by Arpita Dutta
Like other Indian classical dances, the Sattriya tradition, which is over 600-years old, is associated with ritualistic practices and comes from the medieval Vaishnavite monasteries, or Sattras, synonymous with the cultural idiom of the Assamese people. Sattriya Nrtiya is one of the eight principal Indian classical dance forms and it focuses on narrating stories from myths and religious scriptures, which are an essential part of the celebration of life in Assamese culture.
The dance form was born of the Ankiya Bhaona, which is a particular presentation of one-act plays called Ankiya Naat originated by Shankardeva (1449-1568) during the Bhakti movement in Assam. Assamese reformers Shankardeva and his disciple Madhavdeva occupy a significant position in the fifteenth and sixteenth century socio-religious history of Assam and they led the social and cultural renaissance in medieval Assam by developing forms like Sattriya Nritya. There are four important components of this theatrical form – nritya (dance), natya (drama), sangeeta (music) and abhinaya (acting). The predominant goal of the performance remains the awakening of the Bhakti rasa in the audience. Sattriya performances are mostly based on compositions sourced from the Bhagavat Purana and epics by Shankardeva and Madhavdeva. They usually depict stories of Radha and Krishna or episodes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
Sattriya costumes are of two kinds, one representing the masculine aspects and the other representing the feminine aspects of the dancer. The male costume comprises the dhoti (traditional garment wrapped around hips by men) and paguri (turban), while the female costume consists of the ghuri (skirt), kanchi (waist cloth) and an uroni (customary scarf worn over the head). Traditionally, these costumes were made of raw silk in white, blue and yellow, depending on the dance performed. Over time, there have been new variations in the costume.
The neo-Vaishnavite movement in Assam brought about a cultural resurgence with Sattriya music and dance, Borgeet (Vaishanava devotional songs) and gayan-bayan (gayan is the singer and bayan is the instrument player). This movement was aimed at social reform, spiritual elevation and ethnic consolidation when the region of Assam was fraught with ethnic tensions and disintegration. The process of learning Sattriya Nritya in the sattras (monasteries) is rigorous and gets progressively more complex. In Sattriya dance, the malleability of the body, poise, and sense of rhythm are tested first through training in Mati Akhara (exercises performed on the ground). This is the main grammatical component of the dance form, and includes flexibility exercises to prepare a dancer’s body for advanced choreographic numbers. The Mati Akharas continue to be the foundation of the dance form. Only those who are able to learn, follow and mold their bodies are encouraged to pursue Sattriya more seriously; the rest are asked to focus on music, theatre, or scriptures. These are, however, not mutually exclusive. For instance, those who learn bayan (percussion) also need to develop a sense of movement and rhythm so that the body and the instrument are one. There is no concept of ‘failure’, as learning is regarded as a constant movement.
The shift of Sattriya dance and culture from the sattras to the stage changed the face of Sattriya Nritya forever and it is now a subject of greater scrutiny and debate, which are exacerbated due to economic and sociocultural changes. The sattras proposed to sustain religious learning through music, dance, drama and naam-kirtan resulting from the Vaishnavite movement. Sattriya was originally practised in the precincts of the monasteries and the costume was simpler and less elaborate. Strictly laid-down codes became an essential part of Sattriya only after it was declared a classical dance form on November 15, 2000. It was only after Sattriya Nritya’s acceptance as a classical form that efforts were made for its proliferation and propagation. The gurus at the sattra today try to balance professional demands and preserving the religiously embedded nature of the art while teaching.
Initially, Sattriya dance was performed only by male monks in the sanctified space of Vaishnavite monasteries. Sattriya traditions focus on the Bhakti rasa especially Krishna Bhakti, leaving out Sringara rasa (the erotic). The importance given to the ideas of celibacy made the structure of Sattriya rigid, which explains why, in its initial stages, Sattriya was exclusively a male domain. However, it was gradually opened to women because of the efforts of Sri Rasheswar Saikia Barbayan. He carried forward the traditions of Sattriya by teaching women and breaking the shackles of patriarchy. After he taught his first female student, he was expelled from the renowned Kamalabari Sattra in Majuli.
With Sattriya entering the public space, the sattras succeeded in their endeavour to spread the neo-Vaishnavite philosophy among diverse socioeconomic groups, including the tea-garden labourers of the neighbouring areas. However, a significant predicament that has surfaced in contemporary times is that the younger generation of bhakats (monks) are refusing to stay in the Sattras, finding better opportunities outside, which is a huge cause of worry because if the number of bhakats in the Sattras continue to decline, these ritualistic traditions will go through a severe crisis.
Because this nascent dance style is now performed across the globe and is coming into contact with people from different walks of life, there is a new debate stemming between the concept of ‘tradition’ and ‘contemporary’. To the naked eye, the two groups seem to exist in worlds that are quite apart from one another – there’s not much dialogue between them, little camaraderie and quite a few differences. However, all generations and individuals have the right and liberty to recreate the history and traditions in their own times. This is how societies progress and if disallowed societies decay and die. This argument has generated objection from a certain conservative section of the practitioners of Sattriya Nritya. The concept of fusion in Sattriya dance is also highly contested despite fusion being an eminently practised part of the other Indian classical dance styles like Bharatnatyam, Kathak etc. Kumudini Lakhia, a Sangeet Natak Akademi Awardee, in the seventies broke every rule in the Kathak book and proclaimed famously that “There Can be Kathak sans Krishna!” This only proves that the structure of every dance style – the music, accompanying instruments, literature, ambience, presentation, costumes have all undergone constant evolution and refinement which I believe should be open to Sattriya Nritya as well. This evolution only enhances the dance because of the relentless inputs of great artists and dancers. With time I hope that this debate has less to do with rejecting the ‘contemporary’ tag which often carries a negative connotation and more with the ability of classical artistes to accept each other’s creativity within a tradition.