India - Sattriya Dance

by V.A.Ponmelil (All rights reserved by the author)

Sattriya Dance Forms of India

The Sattriya dance of Assam is a classical form of dance which is highly devotional in character with the spiritual aspect being predominant.

The word Sattriya is derived from Sattra which means monastery. Since the dance developed and grew within the Satras, it is named after these religious institutions. Specifically, it emerges from a 500 year old comprehensive theatre tradition nurtured in the Vaishnav Monasteries of Assam.

In the mid 15th century, Srimanta Shankardev, a poet and religious leader united the various sects of Assam through his teachings and established a universal social brotherhood of Neo-Vaishnavism through congregational prayer which included the music, the dance and the drama based on the life of Lord Krishna. The monks who lived in these Sattras performed these dance dramas as a votive offering to their Lord.

Shankardev composed the Bargeet, the Ojha Pali songs and numerous dances which were incorporated into the dance drama called Ankiya Naat. The framework and content of these Sattriya dances were well preserved in the monasteries which were spread all across Assam. With the texts like Sri Hastamuktavali which describes detailed use of hand gestures, the style has all the elements of Indian classical dance includingthe margam of eight sequences encompassing the tandava and the lasya elements.

The dance form of Sattriya, like many of the other Classical Dance forms of India, has been extracted from a larger body of theatrical practices that constitute the Ankiya Bhaona form. References of this dance form can be found in the ancient Indian classical texts like the Natyashastra, the Kalikapurana, the Yoginitantra, and the Abhinayadarpana apart from many sculptures, and historical relics.

The musical Instruments that accompany a performance are the khols or the drums, the taals or the cymbals, the flute and the violin. Even though, the Sattriya dance is performed by bhokots or the male monks traditionally in monasteries, today, the Sattriya dance is also performed on stage by men and women who are not the part of the Satras. The dance can be performed either solo or in groups. It requires a good physical exercise, the flexibility of the body and an intense practice.

The history of the Sattriya dance is very interesting. During the period of Sankaradeva, the Saktism, the Saivism, the Tantra and a pagan kind of Vaishnavism were prevalent in Assam. The Kalika Purana written in Kamarupa, the ancient name of Assam, highlights the mode of worship as the vamabhava or the worship with the blood and the liquor. The staunch and deeply religious Brahmins who practiced Hinduism also lived in certain parts of the state. Under such conditions, Sankaradeva offered a more personal religion influenced by the Bhakti Movement.

In Assam, he developed and propagated the Eka-sarana-namadharma, a faith of allegiance to one God which was the part of the neo-Vaisnavite movement in India. It is characterized by the absence of the rituals practiced by the Brahmins and the Saktas.

Mahapurush Sri Sankaradeva, as he is known in the State, composed hymns or the borgeet, the dance-dramas or the ankianaat and the recitals. With the help of his disciples, he set up the sattras or the monasteries including the kirtanghars or the prayer halls and the namghars or the community prayer halls for the propagation of the new faith. This later gained large-scale acceptance amongst the common people. With this, Assam developed its own form of Vaisnavism, which is the predominant faith even today among the Hindus. Now, the borgeets, the ankianaats, the sattriya dances and many other Vaisnavite art forms and social norms are now considered as the integral part of the Assamese culture.

Sankaradeva employed various techniques to improve sattriya form of performance. He ensured an effective communication through song, dance, masks, puppets, dialogue, theatre and stagecraft. He also created artificially a language called Brajavali, an amalgam of Hindi dialects and Assamese, in which he and his disciples wrote the lyrics of the plays, the operettas and the songs.

After the death of Sankaradeva, the Moamoria Sattra was aligned to the Gopaldeva group and was distinguished by strong democratic traditions and a large congregation of people of Tibeto-Burmese origin. This combination made the sattra as suspect in the eyes of the royalty.

There was a prolonged persecution of the sattra-ites with their revolt and retaliation, being started in 1769 and continued till 1806. In 1826, with the Treaty of Yandabu, the sattras continued to have a marginalized existence during the reign of the Britishers. The Gazetteer of 1905 even refers to ‘the dances of the sattras’. It was during the same period other interesting tradition of Sattra art called the Hejeriya Bhaona or the Bara Kheliya Bhaona became popular.

The popular artists of the Sattriya dance are Apsara Nritya, Behar Nritya, Chali Nritya, Dasavatara Nritya, Gosai Prabesh, Jhumura, Nadu Bhangi, Manchok Nritya, Bar prabesha, Natua Nritya, Gopi Pravesha, Rasa Nritya, Rajaghariya Chali Nritya, and Sutradhara.


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