Come September, New Delhi will see the first edition of an annual festival on Srimanta Sankardeva, the 15th Century Vaishnava reformer of Assam

This one was long due considering the degree of socio-cultural changes he brought about in Assam as far back as the 15th Century. Now, thanks to a private initiative, the National Capital will get a window into the contributions of this great reformer from that State, Srimanta Sankardeva. Popularly known as Mahapurush or Gurujana, he not only sowed the seeds of Vaishnavism in the region but also brought about an overall transformation of the Assamese society. Despite facing stiff resistance, Sankardeva raised a voice against the Brahmanical intransigence prevalent then. He adopted a wholesome approach thus establishing not just Vaishnavism but also introducing to the people cultural features like Sattriya (dance), bhaona (theatre), gayan (singing) and bayan (instrument playing). He established monasteries in Majuli island where he imparted training on these arts to young boys. He also set up naam ghars where the devoted came together not only for spiritual reasons but to help build a strong community feeling. These institutions are still an important part of Assamese life.

On September 13, at the city’s Kamani auditorium, all of this and more will be presented to the Delhi audience to see and decipher. “We plan to make it an annual affair. Besides showcasing the cultural richness of Assam, the focus is to show through Sankardeva’s example to people here that the region tried as far back as the 15th Century to connect with mainstream India,” says Sashanka Sekhar Dutta, general secretary of Assam Association, Delhi, the organisers of the programme along with Trend MMS, an entertainment firm. He says the focus of the programme will be less on his religious teachings and more on his cultural contributions. “The universal appeal of Sankardeva has great relevance today when the country is facing fragmentation on all fronts. His teachings can spread a sense of brotherhood among various ethnic groups of Assam.”

So, the two-hour inaugural programme will begin with an audio-visual show. “It would be a capsule of about 20 minutes to introduce the audience to the magnitude of changes Sankardeva caused in Assam,” says Dutta. It will be scripted by Sattriya exponent Bhaskarjyoti Mahanta in consultation with experts of Sankari culture.

The highlight of the show will be a dance-drama set to a unique style started by Madhavdeva, Sankardeva’s first disciple. “The style is called Jhumura; it is different from Ankia Bhaona, the dance dramas that Sankardeva wrote,” explains Sattriya exponent Bhabananda Barbayan “The major difference is in the kind of stories told through the medium. Through Jhumura, Madhavdeva told stories about little Krishna, his balya leela. The idea behind it was to tell people about his childhood antics but also to remind them that he is the Param Brahma whom they took to be a child,” he explains. At the event, the organisers will stage the jhumura “Chordhora”. “It is about the gopis catching little Krishna stealing butter.”

Dutta says, “The aim is to present the jhumura in the Broadway style. We want to also show to the audience that while the Broadway Theatre in the West begun in the 18th Century, we had a similar version in the 15th Century.” The show will be directed by Nirupoma Mahanta with support from Bidyabati Phukon and Adil Hussain.

The programme is getting support from the Union Ministry of Culture. “We met Minister Kumari Selja recently to get her Ministry’s support. She has not given us any funds yet but helped us get technical support for the dance-drama from the National School of Drama.” Invitations have also gone to Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi and DONER Minister Pawan Singh Ghatowar and Union HRD Minister Kapil Sibal besides well known personalities from the academic and cultural fields.

Dutta says one important step being taken alongside arrangements for the programme is to try and include a chapter on Sankardeva’s contributions in the NCERT books. “There will be a signature campaign on this. We have just drafted a letter addressed to the HRD Ministry with the request which we will be sending to well known personalities of Assam for their signatures. On the day of the programme, the letter will be handed over to the HRD Minister.”