In the spirit of Krishna


COLOURFUL Turning and jumping gracefully, the Sattriyas were a vibrant group on stage Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

COLOURFUL Turning and jumping gracefully, the Sattriyas were a vibrant group on stage Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy  

The average South Indian knows a few things about Assam — that the Assamese have an accent we can't follow, that the state grows tea, and that there's always some dissident trouble brewing there.

It took the Mahabharat Utsav at National College grounds to tell most of us that Assam is also the place where Sattriya Dance originated. Virtually unknown outside of Assam, Sattriya made news when the Sangeet Natak Akademi, under the then Chairmanship of Bhupen Hazarika, gave its stamp on Sattriya dance as a classical dance form of India in 2000.

"It may seem that that youngsters are liking the boogie-woogie dances more than the classical dances, but look at these young people... they are all dedicated to Sattriya dance," pointed out Jatin Goswami, Akademi Award winner and director of Sattriya Academy of Guwahati, as we watched members of his troupe waiting to perform at the Mahabharat Utsav.

Pretty girls in traditional ghagra, ansal and kansi made of hand-woven Assam silk practised their lines, while the young men in regal white fine-tuned their dhol movements. The red alta on the hands of the dancers and a resplendent Krishna provided all the colour. "Sattriya is a combination of chanting, narration, music, dance and dialogue," explained the septuagenarian, an eighth generation descendent of the Sattriya gharana.

Sattriya is a word derived from Sattra, which means monastery. Sattriya also means `On the path of truth'. In the mid 15th century, Sankardev, a poet and religious leader united the various sects of Assam through his teachings and established a universal social brotherhood of Neo Vaishnavism through collective prayer. This included music, dance and drama based on the life of Lord Krishna. The monks who lived in these Sattras performed these dance dramas as an offering to their Lord.

As we waited for the speeches to be organised on the dais, my back-stage education continued. "Srimanta Sankardev composed Bargeet, Ojha Pali songs and numerous dances which were incorporated into the dance drama called Ankiya Naat.

A great performing artist, he wrote compositions in a language that was a mixture of Sanskrit, Prakrit, Maithili, and Bhojpuri. References of this dance form are found in the ancient Indian classical texts such as Natyashastra, Kalikapurana, Yoginitantra, Abhinayadarpana and also in sculptures and historical relics," informed Guru Goswami.

When the performance started a collective prayer went up — please save us from screeching mikes! Once the sound system stabilised, the chanting and singing took over our senses. Troupe leader Jatin Goswami and a few others performed a mesmerising routine with their cymbals and percussion instruments.

Turning and jumping with their dhols, obviously enjoying their music, the artistes continued till the sutradhar or narrator came on stage. Though not many in the audience could understand the language, the passion and joy of which he spoke was evident. Then came Krishna and the Gopikas in their finery.

The dance-drama portrayed how the demon Sangkhasurya tries to take away one of the Gopikas and how Krishna defeats him in battle. Though Sattriya dance is usually based only on the life of Krishna, its relevance at the Mahabharat Utsav became clear. "Sattriya is about devotion towards Lord Krishna that brings harmony and peace in society — Mahabharat is about devotion to duty."

Guru Jatin Goswami has made it his duty to work to support the training and development of Sattriya and Ankiya Naat. The guru's sons Provarkar and Gunakar are both full-time Sattriya artistes. "We have performed both in India and abroad, and we conduct classes regularly in colleges and schools too," said the Guru. "And many of the students prefer to continue with Sattriya."

The 15th century-poet Sankaradev thought the fine arts could bring people together — his follower Jatin Goswami and his team of Sattriya performers certainly proved at the Mahabharat Utsav that it could bring a lot of Bangaloreans together!