The topics dealt with the role of female characters in Sankaradeva’s plays, the rasa element and Ankiya Bhaona as a performing art.

Well into its fifth year, The Ankiya Bhaona Samaroh (March 15-20), organised by Sattriya Kendra Guwahati, a constituent unit of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, was one of the greatest celebrations of traditional Assamese dramas written in the 16th century by the great saint Sankaradeva. The 500 year-old plays popularly known as Ankiya Nats (Yatra, nataka or nata) are a unique genre with no act or scene divisions (Ank) within the play.

In their performance known as Bhaona, comprising mostly music and dance, the director and the actors impart emotions to and evoke feelings in the audience through their execution. The various components or situations of the text are connected through narration in prose from time to time by the ‘sutradhar,’ who has the pivotal role in explaining the flow of the drama after the benedictory song or the Nandi shlokas in Sanskrit followed by the name and theme of the play, a bhatima (panegyric) of the hero and the gayan – bayan (singing and music).

Apart from the Sanskrit verses, a literary medium popularly called ‘Brajawali,’ a queer mixture of Assamese, Maithili, Hindi and elements of other languages, are in use. The stage was an oblong space under an oval shaped thatched roof, a temporarily built ‘Namghar’ (Temple) complete with the altar- the ‘Monikut’, a beautiful ‘Guru –asana’ (of Shankaradeva) adorned with the seven steps to ‘Vaikuntha’ (heaven) and a white and red holy cloth, ‘Gosai kapad’ and colourful paintings of the 10 incarnations of Lord Vishnu at the back.

The six-day festival at Rukmininagar Bihu field, was inaugurated by Swapnanil Barua, secretary of culture, Government of Assam, by lighting the lamp amidst the beats of the traditional drum, Doba, blowing of conch shells and ‘ooludhwani,’ a continuous sound produced with the tongue, to herald in any auspicious occasion.

An exhaustive two-day seminar-cum-lecture demonstration was organised in the mornings, apart from the six performances in the evenings by two Sattras (monasteries) and four different groups from the state, including the Sattriya Kendra.

The opening academic session began with a very relevant topic: ‘The role of female character in Ankiya Bhaona and impact of performances in present situations,’ by Dr. Anjan Ojah, Principal Chaiduar College, Gohpur. Sankaradeva’s plays revolve round female characters and these roles are still played by men especially in the Sattras, even though women are making their presence felt.

At the very outset, Dr. Ojha stressed the need of a critical reappraisal of the plays because of their high aesthetic attributes, inspite of them having an innate religious dimension. “Sankaradeva was a propagator of religion and an artist and the spiritual objective of his dramas is ‘muktisadhakam’, by way of glorification of Lord Krishna. But it is the female characters who occupy a significant place in this propagation of Krishna’s praise,” said Ojha with analysis of the character of Rukmini in Sankaradeva’s play ‘Rukminiharan,’ the gopis in ‘Keligopal,’ the priestly wives in ‘Patni Prasad’ and others.

For the masses

The superiority of the women in a male-centric social structure was elaborated as was the popularity of his plays, which were “not confined to the aristocratic classes but to the masses. Sankaradeva broke many dramatic norms and incorporated scenes from life itself,” explained Ojha. Female roles are performed by men (called Maaiki Bhaoria) in traditional Bhaona in Sattras and Naamghars. The credibility and viability of the men in feminine roles triggered off an elaborate discussion among the delegates, with reference to stalwarts such as Vedantam Satyanarayana, streevesham and their presentations.

Guru Jatin Goswami commented on the presentations of Bhaona in the past and present - “I think ideal Bhaona as an ideal part of performing arts, but not worship.” The question as to who would be the “captain” to perceive, teach and eliminate fragmentation - to make it integrated - was questioned, but a constructive suggestion by Raju Das, Project Officer Of Sattriya Kendra, to train young boys to enact female roles was welcomed by all.

The next day’s presentation, ‘Ankiya Bhaona as a performing art,’ by actor, dancer singer producer and director Pabitrapran Bora of Golaghat was an entertaining and enriching insight into the details of the music, the proper ragas and talas incorporated, the aharya aspect (costumes), the deport - of the characters chosen, the proper use of hasta mudras and tenacity of the actors were demonstrated with singing, acting and dancing by him and two of his disciples. The concluding lecture, ‘The rasa in Ankiya nat,’ was an intensive analysis by the intellectual and scholar, the erstwhile president of Asom Sattra Mahasabha and Dharmacharya of Vishwa Hindu Parishad.