MATI – AKHARA. The grammar of Sattriya Dance. By Mallika Kandali. 96 Pages. Hard Bound, jacketed. LBS Publications, Panbazar, Guwahati. Price: Rs.  500.00

By Nita Vidyarthi

Mallika Kandali’s second English book on Sattriya Dance, titled Mati Akhara - The Grammar of Sattriya Dance, carries significant value, even though its content, primarily in Assamese, is already known to numerous dancers, scholars, and enthusiasts. It provides valuable insights into the right approach to the Sattriya culture, institution, its devotional background, the contribution of Srimanta Sankararadeva in the religio-cultural arena, the multiple art forms within the premises of a Sattra, including Ankiya Nat (Vaishnava theatre), and a definite structural pattern of grammar.

In this concise 96-page edition, the author, an associate professor in Guwahati, the first woman to get a Ph.D in Sattriya dance and a widely performed dancer and acclaimed choreographer,  shares her experience and expertise to focus on the quantitative methodology loaded with valuable material. Hence, the approach is academic, direct and comprehensible. Brevity is the keynote of its style.

The primary focus of this work is to unravel the intricacies of the foundational postures of the Sattriya dance - the mati akhara - which had evolved through the Sattra-Vaishnava monasteries of Assam. In Assamese, ‘mati’ means ground or soil and ‘akhara’ means exercises, practices, rehearsals, training and applications on the ground.

In the preface, the author mentions that she has endeavoured to explain the significance of mati-akhara’s nomenclature concerning nearly all foundational postures and their connections to ancient treatises. She further points out that Sattriya dance training begins with these mati-akharas, which is the foundation for learners to build a healthy physical, mental and spiritual being necessary for a classical dancer - a hitherto uncommon fact, especially to non-Sattriya dancers. Additionally, the preface mentions that mati-akhara can be practised with music (bols or rhythmic sounds) or without music. Bols are not mentioned in the book as they usually vary. Also, mati-akhara encompasses almost all the features of Sattriya dance. 

Without any divisions of chapters, the author begins with an elaborately enriching introduction under the heading mati akhara and Sattriya dance encompassing the body movements in mati akhara determined by the nature of body bending. There is an exhaustive explanation of how mati-akhara carries the body positions. The dance form depends on two foundational body positions - samabhanga and tribhanga - which represent the basic foot positions or stance. ‘Ora’, meaning measurement in the numbers of Sattriya dance. They are clearly explained with the help of photographs representing purusa ora (male) and prakriti or maiki ora (female dancers). The philosophy behind the mati akhara of purusa ora and prakriti ora (the male-female divide) and the stances of a specific number of mati-akhara in dance numbers are interesting pieces of information.

By her admission, the author mentions that in her research work, she has attempted to describe the meaning of all mati akhara, including the etymology, philosophical background, similarity with yoga, and elements of ancient treatises and indigenous tradition. Hence, there is no boundary separating utility from aesthetics in that art form in the writing.

Every page of the book bears testimony to the scholarship, meti­culous documentation and analytical skills of the author. The book also contains a bibliography, an index of the pronunciation of technical
words, close shots of some foot positions and hastas of mati akhara, and full-length shots of each of the 66 positions and postures of these basic exercises. It is systematic, detailed, comprehensive and compact. Unity and continuity are maintained throughout the work.

Encouragingly, the book consciously avoids meandering through the subject matter and excessive use of technical language, making it easily readable and accessible to lay readers. While there are a few spelling errors, these can hardly be considered a significant drawback. The book has more information and fewer comments on creativity in Indian arts, music, or dance criticism, which makes for an undisturbed reading experience. The fascinating feature of the book is the style and the mode of presentation. With simple language and a lucid approach, the explication is unhurried. The matter is distinctly and methodically divided into paragraphs with headings wherever required. Topics are numbered, and important words are written in bold, making it a reader-friendly publication. There are appropriate references at the bottom of almost every page. However, it is not limited to be classified as a textbook in the true sense.

It encapsulates several important topics that are well thought, planned, and well-produced for basic education of Sattriya dance and culture in the broader sense. A patient browser may find valuable and rewarding information. While the book’s printing is good, there could have been room for improvement in the sharpness of the black-and-white photographs in the next edition. It would also be beneficial to introduce a table of contents listing the 66 mati-akharas at the beginning of the book. With all these, the book is a must-read for anyone interested in dance and Sattriya culture.

Photos courtesy: Dr. Mallika Kandali