Veteran Sattriya exponent Manik Borbayan talks about the dance form, his training, and the times that were.

Sattriya dance is a living tradition. The source of this latest addition to the classical dances of India are the sattras or Vaishnava monasteries of Assam. One of seniormost experts in Sattriya today is Manik Borbayan of Bhogpur Sattra. The Sangeet Natak Akademi awardee, who is associated with the Titabor branch of Majuli’s Bhogpur Sattra, is in his 70s and yet teaches the dance form to young students besides performing in Sattriya festivals and elsewhere on request. Manik Borbayan was recently at the Nrityotsav festival held in Assam’s Sibsagar town. Excerpts from an interview conducted at the festival: Sangeet

When and which Sattra did you join first?

I was three years old when I joined Bhogpur Sattra, Titabor, Jorhat district, Assam. And I have been there ever since.

What routine did you have to follow there?

From the age of four, I was taught to establish and maintain a relation with the Keertan Ghar or the mandir of the Sattra. I was trained to sing the Gunamala, Leelemala, Deva Bhatima, Chopoi and Totoi written by the two great saints, Srimanta Sankardev and Sri Sri Madhavdev. When I was still a child, sometimes in the evenings, I was asked to conduct the Godhula Prasanga or the evening prayer in the Keertan Ghar to assess my capability. In the morning, it was compulsory for me and other children to practice Matiakhara or ground exercises in a particular place before our bath. After bath, we had to visit the Naamghar or Keertan ghar for regular prayer. Then we were directed to visit the Borbayans for regular salute. After breakfast, we had to go to school.

Apart from being trained by a burha bhakat in whose boha (house) I stayed, I was taken to different adhyapoks (teachers) for training in the various aspects of the sattra. There, I would have to offer arcchana(offerings of betelnut, gamocha and some money) to the adhyapok and request him to accept me as his student. Except on the death anniversaries or tithis of Srimanta Sankardev, Madhavdev and Badulapadma aata, and during the entire Bhadra month, there were no practice sessions in the evenings. But I was taught raag based geets for evening prayers after sunset. Gradually, assessments were made on my talent as a bayan (khol player), -gayan (singer) natuwa (dancer) and accordingly I was allowed to continue with further training. Then I was asked to shoulder responsibilities in the daily prayer sessions as well as in the performances during the ‘tithis.

Who were your gurus?

Late Bakul Oja Burhabhakat, who was also my guardian and taught me to be a pathak or reader, Late Ratneswar Oja Borbayan —Ojapali, Late Powal Burhabhakat Borbayan, Geet-naach and Ojapaali, Late Dutindra Borbayan – Nritya, Bapuram Gawonia Atoi Burhabhakat of the original Kamalabari Sattra,Titabor — singing or Gayan Vaidya, Late Buduram Bayan — for Gayan, Late Muhiram Muktar — reader and Late Devananda Borbayan of Natun Kamalabari for nritya were a galaxy of teachers who taught me.

What is the uniqueness of sattriya naach?

Bhakti or devotion is the singular most quality. Sattriya dance is nothing but Ishwar sadhana. It teaches piety or ‘Santa Raas’ in every aspect of life. Ulah, Tribhanga and Ora are the other important features of Sattriya naach.

What are the traditional dances taught in the sattras?

Jhumura,Chaali, Bahaar, Nadubhangi, Pravesar naach, Krishna naach, Suttradhari naach, Gosain naach and Ojapaali apart from training in traditional hastas are taught in the sattras..

What are the different stages of Bhakti in Sattriya?

Bhakti is everywhere in Sattriya tradition. Right from the geet, abhinaya, bhangi, even in hastas (e.g. Pranaam hasta). Bhakti is built up and sustained till the end.

What is the place of the other rasas in Sattriya dance with special reference to Sringaar rasa

All the rasas are evident in Sattriya but everything comes back to Bhakti. For example, in Keligopal naat, Krishna runs away with Radha on his back, depicting Sringar rasa, only to disappear to teach a lesson to the proud gopis and finally, the gopis call upon Krishna with ultimate surrender. That is how Bhakti is established in the end. Even if all the navarasas prevail in bhaona, at the end the Suttradhar says, “Hena jani sarbaloke bola, Haribol Haribol,” and concludes with Bhakti rasa.