fragment of the cloth is to be found in the British museum, and a demand has been made for its return to Assam. As is evident, this fabric still exercises great emotional power on the minds and psyche of the followers of Shrimanta Shankardeva’s faith. Therefore, this piece hit the right emotional chords. It was premiered in Paris, where Sattriya enjoys considerable prominence.

In a similar vein was the production “Devaki Kheda Varnam.” As is evident from the choice of the word Varnam, the inspiration is Bharatnatyam. This piece is part of the repertoire of and is danced often, by Bismillah Khan awardee Meernanda Borthakur, a prime disciple of Shri Jatin Goswami. The piece is based on lyrics written in Sanskrit by Dr Mukunda Madhava Sharma. They are set to music by Prabhat Sharma. The poetry compares the state of Assam with Devaki. As Devaki is pained at the loss of her children in the cruelest manner by Kamsa, Assam too has undergone considerable setbacks and disappointments. This piece of political lament in the guise of classical item is truly path breaking. In the past, Sattriya, supported by its egalitarian philosophy and its anti-establishment history, has used its artistry to raise social and spiritual concerns. This piece shows that it has the capacity to raise political ones as well.

A recent work was created by dancer Shilpika Bordoloi called “Majuli” very imaginatively reflected the unique natural and cultural landscape of Majuli, incorporating all the arts of Majuli as well as the arts of the Sattras of Majuli. It is a grand cultural work of overarching scape, that has a great visual and emotional impact, and is ideally suited for standalone showcasing at a festival or in an international curation. 

Finally, it is often funding opportunities, that drive creativity. During the 150th anniversary of Tagore, the Sattriya Kendra, the Sangeet Natak Akademi’s centre for promoting Sattriya, created a dance drama on Tagore’s Chandalika, choreographed by Jatin Goswami. Though hailed as an impressive work, it certainly makes us question just how much of creativity is permitted in a form, and in the thematic content, when one is dealing with what is a living form, and where the Sattras have for five centuries been the keepers of its core. Admittedly, things are changed in the Sattras too. Even the ‘bhokots’ today, when on stage, have ceased to wear headgear, or the shirt, and stand there, bare headed and bare chested, just like the male dancers of Bharatnatyam, Odissi, Manipuri and Kuchipudi ! But in the environs of the Sattra there is more respect to the continuing tradition, and so the body remains covered in the ritual practice. In the sattras, standards and creative work is sanctified by shared experience, collective memory and a tradition of clearances by seniors in a process called Mahaladiya. If we push creativity too hard, we may lose the markers of its core. And if the keepers of its identity are lost, just anything could be passed off as Sattriya, the inevitability of which tendency many sattra practitioners are already bemoaning, claiming that what they have begun seeing is ‘srijnatmik’ Sattriya. Srijnatmik means creative!

[Dr. Arshiya Sethi is an independent scholar on the arts. Her doctoral work is on Sattriya.  A Fulbright fellow she has been responsible for setting up many tangible and intangible properties, of which her work at the Habitat Centre has been the most significant. She was the dance critic of the Delhi edition of the Times of India, and over three decades hosted the archival worthy National Programme on Dance and Music on Doordarshan. She is presently advisor on DD Bharati and has been a consultant at the Kathak Kendra. She has been part of several selection panels and committees of the Government of India. She lectures on the arts in India and overseas and has been active with INTACH on Delhi’s heritage.]

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