It is a well known fact that like any other part of the world having human habitation, India including this samll stretch now called Assam, also abounded in various forms of folk dramatic activities and dances, some of which are still being performed with gusto by the people. Some such popular institutions of dance, drama and music which have been there in Kamarupa-Assam from times beyond the reach of history are putala nach (puppet dance), ojapali, kushan gan, bhari gan, deodhani, mahkheda utsav (ritual driving away of mosquitoes), garakhia puja (cowherd worship), devadasi dance, to name only a few out of a multitude. These folk forms of entertainment must have been very dear to the people before and during Srimanta Sankaradeva’s time. Most of them were cultivaors, petty workers and artisans who had no other means of relaxation and refreshment after a day’s hard toil. The classical Sanskrit drama which were beyond the reach of the common man had already played itself out and what was left of it was nearly forgotten. It was Srimanta Sankaradeva who, in the course of his misson to reorient Assam’s social-cultural life, introduced in this far-flung part of Bharata a regular well written drama accompanied by an appropriately thought out and organized stage and auditorium.
Altogether six plays of Srimanta Sankaradeva are now available. These are Patni Prasada, Rukmini Harana, Kaliya Damana, Keli Gopala, Parijata Harana and Sri Rama-Vijaya. It is however a matter of interest and curiosity that these full fledged plays of Srimanta Sankaradeva were preceded by a dramatic performance called Chihna yatra of which no manuscript has been found. In the absence of a text, it is believed that Chihna yatra, as the name suggest, was a theatrical presentation in signs or painting of the seven Vaikunthas (abode of lord Visnu) with accompaniment of song, music, and dance. Srimanta Sankaradeva himself painted the scenes using colours prepared from indigenous materials, played upon the drum or Khol, acted out the role of the Sutradhara and also of one of the Vishnus. It is narrated in Katha Gurucharit, prose biography of Srimanta Sankaradeva, that this dramatic presentation, without elaborate dialogue, put the spectators in such astonishment that “Everybody looked upon Srimanta Sankaradeva as a God. Even the Brahmins, having seen his divine powers, began to take initiation from him.”
It is to be noted that the stage properties employed for this dramatic show were few and simple which included a length of cloth used as a curtain at the time of entrance of the dramatic figures and a canopy (chandratapa) hung over the open stage. The precedence given to song, music and dance point to the fact that the first dramatic presentation of Srimanta Sankaradeva was closer in many respects to some of the folk dramatic and dance institutions, already mentioned, than to classical Sanskrit drama.
Srimanta Sankaradeva must have been convinced that such a performance could be most effectively used as a means of propagating the message of Bhakti and the principles of his Eka Sarana Nama Dharma (i.e. complete submission to one supreme being through repeatedly pronouncing His name) among the diverse people of Kamrupa-Assam of his time who were caught in a labyrinth of cults and faiths overladen with rituals. Srimanta Sankaradeva’s next step was naturally to write plays with characters like Krishna or Rama, gods and goddesses, human beings and demons and asuras would not only just appear but also talk elaborately and banter like they do in real life. While choosing the themes for his plays, Srimanta Sankaradeva appears to have had two main considerations - the dramatic qualities of the theme in question and its potentialites for driving home to the audience the intended message. This would ensure to the audience the expected entertainment while conveying to them at the same time the principles of complete submission to Krishna, the God incarnate in human form. Srimanta Sankaradeva believed that this would pave the way to achieving unity and brotherhood among the people, then divided in diverse groups ans sects, as all of them would believe in and worship one and only one God, the creator and cause of all living beings.
The Chihna yatra experience undoubtedly convinced Srimanta Sankaradeva that this could be done most effectively by dramatizing episodes from the life of Krishna or Rama like it was done in medieval Europe by the church fathers who dramatized selected episodes from the Bible, from the life of Jesus Christ, and from those of some of the saints. Consequently, Srimanta Sankaradeva came out with the plays, already mentioned, five of which had for their subject matter Krishna stories from the Bhagavata-purana, while the remaining one, Sri Rama-vijaya, is based on episodes in Ramayana.
Two terms are very closely associated with the theatre of Srimanta Sankaradeva : ankiya nat and bhaona. The playwright himself, however, has nowhere called his plays ankiya; the term he uses to denote these are yatra, nata and nataka. The word ankiya to refer to the plays of Srimanta Sankaradeva was used by his biographers probably because these plays had just one anka or act or no anka at all also because they were supposed to have some similarities with the Sanskrit utsristikanka, a kind of one-act play. The original word might have been anka which, in course of time, became ankiya with the Assamese suffix yia being tagged to it. It is to be noted that only the plays of Srimanta Sankaradeva and those of his chief disciple and successor Madhavadeva are called ankiya although the latter’s small plays go by a name of their own, jhumura. Similarly, the term bhaona, derived from ankiya bhao meaning imitation or feigning, is used only to indicate the performance of an ankiya play or a play written in imitation of it. The staging of a modern play is not called bhaona.
Of the six available plays of Srimanta Sankaradeva, Patni Prasada appears to be the first of chronological order of composition as it bears unmistakable traces of early writing and execution. It is a small play based on a story of the tenth book of Bhagavata-purana (chapter 23) written with an avowed purpose - that of demonstrating the futility of elaborate ritual and sacrifices to gods and goddesses and the superiority of bhakti to Krishna and supreme being in anthropomorphic form. This was undoubtedly an experimental play written after the unexpected success of the painted dramatic perfomance Chihna yatra, with dialogue, though minimal, which Srimanta Sankaradeva felt encouraged to compose after it had been found that even a play without elaborate dialogue had immense popular appeal. The organization, technique and style of the play unmistakably show that it had been written before the playwright fully developed his dramatic methods. The dialogue is at a nascent stage as most of it -except the words spoken by Krishna and a line or two uttered by a Brahmin- is spoken collectively or in a group. Even a character of very high status like Boloram who is constantly in company with Krishna is not given any word to speak. All these show that Patni Prasada is a play with an ‘immature’ dramatic technique. However, the play is not entirely without dramatic qualities. There are a few dramatic and even theatrical scenes like the one where the Brahmin husbands try in vain to stop their wives from going to visit Krishna or another which show a married woman committing suicide because of not being able to see the lord. Such scenes had undoubted popular appeal which in turn stood the playwright in good stead in instilling in the mind of the audience the ultimate message of bhakti.
The gradual development of Srimanta Sankaradeva’s dramatic technique and style is noticable in the two other smaller plays, Keli Gopala and Kaliya Damana where central focus is on the youthfull Krishna. In the former, we see the sports and antics of the hero with nearly unscrupulous presentation of the erotic sentiment and sensuality which are given full expression in the songs as well as the prose passages spoken by the Sutradhara. Such scenes would no doubt appeal to most sections of the audience, but Srimanta Sankaradeva was careful to put a stop where he knew he should. So the audience will hear the warnings that the milk-maids have gone too far taking Krishna for granted who soon crushes their growing sense of pride and arrogance and teaches them a lesson for their excesses. The maids are castigated, subdued and made to realize that the young Krishna they are sporting with is not an ordinary human but the almighty incarnate, and then they start paying obeissance or bhakti to him. Although the playwright has to curtail many details of the story due to the constraints of drama, he has taken care to include the demon Sankhachura episode for the sake of theatrical effects. The demon who is trying to abduct some of the maids engages in fights with Krishna who first chases him away and ultimately kills him. The other play, Kaliya Damana, has such dramatic or melodramatic scenes in plenty. Krishna’s fights with the great serpent dancing on its hoods; the crying and the sense of awe vented by the Gopis thinking that their beloved would be killed; the lamentation of Kaliya’s wives and their prayerful appeals to Krishna not to kill their husband; the horrible fire in the forest which Krishna gulps to the astonishment of the onlookers- all these and many others undoubtedly add to the play’s popular appeal. But the playwright never forgets to deliver the ultimate message. After having shown the toils and adventures of Krishna everybody is made to realize that he is not an ordinary mortal but the supreme being in anthropomorphic form who is here presented as a symbol of love, equality and brotherhood.
A full-fledged drama, as is well known, must have certain features the chief among them being plot, character and dialogue. The plot or the combination of the episodes has to be an organized whole with a clear-cut beginning, middle and an end. In this respect the plays of Srimanta Sankaradeva, particularly the major ones, Parijata Harana, Rukmini Harana and Sri Rama-Vijaya are almost like modern dramas having definable plots, character and dialogue. It is seen that while choosing the themes for his plays from the numerous stories of the two epics and the Bhagavata-purana, Srimanta Sankaradeva took into consideration the inherent dramatic qualities and appeal of an episode-a prime concern with any serious playwright who wants to amuse and teach at the same time. A close look at the plots of these plays shows that while Srimanta Sankaradeva’s prime consideration was to impress on the audience the supremacy of lord Krishna and to evoke in them a sense of complete submission to him, the playwright particularly saw to it that all this was done in a dramatically appealing way. This is evident in the choice of the stories in the repeated use of songs and orchestral music, in the presentation of scenes of battle, of love, abduction and elopement, of wedding rituals, of erotic dances, extremely amusing scenes like a saintly priest behaving most unmannerly at the sight of a bridal beauty, erotica in descriptive verses and numerous other theatrical and melodramatic devices. Briefly speaking so much of freedom is taken in the presentation and graphic description of these scenes and many other pictorial details that these would all be considered taboo in classical drama. This was possible only because Srimanta Sankaradeva acted much outside the confines of classical Sanskrit drama and dramaturgy, but in close proximity with folk dance and dramatic institutions in other to reach to a large range of people without, however, compromising on the principle of dignity and decorum.
According to Indian dramaturgy, the principal objective of a play is the creation of rasa, of which nine are noted, which are also believed to be the source of nine sentiments. Although nearly all the sentiments or emotions like sringara, vira, hasya, karuna are present in Srimanta Sankaradeva’s plays, all these, however, are intended to instill in the audience the sentiment of bhakti which pervades not only the plays but all other works of the great master. To give an example, this is how the playwright describes the plight of the lustful kings and princes who suffer because being drowned in carnal desires they are completely bereft of the sentiment of bhakti. The Sutradhara says :Being maddened with lust, the kings give expression to their carnal desires through various erotic gesture. On seeing this the friends of Rukmini push away some of them, while they kick some others with their heels and upbraid them. Even then the kings continue to be lascivious persisting in their infatuation and show of unseemly gestures. And at the end of the narration of this erotic scene, the Sutradhara comments, O you members of the audience, look at the pitiable condition of those who are lustful and devoid of bhakti (devotion) to Hari (Krishna).
In this way, Srimanta Sankardaeva, the dramatist, first entertains the audience with thrilling drama and then bring home to them the professed message- that of complete submission to the almighy representated through Krishna.
Three other features that stand out strikingly in the theatre of Srimanta Sankaradeva are the preponderance of songs and music, predominance of the Sutradhara and the distinctiveness of the language. The songs and lyrical verses are sung to the accompaniment of musical instruments and are intended, through giving entertainment to the audience, to bring home to them the message inculcated in the plays. Many incidents and situtions are suggested through descriptive verses, which are sung to particular tunes, instead of being represented through characters and actions. Even the prose is poetic and it is sung rather than spoken like ordinary speech. A play also contains a number of Sanskrit verses which themselves may be said to form the skeleton of the plot.
Secondly, the Sutradhara in the theatre of Srimanta Sankaradeva, though apparently influenced by the Sutradhara in Sanskrit drama, is different in many respects from the latter. Unlike in a classical Sanskrit play, the Sutradhara in an Assamese ankiya nat remains on the stage all through the perfomance. He sings the bhatima or the introductory verses, explain the subject matter of the play and announces the entrance and exit of the principal characters. He also gives stage directions, suggests incidents and situations which cannot be shown on stage and sings the benedictory verses known as the mukti-mangal bhatima. Thus the Sutradhara is central figure in the Srimanta Sankaradeva theatre who is singer, actor and stage director all rolled into one. The expression, iti sutra niskranta, found in some printed versions of the plays might be a later addition when, in course of time, for various reasons it was becoming practically impossible for the same person to remain on stage acting at a stretch for no less than a couple pf hours.
Thirdly, the language used in the ankiya plays is not the Assamese as it was spoken in those days, but a mixture of Assamese, Maithili and Hindi. This language is known as Brajawali or Brajabuli as it is reminiscent of Braja, the region sanctified by the presence of Krihna. Srimanta Sankaradeva used this language because this was considered well-suited to glorify the activities of Krishna on the stage before the common folk. When Sanskrit would be Greek to them if it were adopted, ordinary day-to-day Assamese would be too mundane for the purpose. Srimanta Sankaradeva also must have taken into consideration the fact that such a language would be intelligible not only to the common people of Assam but also to those hailing from other parts of Eastern India.
It has been seen that the theatre of Srimanta Sankaradeva, like the European drama of the later middle ages, was a distinctly popular institution, meant for the people, performed by the people and enjoyed by the people. In spite of the features that characterize a medieval drama, the plays of Srimanta Sankaradeva reveal certain characters that would make a modern drama. In the first place, we may take the question of conflict which is said to form a cardinal part of drama. “All drama,” remarks Allardyce Nicoll, “ultimately arises out of conflict. In tragedy, there is ever a clash between force physical or or both. In comedy, there is ever a conflict between personalities, between the sexes or between an individual and society.” The conflict may be outer or inner, the latter being chiefly a characteristic of modern drama, particularly of tragic nature.
The plays of Srimanta Sankaradeva are of the nature of commedies as they all have happy endings, and much of the conflict in the plays is of the outer type. Yet one cannot miss inner conflict in plays like Rukmini Harana where the conflict in the heroine’s mind is subtly brought out. This play is noted for its intense moments as well as clash of personalities and their aims. Krishna in this play is very much a human being pining for the heroine as much as she pines for him. Secondly, the characterization in some of the plays may be said to be in advance of the time as some of the characters are so distinctly drawn that they very much look like characters of a good modern play. Thirdly, it is noteworthy how Srimanta Sankaradeva creates humour and fun for the satisfaction of the audience without bringing in clownish characters or cheap comic stuff in keeping with the dignified nature of plays. Instance of this are found, among others, in the unnatural behaviour of even divine and saintly figures like Brahma and Visvamitra, acting as wedding priests, when they fall down almost unconscious being charmed by the extraordinary beauty of the brides, Rukmini and Sita, in Rukmini Harana and Sri Rama-Vijaya, respectively. The brevity and deftness is noteworthy and also they do not smack of cheap comic jingle.In view of the times during which Srimanta Sankaradeva planned and developed his theatre, one would not be justified to expect a realistic picture of society or social criticism or subtle study of character like in modern theatre. Srimanta Sankaradeva’s aim was not to hold the mirror up to the society by holding its follies and foibles to ridicle. He, on the other hand, aimed at enlightening the unlettered folk in the teaching of Vaishnavism through the medium of drama which could be profitably used to amuse and to teach at the same time. Social reform was, however, intended not through satirical portraiture or description but through showing the greatness of that one supreme before whose eyes all men and women were equal. The playwright occasionally hinted, directly or indirectly, at social evils like polygamy as we see in Parijata Harana where Krishna has to try hard to appease the jealous Satyabhama, one of his wives, by fetching the Parijata flower from the garden of Indra. This Parijata episode also leads to the amusing quarrels between Sachi and Satyabhama which comes down to such a low level that it appears to be more than hair-splitting between two rustic shrews. It is difficult to understand why Srimanta Sankaradeva chose to melodramatize the quarrel between these two princely female characters unless it was that he wanted to portray a realistic enough picture of the quarrelsome women of the medieval time and also to provide an extra does of entertainment to the viewers who were no doubt amused by such boisterous theatricalities. Another interesting hint at social or familial problem is found in Rukmini Harana where the wishes of Rukmini’s old father and king to give his daughter in marriage to Krishna are thrown to the wind by his young and arrogant eldest son, Rukma, who prefers his friend Shishupal instead for the hand of his sister. The uncomplaining meekness with which the old king yields to the arrogance and haughtiness of his young son remains one of the universal helplessness of the older generation before the younger one. The portrayal of the characters of the lustful kings and princess in Rukmini Harana and Sri Rama-Vijaya is also full of satire and sarcasm through which the playwright exposes the hollowness of those in whose hands the responsibilities of ruling and leading people are vested.
The popularity of the theatre of Srimanta Sankaradeva soon spread far and wide, in course of time it made its entry into the royal palaces also. Ahom kings and nobles found the plays a welcome means of entertainment and began to invite Mahantas from Sankari Satras to perform plays in the royal places. For instance, it is mentioned in the Tungkhungia Buranji that at the invitation of king Kamaleswar Simha the Mahantas of Bareghar Satra presented the play Rukmini Harana (AD-1816) and another Satra called Namti Dihing Satra enacted a play titled Akrura-gamana. These are only some of the available records which, however, speak eloquently about ankiya plays being presented in the royal courts and places from time to time.
The plays of Srimanta Sankaradeva, Madhavadeva and their followers continued to be performed and enjoyed with great enthusiasm as the major source of entertainment and education till the middle of the nineteenth century when the socio-political life of the people came under great strains on account of a number of factors. The continued invasion by the Burmese, the devastations caused by the foreign looters and plunderers and subsequent loss of the country’s long-cherished freedom caused havoc in all spheres of Assam’s life and society. It is difficult to visualize the fate of art and culture and drama and theatre under such extremely hostile circumstances. With the changes in the political scenario, changes in the socio-cultural life of the people, however slow, became inevitable affecting, among other things, drama and theatre also.
But the theatre of Srimanta Sankaradeva, despite situation unfavourable
for the pursuit of art and liteature arising from time to time, continued to
be active, though not entirely unaffected, by the socio-political happenings,
even in the nineteenth century when the gradual spread of English education
and Western thoughs and ideas began to work changes in practically all spheres
of life and society. With English literature came the new drama and theatre
which was based on Shakespeare from far of land, not our very own Srimanta
Sankaradeva as evidenced in the increasing cry for ‘theatre’ i.e. perfomance
of romantic-sentimental-mythological plays on stage in immitation of
the European model. But this craze for what came from beyond the seas could
not altogether dampen the people’s love and reverence for the age-old ankiya
nat and bhaona which continued to enjoy their quiet life in the countryside
where the vast majority of the people lived. The present picture, however, is
much happier as bhaona is now performed, not only in the village, Thans and
Satras but also in urban centers on specific occasions, and even bhaona
competitions are held from time to time. In fact, in recent years there
appears to be a distinct revival of interest in the theatre of Srimanta
Sankaradeva and thus two main streams of dramatic activies go on side by side-
bhaona of the earlier plays and perfomance of modern social realistic plays on
proscenium stage and also through other experimental means. Although there
have been certain peripheral changes in the plays of the former genre
introduced by later imitators of Srimanta Sankaradeva, like an increasing use
of prose, introduction of characters like clowns and jesters, violence,
sentimentalism and myriad other materials of popular commedy, the fundamental
features like mythological subject-matter and the exhortation of the sentiment
of bhakti persist as before.