The Srimanta Sankaradeva Movement reminds people of the 15th Century philosopher’s concept of an egalitarian society

It is almost too common to merit mention that people of different religions and communities work side by side in industries like commercial movies, television and music, to name only a few, where the only demarcators are passion for the job and expertise.

So while politicians’ talk of India’s unity in diversity may find us listening with half an ear and more than a pinch of salt — theirs not being a shining track record of practising what they preach — it is easier to accept when artists say the same thing. They are usually putting their money where their mouth is.

Such a bunch of artists and other professionals has come together to present the concept of a united, emancipated and egalitarian society as envisioned by the saint philosopher Sankaradeva, the Vaishnavite reformer of Assam who lived from 1449 to1568.

“We are talking of separatism, but Sankaradeva talked of Bharatavarsha,” notes Shyamkanu Mahanta, who is spearheading the initiative, called the Srimanta Sankaradeva Movement which was flagged of at New Delhi’s Kamani auditorium the other day with a programme featuring celebrity speakers, a documentary film on Sankaradeva and a production of a Jhumura dance-drama directed by Nirupama Mahanta.

The well attended event was besprinkled with Assam silks and mekhala chaddors, so when renowned actor Victor Banerjee, the movement’s brand ambassador, referred at one point, to “you people” who think “we” are intolerant, one wondered if he were preaching to the converted rather than addressing a wide spectrum of Indians who know next to nothing about Assam.

But, says Mahanta, an entrepreneur who runs a hotel and hydropower projects in different parts of India, the idea to bring the egalitarian teachings of Sankaradeva to the limelight is also aimed at the people of Assam themselves. “It’s actually revisiting Sankaradeva,” he explains. In the surge of materialism and sectarianism — that had its recent ugly manifestation in the Kokhrajar violence — people are forgetting the core concepts for which the reformer stood and which moulded the society of the region, he feels.

Mahanta’s family has already been propagating these ideals within Assam through a movement called “Setu bandh,” he explains. “So I thought why not use my experience to take it forward to the rest of the country.”

Mahanta, whose cultural trust Trend MMS produced the Kamani event and the documentary film on Sankaradeva, says, “There are three main concepts: Universal equality, a casteless society and (the idea of) Bharatavarsha.”

Besides, Sankaradeva created the theatrical arts of Sattriya, Jhumura and Ankia Bhaona, through which he also spread these ideals and the Vaishnavite philosophy.

The plan is multi-pronged, says Mahanta. In Delhi, besides the Assam Association which, under the leadership of its president Justice Mukundakam Sarma, provided logistical help, agencies such as the National School of Drama, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the National Council for Educational Research and Training, besides Delhi colleges, were contacted for their support.

While Minister Kapil Sibal declared in his address at Kamani that the representation (signed by various luminaries) made to him to include information about Sankaradeva in the NCERT textbooks had already been accepted, there are other hopeful signs, notes Mahanta. These include the ICCR’s plans to send troupes of performers of the arts associated with Sankaradeva on international tours. He adds, “I am trying to encourage SNA to (present) Sattriya dance in different places.”

But for a social movement to take root, the country’s children and youth have to be convinced. Mahanta says, besides sending information packages to colleges and faculty members, “My feeling is that we can reach them through the virtual medium.”

Therefore, a Facebook page has been started, “Srimanta Sankaradeva Movement Delhi Initiative”. In an age of shaky spelling, browser cookies come to the rescue and one need only type as far as “srimanta sank” in the Facebook search before the correct name pops up. It has registered over 1079 users so far.

Just as eminent scholar Kapila Vatsyayan’s message was screened at Kamani since she was unable to attend in person, the organisers have taken bytes from other known personalities and will upload them on the page, says Mahanta.

The next step is to move to different metropolitan cities. This coming March it will be Mumbai’s turn.

More In: Arts | Metroplus | Features