Sattriya: From ritual to performing art
This article is an excerpt from a conversation with CHARUKESI & S. JANAKI, published in September 1999 in which Indira and Menaka explained how the ritual art of Sattriya dance attained the status of a performing art,
Dancers Indira P.P. Bora and her
daughter Menaka P.P.Bora were in Chennai recently when they presented two
performances of Sattriya, the neo-classical dance-form of
Assam. Some of the items they performed were Sootradhari, Guru vandana, Krishna vandana, Jhoomra, Dasavatara and Raas nritta.
Indira Bora learnt Bharatanatyam at Kalakshetra and has taken this art-form to the eastern part of India. She runs an arts institution called Kalabhumi in Guwahati where as many as 500 students learn Bharatanatyam, Sattriya, and other fine arts like painting. Indira has been actively involved in the transformation of Sattriya from a ritual to a neoclassical art-form. Menaka too is a student of Bharatanatyam. Her guru-s are her mother Indira Bora and Shanta & V.P. Dhananjayan.
What is Sattriya dance?
Indira: Sattriya was evolved
in the 15th century by the great Vaishnavite saint Sankaradev. Nearly 500 years
ago there were about 500 Vaishnavite monasteries all over Assam, and this
ritual art was performed by male monks • with or without any audience. The word
sattriya is derived from 'satra', which means monastery.
Menaka: We pronounce 'sa' as
'kho' with an intonation peculiar to the Assamese language. In fact, we pronounce
'sattriya' as 'khottriya'. No idols were kept in front while this ritual
art was performed; the Bhagavad Gita or some other
Vaishnavite text, called keertan puthi (book), was kept on a pedestal. The
objective was to present
only bhakti throughout. their brotherhood and return to
family life if they so desired.
Who performs Sattriya?
/: Earlier, women were not allowed to perform Sattriya. The
men performed the female roles as well. However, there was no caste bar for
men. There was no richpoor
M: Usually boys who belonged to the
Mahanta or Gosain family would perform the Sattriya rituals. There was an old
custom which allowed any family to dedicate a son to the satra and this boy
could perform Sattriya as long as he continued to be in the monastery. These
boys/men were free to shed is the oldest satra; the Bardua Satra in middle
Assam; and the Barpeta Satra in lower Assam. The distinct gharana-s followed in
these satra-s have, by and large, influenced the styles followed in various
Where did the monks perform the Sattriya rituals?
I: The monks used to perform the
Sattriya rituals inside the naam ghar or the nama sankeertana hall, while the
audience watched from outside as the hall was open on all four sides. Whoever
came first, could take his place first, among the limited audience
seated inside the naam ghar.
M: Even now women are not allowed
inside the naam ghar, although they are nowadays allowed to come to the
satra-s. Every satra has a naam ghar.
/: Sattriya was, and still is, presented in a naam ghar.
And because these halls are open to the audience on all four sides, we have the
practice of repeating the Sattriya movements on all sides. Even now most villages
in Assam have a naam ghar which has its own special design and decor. Most
famous is the one in Kamalabari Satra, situated in Majuli, the biggest river-island
on the Brahmaputra river. Lots of tourists come here every year.
Are the Sattriya rituals the same in every satra?
M: No, some of the items vary from
satra to satra. In some cases, even an item with the same name is performed in
different ways in different satra-s, as for example, the item called
'sootradhari' in the Supuha satra and in the Kamalabari satra. The ways of
playing the khol (a percussion instrument) and some of the bol-s are also
special to certain satra-s. In fact, if
one is familiar with Sattriya, one might be able to identify
even the satra to which the percussionist belongs!
/: One could say there are three main satra-s in Assam:
the Kamalabari Satra in Upper Assam
M: It is during Janmashtami in
August, the month in which Lord Krishna was born, that the general Mcnaka &
lndira public gets a chance to see Sattriya being performed
outside the monasteries, in wide open spaces.
Tell us how you were initiated into dance, Indira ji?
/: When I was very young, about eight years or so, Pradeep
Chaliha, my maternal uncle, inspired me to learn Sattriya. I did not know its
importance, then. Pradeepji knew Rukmini Devi Arundale and he advised me to go
to Kalakshetra and so I came to Madras. I stayed here for about 13 years
learning Bharatanatyam. I completed my post-graduate diploma in Bharatanatyam
at Kalakshetra with distinction.
Do you perform Bharatanatyam in the eastern region with the
traditional Tamil and Telugu lyrics?
/: For the last 17 years, I have been performing Bharatanatyam
in Assam. I am maintaining the traditions of Kalakshetra. The late Sankara
Menon once remarked after seeing my performance here: "It is the same
tradition [you learnt at Kalakshetra]." Most often, when I perform
Bharatanatyam to Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit lyrics set to Carnatic music, I perform
to taped music. It is very difficult to get accompanists all the way from
Chennai every time.
In fact, the practice of using taped music is catching on
fast with dancers in the north-eastern region. I also perform Bharatanatyam to
Assamese lyrics, for which I do choreography in the traditional Kalakshetra-style.
I have also taken the compositions of Sankaradev and Madhavdev, which are
semi-classical songs in Brajavali (the language used in Assamese
manuscripts) which are called 'Bor geet', and have composed
dance in the Bharatanatyam idiom. Such items have been widely appreciated in
elsewhere in the northeast.
Why did you go back to Sattriya dance, after learning
/: I felt that Sattriya too had classical elements. It had
grammar, it had its own music, it had bol-s or sollukattu-s.
M: The basic stance for Sattriya is
'ora' which is somewhat similar to the ardhamandali of
Bharatanatyam, but when you take the ora position, the
distance between the heel of the two feet should be one foot, which is much
more than for the
/: In Sattriya too we have to learn the basic adavu units
plus exercises. Only these are called the 'matiakhara-s'. They are 64 in
number. So I thought why not take this ritual art-form from the monasteries and
develop it into a dance-form which can be presented on stage. I was the first
woman dancer in Sattriya dance. I was the first to give it a neoclassical