Dance

Sattriya: Past forward

Nrityacharya Jatin Goswami, Prof. Pradip Jyoti Mahanta, Bayanacharya Ghanakanta Bora and Dr. Arshiya Sethi discussing Sattriya traditions

Nrityacharya Jatin Goswami, Prof. Pradip Jyoti Mahanta, Bayanacharya Ghanakanta Bora and Dr. Arshiya Sethi discussing Sattriya traditions  

The Pragjyoti International Dance Festival screened rare footage of Sattriya dance that opens pathways to the past and also calls for a more careful transition of the form in the future

The audience sat in devoted silence, as images from a bygone era appeared on the screen. While one could see the energetic dance movements of the figures on film, with fleeting shots of percussion instruments, one had to devise the rhythm in one’s mind. When someone eagerly requested to playback the film from the beginning with sound, they were quietly informed that the original version was silent. Piecing together the precious puzzle of the history of Sattriya dance, this was one of the earliest documentations of the form, presented to the public for the first time, at the Pragjyoti International Dance Festival, Guwahati.

Down memory lane

A still from the 1956 footage of Sattriya featuring Guru Maniram Dutta Muktiyar

A still from the 1956 footage of Sattriya featuring Guru Maniram Dutta Muktiyar  

Just like many masters in the film, the earliest Kamalabari Sattra, a monastery in the island town of Assam – Majuli, had faded from the world. Displaced due to soil erosion, the sattra is one of the oldest, and known for being the home ground of Sattriya ritual dance. The film features some known, and many unknown faces, primarily from this particular sattra. In quick cuts, the camera follows them going about their daily rituals, and demonstrating some key stances and sequences from the traditional Sattriya repertoire. Shared with the public through the efforts of dance scholars — Arshiya Sethi and Sunil Kothari, the documentation dates back to 1956.

The film has no subtitles, sound or title. The people behind the camera also remain anonymous and curiously hidden. Yet, recognising some of the older master-monks of the 1950s, present-day stalwarts of Sattriya broke into tears of nostalgia and memories. For Bayanacharya Ghanakanta Bora, it was an emotional trip down the memory lane. He can be spotted fleetingly in the film as a young boy performing parts of the Jhumura Ramdani of the Sattriya repertoire. Wide shots of a group of monks performing for the camera are interspersed with close-ups of his guru and the first Sangeet Natak Akademi awardee for Sattriya — late Guru Maniram Dutta Muktiyar, as he demonstrates various aspects of the form with elegant ease. Yesteryear masters featured in the film include late Raseswar Saikia Barbayan and Haricharan Saikia. There are many more, who remain unidentified, frozen in frames, yet forgotten from the annals of history.

“As I grow older, I remember my time as a boy in the Sattra, at the feet of my gurus, even more fondly,” recounted Bora. Overwhelmed at seeing his guru on screen, he reflected on the journey of Sattriya from a ritual tradition to stage art. “For many centuries, the dance form was practised as a ritual and it is not audience-centric in the namghar (dance community hall in the monastery). When we see the dance form today on stage, there is a difference in the choreographic pattern, for instance the repetitions have been cut down. The way we were taught, we first made the offering to the sanctum sanctorum and repeated the movements on the other three side where the audience would be sitting. Now, it is a unidimensional setting in the proscenium.” The hand gestures used by the masters in the film are specific to the traditional dance compositions of Sattriya. These are used even today on the stage but keeping in view the frontal stage setting.

Speaking about the changing practices, Nrityacharya Jatin Goswami commented, “We must make sure that the basic philosophical context of the tradition is not lost in transition.” He pointed out that the number of monks has been reducing steadily and the form faces the danger of becoming uprooted from its actual essence.

Challenges ahead

Presenting the film on behalf of Kri Foundation, Arshiya Sethi pointed out, “The film is from a time when Sattriya as a form was in a way unadulterated, and had not seen or been influenced by any other dance forms.” After being recognised in the list of classical dance forms of India, in 2000, the dance repertoire has been adapted to the modern stage setting in terms of repertoire, aesthetics and costumes. “It is a lived tradition, and apart from stage life, it must have an alternative life that resonates with its heritage.”

Anwesa Mahanta

Anwesa Mahanta  

Sattriya dancer and Festival Director, Anwesa Mahanta shared her own journey of working with the form in new ways. “The choreographic change has been immense today when we see Sattriya on the modern proscenium stage — in terms of costume, music, and also the repertoire. Apart from the traditional compositions, lot of choreographic presentations have been added. For instance, I have taken those compositions based on the oeuvre of Sankardeva and Madhabdeva. Though it is an addition to the existing repertoire, it is not entirely out of link with the traditional repertoire.”

The film opens up pathways to the past and also calls for a more careful transition of the form in the future. Sattriya is still a living dance tradition of the sattras in Assam, and the challenge for present day performers would be to balance the traditional repertoire with new impulses.

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Printable version | Apr 5, 2020 4:03:31 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/dance/sattriya-past-forward/article31048585.ece

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