Dulal Roy on Ankiya Bhaona and the Sattriya tradition

One of those modern theatre directors whose exploratory work is responsible for innovation and experimentation aiming to create a dominant definition of theatre and a receptive audience is also the perpetuator of traditional Assamese Sattriya music, dance and theatre. He is none other than the renowned Dulal Roy. Conferred with innumerable awards, including the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (in 1999 for stage direction), the unassuming 70-year-old National School Of Drama graduate, trained in film and editing in FTII, Pune, introduced Modern theatre in its totality in Assamese and has over 80 productions to his credit. Director of the theatre group Rangapeeth, he feels theatre should be all cerebral, but he never had it easy. As the Project Director of the Sattriya Kendra, Guwahati (a part of Sangeet Natak Akademi’s initiative to support Sattriya dance and allied traditions), Roy is active in continuous selection and accretions of the Sattriya traditions, especially the Ankiya Bhaona plays, through innovative and refined use of light, music, costumes and stage craft. Here he speaks about his directorial craftsmanship as seen in the Bhaona “Sri Ram Bijoy” staged by the Kendra in the recently concluded Ankiya Bhaona Samaroh in Guwahati. Edited excerpts from the conversation:

Why is it important to stage Ankiya Bhaona?

The Ankiya Nats [texts] are rooted in the Natya Shastra and early Sanskrit plays. These traditional plays are special in performance and aesthetically sound, with the classical concept of theatre. Ankiya Bhaona [performance of the nats], whose style and method of presentation are rare, has the full format of a Sanskrit play. These plays are traditional, ritual plays for the people and they have a purpose. In “Sri Ram Bijoy”, the greatness of Ram is connected to social reforms and religious purposes. After reading the play, I realised that no single shloka, pada, bhatima or dialogue could be omitted. The characters we see are down-to-earth and there is a simplicity of thinking in Sankaradeva’s plays, which are religious, could reach the masses and educate them through entertainment. He couldn’t forget the psyche, the importance of women in the life of men in the glorification of a family. I don’t see the existence of Shiva without Parvati, Ram without Sita or any normal human being without women. A performance can’t be fulfilled without a female character. In Sankaradeva’s plays which are for the uplift of the society, it requires inspection — how women are injected very dramatically, very socially and ritualistically as significant characters. It is for us to realise how women of today relate or compare to Rukmini or Satyabhama. In the play “Rukmini Haran”, the female characters have tremendous impact on the theme and even 500 years ago Sankardeva imparted great respect and honour to women through female characters. If one understands these plays thoroughly, especially the importance of women characters like the mother and her affection then one would understand the great significance of Ankiya Bhaona.

Which is why you introduced Kausalya in the last scene of in your “Sri Ram Bijoy”...

The character of Kausalya, no matter how small, was already there in the original. But nobody reads the script. She represents the true dignified Indian mother who welcomes her newly married son and daughter-in-law at the doorstep with “arati”, greets and presents her with her (Kausalya’s) own necklace. But certain things like a mother’s behaviour whether in villages or even in mythology have universal appeal. I try to take the “nangol” (plough) every moment and plead “Nutun ke chao, Nutan Ke Bhujho” (adopt the new and understand it). As a true “Assamese” I strive to preserve this great culture, the great literature, properly and only then will I attain fulfilment as a human being.

What modifications are required?

Since Bhaona is a representative of Assamese culture it is very essential to adopt a rational and logical approach towards acting, singing and dancing and instilling a sense of proportion and accuracy in performers and realising the proper synchronisation of music. We have to fight against the prevailing unsystematic practice of philosophy and conservative outlook and accepting everything in the name of tradition. The planned and requisite creative practice in actors is a necessity and is absent in most, as they are used to spoon feeding and lack good taste, whether in acting or, most importantly, in costumes. Bhaona is nritya-nat, and without chhanda, rhythm, without dance, the characters do not have fulfilment. There are many well known female Sattriya dancers now who have made a name at home and abroad and they ought to be cast in the female roles. We at the Kendra cast them as you have seen in our production. The Kendra believes that a festival such as this would help to usher in a new wave of passion and commitment among the practitioners and the audience towards promoting Ankiya Bhaona with positive changes.

What is your contribution as the director of the Kendra? Did you have any restrictions?

As such no restrictions. The day I joined I found there was already an existing festival — Nritya Parva — of Sattriya dance. I tried to make the practice more appealing and tried motivating youngsters, especially girls, to learn the Sattriya dance in place of the boys. There was a time in Guwahati, say the last 10-15 years, when Bharatanatyam, Kathak and Odissi were taught (and performed) at several dance schools and girls from Assamese, Bengali and other communities were learning these dance forms only, as Sattriya was mostly practised in sattras or monasteries by men. We have now arranged for detailed training in dance and music and Sattriya grooming for boys and girls. We offer financial support to gurus and also patronise some sattras, and the change is conspicuous. We get queries as to where Sattriya is taught. Also, the Geet Badya Utsav has been introduced, concentrating on the Sattriya khol (percussion instrument) only, so that the khol player can display his skills. Earlier they remained as accompanists in Borgeets and in Gayan-Bayan. Sarinda and Bhortaal (a type of big metal cymbals) have also found place in such festivals. Borgeet singers used to get three-four minutes on All India Radio Guwahati. Why not extend this to at least half-an-hour? I see everything in totality. The most important is good taste, aesthetics.

The next experiment is on the refinement of language (songs, bhatima) in Ankiya Bhaona which is presented now in an impure and crude form of Brajawali. I want to rectify it. We are trying hard to preserve the original tradition of performing in the pure form of Brajawali. The Kendra has initiated improvement of set designs, hand and stage props, headgear, masks, costumes with soothing colour and accessories as well as highlighting the importance the Sutradhar’s role as the narrator and director of the Ankiya Nat Bhaona.

What is the future like?

“We have to fight against the prevailing unsystematic practice of philosophy and conservative outlook and accepting everything in the name of tradition.”