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Dr. Mallika Kandali
Date of Publish: 2015-11-22

From Chali Nach  to Bhortal Nritya  : The colorful mosaic  of Barpeta Sattra


Srimanta Sankaradeva, the founder of Assamese Vaishnavism   was himself an artist of highest order, an aesthetician, play writer, musician and dance composer who visualized an institution that would not only be a religious monastery for spiritual nirvana but also a wonder house of multiple art forms such as the theatre or the   Ankiya nat, Sattriya dance form, the music, manuscript paintings and other allied plastic art forms for aesthetic attainment of human life.  The Sattra institution, as it came to be known as has been nourishing these multiple art forms since 15th century apart from being the centre stage for Bhakti movement in this part of the country.  

The Sattra is a sacred place, which includes the prayer hall called namghar, where devotees congregate and pray. The hatis, are the hutments where bhakats (members of monastic order of any Sattra) stay together. There is a shrine attached to the namghar where the idol of the deity or the sacred scripture is kept, called manikut. There is a batchora, which means an entrance leading to the interior to the Sattra. According to the rank, capacity, talent etc. the Sattra consists many divisions and parties. Sattradhikar is the supreme administrator of a Sattra. Barbayans are the Gurus, who are experts in dance and music both vocal and instrumental. Bargayans are the experts in singing and Ojas are the experts in Ojapali or rendition of performative singing. Like these, there are many further divisions in Sattra for the maintenance of the Sattra system. The Sattra also serves as a school for training the neophytes in music and dance forms which are practiced on religious functions and day to day rituals. Sattras have a very significant role and contribution to enliven the Vaishnava tradition of Assam till today. There are many Sattras in Assam. Among them the Kamalabari group of Sattras, Bardowa Sattra and Barpeta Sattra have a different identity and an important place in socio-cultural arena of Assam. Today we are going to discuss about the dance tradition of Barpeta Sattra, one of the major Vaishnava monasteries of Assam.

Barpeta Sattra was established by Sri Sri Madhavadeva, the principal disciple of Srimanta Sankaradeva in the year 1583. Madhavadeva had a great contribution to the Barpeta Sattra not only in establishing  the Sattra or the “Kirtanghar”-prayer hall, but also in  introducing  the “Rangiyal Griha” –(a cultural hall- where the bhakats practiced, performed the Sattriya dance, Ankiya nat- Vaishnava plays etc). It is worth mentioning that the help of Krishna bhakat, who  was a Vaishnava bhakat and artist, Madhavadeva had completed the “Rangiyal Griha.”1 In this cultural hall the bhakat  practiced and performed Ankiya nats, Sattriya dance, Bargeets, Khol (drum-introduced by Sankaradeva), etc. The Rangiyal Griha had a very important role in expanding the Vaishnava culture introduced by both the saints – Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva.

Sankaradeva had composed six plays—traditional Vaishnava theater which is called Ankiya nat or bhaona besides many devotional songs known as Bargeets, religious texts etc. Ankiya nat is a combination of nritya, natya and sangeeta. Dance has a very dominant role in Ankiya nat. Besides Sankaradeva, Madhavadeva also composed a number of plays in later period. On the other hand Madhavadeva introduced several dance numbers in Sattriya style outside the arena of the theatrical performances. So, there are two sources from where the Sattriya dance form is derived. They are–

A)      The dances derived  from theatrical representations

B)      The dance numbers which are independent of the drama.

Hence, one can observe that Sattriya, the living dance tradition has been flourishing over almost six hundred years through the Sattras till today. Now-a- days Sattriya is parallely performed in Sattras as a medium of worshiping the Lord and on the secular stage as a performing art.

In the Barpeta sattra,  Madhavadeva  introduced “Chali Nach”2 – one of the female dance numbers of Sattriya. Though it is a female dance number, the male bhakats of the Barpeta Sattra performed this “Chali’ dance in female costume in the Rangiyal Griha. It is a independent dance number. The Chali nach is basically based on lasya elements. There are three parts in Chali nach. They are- Ramdani, Geetar nach and Mela nach. Ramdani part is based on pure dance (based on tala). Geetar nach part is based on both pure dance and abhinaya (based on tala and bhava). It is a very graceful and rhythmic female dance number of Sattriya. Originally Sattriya dance is a male tradition. Even today  only the male bhakats are allowed to perform in Sattra. Thus when performed within the Sattra premises, only the male bhakats perform these female dance number in appropriate costume.

Jhumura nach is another dance number, which was practiced and performed in the Rangiyal Griha. Jhumura nach was derived from the “Ras-Jhumura” play of Madhavadeva. It is a male dance number, which is based on tandava elements. In Sattriya the lasya based dance numbers are called “Stri bhangir nach” and tandava based dances are called “Purush Bhangir nach.” Like Chali nach, Jhumura nach has also three parts. They are – Ramdani, Geetar nach and Mela nach. In Geetar nach portion or the abhinaya portion the raga based devotional songs are used, which were  composed by Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva.

Madhavadeva had created a  unprecedented  cultural vibrancy  in Barpeta Sattra besides  propagating the Sankaradeva’s Vaishnavism.  Several  bhakats were involved in this process and the tradition had been handed down generation to generation. Besides, the Sattriya dance, the Ankiya nats were also regularly performed by the bhakats. Even the followers attempted  to compose some plays and subsequently performed  themselves. Gayan-Bayan (the instrumental playing), Sutradhari nach, Natuwa nach, Ojapali etc were also practiced and performed by the bhakats. Sutradhari nach is another dance number which is related to Ankiya nat. Suttradhar is the narrator of the Ankiya nat. Suttradhar can dance, sing, act, recite etc. Natuwa nach  is the another dance number of Barpeta Sattra.

Ojapali is one dance form which became a very popular dance form of  the Barpeta Sattra. There are nineteen dancers in Ojapali. One oja (leading dancer), Daina pali (Assistant) and seventeen palis (co-dancers). During the performance the Oja leads and the others support him. Oja describes some verse those are composed by Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva. But sometime they recite the story of Ramayana and Mahabharata too  outside the Sattra. It is worth mentioning that even the Sattradhikars of Barpeta Sattra were trained in this Vaishnava culture. The tradition has been continuing till now.

But in course of time , the Barpeta Sattra also came to be  known for its rich tradition of Vaishnava songs, instruments, drama and some new dance compositions which were based around  Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva’s cultural exposition. Among them the “Holi nach ” dance is very popular which is related holi festival. During the festival,  devotees pray the Lord Krishna through songs  accompanied by various instruments using various  dance postures . The other dance numbers are Ojapali and Gayan-Bayan, which are also performed during the holi festival in Sattra. “Jatragan”, “Jatra bhaona” etc. are another drama tradition which is related with this holi festival. These dramas are also based on religious theme.

Bhortal Nritya” is a dance form which is unique to Barpeta Sattra. This dance number is based on “Thiyo nam” which is derived from Sankaradeva’s tradition. It is called “thiyo nam”(thiyo means standing position and nam means  bhakti music ), because during the performance the devotees move in a circular pattern in standing position and sing some bhakti based songs. Mahananda das Sutradhar, who was expert in playing cymbals, singing Bargeet, thiyo nam etc.is credited with the innovation of this dance form. Another talented artist Narahari Burhabhakat introduced refinements in to the form and performed in various places outside the Sattras in a bid to popularize the art. The large cymbals used in this performance are called Bhortal in Assamese. During the performance the dancers hold this in their hands and twirls in rhythm with the dance. The dancers use lots of intricate foot movements, body movements etc. The instruments like negera (drum), tal (cymbal), flute etc. are used in Bhortal nritya. Some devotional songs based on bhakti rasa are accompanied with dance. Besides this graceful dance form some beautiful dance postures are seen in “Ghosa Kirtan” (one type of prayer).

Over the periods, Barpeta Sattra has become renowned for its rich cultural traditions of   Bhortal nritya, Ojapali, Holi geet, nritya and Bargeet , Ghosha  kirtan and  different types of prayer related the  vaishnava tradition, gaining a  distinct stature of its own within the fold of Vaishnaivaite culture. It  holds   an  unique position in the Assamese cultural arena and perpetuates the glorious tradition of Vaishnavism even in the present tumultuous times..

1.Barpeta Sattrar Itihas: Gokul Pathak, p.16.

2.Katha Guru Charit: Maheswar Neog (ed.),p.288,291

Dr. Mallika Kandali

( Dr Mallika Kandali is an eminent Sattriya  scholar and  performenr. She has received “Srimanta Sankardeva Research Award” 2006,  “Devdasi National Award” 2014 and “Chinta O Chetana National Award”, 2015. She is associate professor at RG Baruah College, Guwahati )


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