The Northeast Festival that concluded this past weekend at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts featured everything from tastes for the palate to food for the soul. In the latter category was the Ankia Bhaona performance of “Ram Vijaya” by monks from the Natun Kamalabari Sattra in Majuli, Assam. The group was led by Adhyapak Haricharan Bhuyan Borbayan, a highly experienced performer and teacher of Bhaona as well as the solo dance form of Sattriya, besides the khol and related arts.
With decades of experience in dance, drama and music, he carries the title Borbayan which refers to his mastery over the percussion instrument, bayan (khol). A visiting faculty member of the National School of Drama, he has been named for the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award of 2016, which is expected to be conferred shortly.
Ankia Bhaona is the dramatic form developed by the Vaishnavite reformer and multifaceted artist Srimanta Sankaradeva (1449-1568) to awaken devotion in the people while imparting scriptural knowledge. The plays are known as Ankia Naat, while the performance is termed Bhaona. Revered as a saint, Sankaradeva wrote six plays or Naat. “These were ‘Ram Vijaya’, ‘Patni Prashada’, ‘Parijaat Haran’, ‘Rukmini Haran’, ‘Keli Gopala’ and ‘Kaliya Daman’,” explains Guru Haricharan. “His disciple Madhavadev has written 12 plays, and other poets have also written.”
The theatrical form that preceded Ankia Naat was Cihna Jatra. Sankaradeva wrote and performed just one Cihna Jatra. “Srimanta Sankaradeva created the Vrindavani Vastra as the backdrop for this performance. It was painted with depictions of the seven vaikunthas (heavens) and was 60 feet by 120 feet. It is now in the museum in London,” he adds.
Although that script was lost to posterity — though efforts have been made by scholars and artists to reconstruct it — what has come down to the present day is the literary form that Sankaradeva evolved from the Cihna Jatra — Ankia Naat. While the Cihna Jatra depicted the larger leela or stories of Vrindavan, naats deal with single episodes. “Each play is one episode or ‘ank’,” he says.
If “Kaliya Daman” centres on Krishna’s defeat of the serpent Kaliya, “Rukmini Haran” is about the elopement of Princess Rukmini and Krishna. “Ram Vijaya” is the story of the breaking of the bow by Ram during the swayamvara organised by King Janak for his daughter Sita. Ram’s “vijay” refers not merely to his winning the hand of the bride but to his victory over the angry Parashuram who intercepts the brothers as they are returning triumphantly from Janakpuri. When Parashuram (known as an ansh or partial incarnation of Vishnu) realises that Ram is a poornaavatar (a complete incarnation with all the qualities of Mahavishnu) who has descended to the mortal world with a specific mission, he gladly relinquishes his place on earth.
In “Ram Vijaya”, Guru Haricharan powerfully enacted Vishwamitra, a role he is well known for. The 21-member troupe consisted entirely of male monks, who sportingly played Sita’s unsuccessful suitors, the ungainly Tataka, the comely Sita and her sakhis among other roles.
Sattriya, now popular around the world as the classical dance form of Assam and widely practised as a solo art, is a part of Bhaona and evolved from it, notes the guru. He mentions, “Sattriya was always classical,” perhaps to emphasise that just because the Sangeet Natak Akademi’s recognition of the dance as a classical style of India came only in 2000, decades after seven others had been placed in that category, there should be no doubt on that score.
In Bhaona, although there is speech, the actors enter and exit using dance steps, he explains. There is also a major percussion prelude or poorvarang.
“The language is Brajabali, which includes Hindi, Maithili, Bhojpuri, Assamese and Sanskrit. Bhaona includes all the nine rasas. The tenth rasa is bhakti . In the middle, all the different rasas will come, but it will always ends with bhakti.” There is something for everyone, he notes — Sanskrit for the learned, Brajabali for the pandits, masks and humour for the ordinary folks. The sutradhar links the scenes, using dance, song, verses and prose.
One type of Bhaona is presented entirely with masks. This is called Mukha Bhaona, and plays like “Ravana Vadha” and “Syamantak Haran” are presented in this manner, says the artist, who also performed Mukha Bhaona at the festival’s inauguration. Otherwise, characters who appear with masks even in the regular Bhaonas include Putana, Kaliya and Tataka.
The manner of presenting each of the Bhaonas has been written down, and in the sattras or monasteries, this performance format is adhered to exactly, says the monk. If performing outside the sattra, however, the artists may improvise sometimes, he concedes.
The themes are all from the Bhagavat Purana, where Radha is not named. Therefore, despite the depiction of the many leelas of Krishna and the gopis of Vrindavan, Radha is never represented in Ankia Bhaona or Sattriya.
What if a solo Sattriya dancer today wanted to take up an ashtapadi of Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda , where Radha is exemplified as Krishna’s greatest lover and devotee? “ Jhagra ho jayega (it would rake up a fight),” he says simply, referring to the unacceptability of the idea among the authorities of these arts that remain strongly anchored in the sattras, with Sankaradev’s Ekasarana approach to Vaishnavism.
(This interview was conducted with the help of Assamese-Hindi interpretation by Sattriya dancer Meenakshi Medhi, a disciple of Adhyapak Haricharan Bhuyan)