The Marg publication series devoted to classical Indian dance, edited by Dr.Sunil Kothari, has been further enriched by the latest study on Sattriya, the classical dance of Assam. It is a compilation of nine chapters by experts, who analyse the different components of Sattriya. The passion and involvement of the editor-writer shine through in the very introduction: ‘From the mists of the Brahmaputra’. Commencing with the historic all India dance seminar held in Delhi (1958) and culminating in the official recognition of Sattriya as classical dance (2000), this essay takes the reader through the entire journey of according classical status to this dance style. For this reviewer, who was part of the SNA committee headed by Chairman Dr. Bhupen Hazarika, it brought back nostalgic memories.
Sattriya is revealed as a living, evolving tradition, rooted in the philosophy and vision of saint-preacher-reformer-artist-composer Sankaradeva (1499-1568). The history of the bhakti movement behind the rise of Sattriya, the socio-cultural-religious context and the rise of the sattra, make for interesting reading.
The reader is beckoned into the sattra and made part of its conception and experience within. Envisaged by Sankaradeva as a monastic/religious settlement, the sattra represented the height of the bhakti movement. All-inclusive in nature, based on participative and collective principles, it threw a fresh outlook on life by the coming together of Assamese literature, music, dance, drama, painting, sculpture and crafts- all harnessed by bhakti .
The offering of music and dance was a daily ritual in the sattra. Dance-dramas (Ankiya Nat) in the Natya Sastra tradition, replete with music and dance sequences, written by Sankaradeva (six extant)and his disciple Madhavadeva, were presented. Madhavadeva was largely responsible for taking the movement forward and was instrumental in introducing “Chali Nach”, a graceful female dance. Parallels between the all male Bhagavatha Mela of South India and Sattriya are touched upon.
The second phase in the history of sattra began with the elevation of Madhavadeva. Through disciples, the movement spread far and wide. The Brahmaputra valley became a hub for sattras of two orders, the celibate and the householder.
Sattriya dance was born of this environ. Built upon the foundation of bhakti, it has the same all-inclusive approach. Centred on Ankiya Nat and Bhaona ( dramatic representation), many of its features can be traced back to Natya Sastra –the Odramaghada- padathi mentioned therein, refers to styles practised in eastern/north-eastern India, which include Odisha and Kamarupa (Assam). Several features of Sattriya find place in Abhinayadarpana, Sangitha Ratnakara, Kalikapurana and Sri Hastamuktavali.
Sankaradeva mastered Natyashastra and Sangita Ratnakara and thereupon gave form to Sattriya. The exhaustive treatment of the two major aspects of classical dance, nritta and nritya, are scholarly. Photographs providing graphic illustration contribute significantly to the reader’s understanding of mati-akhara (ground exercises), padakarma (footwork) and hastas (hand gestures). Particularly interesting is the chapter on hastas which shares information on the nomenclature used in different treatises.
Four chapters under nritya cover abhinaya, masks, repertoire and its extension. The reader is awakened to the subtle differences that exist in Sattriya abhinaya .In Ankiya Bhaona, in true classical natya tradition, vachikabhinaya, angikabhinaya and sattvikabhinaya complement each other.
Though usage of masks in the Indian ethos is ancient, in Assam it surfaced when Sankaradeva revived it as a vibrant tradition. Employing ingenious methods of using cho-mukhas (masks), he made it part of a wider communicative- artistic- social vision. The cho-mukhas used in Bhaona are handcrafted by artisans (khanikars) from bamboo and cane, cloth and clay and then painted with indigenous colours. Detailing is done by artisans taking cognizance of the character as comprehended in the audience’s mind.
‘Repertoire’ gives insight into Sattriya incorporating into itself a body of dance culled from the terpsichorean treasures of Assam, beyond Ankiya Nat and Bhouna, the underlying unity of vision yet individuality seen through varying presentations in different sattras and most importantly, the building up of the repertoire as we see it today; while ‘Extension of repertoire’ takes the reader through the interesting possibilities of extending the bandwidth.
Due importance has been given to Sattriya Ojapali as also Bhortal nritya. Ojapali is an ancient dance style from Darrang district. The lead dancer called Oja (derived from Udgata, religious men who sang samagana music) is accompanied by a fifteen/ twenty member ensemble (Pali). Hastas, mukhabhinaya and slow internalised movements are employed by dancers dressed in pristine white. Bhortal nritya, another important component of Sattriya, is unique to Barpeta sattra. Characterised by vigorous rhythmic movement, the use of bhortal (large cymbals) and nagara nam, devotional songs accompanied by nagara drums, it was evolved by scholar-musician-Vaishnavaite monk, Narahari Burha Bhakat in early 20th century. Originally practised by males, now several women study it.
The identity of any dance is incomplete without the music that accompanies it. The unique raga tala pattern of Sattriya music, the two categories of Sattriya vocal (raga based and light ), variations of presentation for different occasions at different sattras, musical instruments, as also unique features such as Gayan Bayan who sing, dance and initiate a traditional Sattriya performance, are highlighted.
Sattriya-The classical dance of Assam, would have been incomplete without the last chapter which dwells on practitioners and exponents who have single-mindedly devoted themselves to the practice, evolution and dissemination of Sattriya.
(Chitra Visweswaran is a Bharatanatyam dancer and teacher)