Creativity and mass communication skills are a potent combination for preaching spiritualism. Few knew it better than Srimanta Sankaradeva, the 15th century saint-reformer of Assam.
Sankaradeva (1449-1568) composed and choreographed Ankiya Nat or Ankiya Bhaona, the dances of the Vaishnava theatre he had developed as an infotainment medium for propagating bhakti. Sattriya dance, now one of the major Indian classical dance forms, evolved from this theatrical movement.
Ankiya Nat or Bhaona had a very large repertoire of dance numbers suited to various characters and sequences before Madhavadeva, a prolific composer and Sankaradeva’s main disciple, introduced several dances outside the arena of the theatrical performances. The dances during the neo-Vaishnava resurgence thus came to be classified into two groups – those derived from theatrical representations and those independent of drama.
These dance numbers came to be practiced in the Sattra institution or Vaishnava monastery on different occasions both as a part of festivals and rituals. Conceptualised by Sankaradeva, the Sattra subsequently became the centre of multiple art forms – Ankiya Nat, Sattriya dance and music – that acted as a vehicle for spreading the ideal of Vaishnavism and creating an enduring environment for an overall religious renaissance.
In its original form, Sattriya is a male dance tradition because only male Bhakats, or members of the monastic order, are allowed to perform it in the Sattra. Females can dance, but outside the monastic set-up. Sattriya is a living tradition because it has been flourishing as a medium of worshipping the deity in the Sattras for some 600 years.
Over the years, various gurus, exponents and practitioners of the dance form added newer compositions to the repertoire of both theatrical and ritualistic prayer traditions. The cognoscenti within and outside the Sattras thus helped Sattriya evolve and become an essential component of the monastic ritual and prayer services. The Sattra community developed a well-structured pattern for teaching and learning this form handed down to generations orally through the Gurukul system. Artistes, connoisseurs and academics thus christened the entire gamut of contribution from Sankaradeva to later composers as Sattriya dance.
This dance tradition is performed within the Sattra premises as well as on the secular stage as an aesthetic ex
Like other Indian classical dance forms, Sattriya has a structural grammar of its own. Called Mati-Akhora, it is the foundation of Sattriya dance. Mati-Akhoras are the basic exercise patterns that facilitate various dance poses, combining which different dance numbers have been composed. In Assamese, Mati-Akhora means exercise done on the ground, and after completion of all the basic exercises, a dancer can be taught the individual dance numbers.
Mati-Akhoras are the foundation for a learner for a healthy physical, mental and spiritual set-up essential for becoming a dancer. Some of these exercises are similar to yogic postures that help learners maintain a physical and mental discipline. There are at least 64 Mati-Akhoras and they are broadly categorized into two parts – pure exercises and basic dance units. Pure exercises are based on some acrobatic poses. These exercises are generally not used in dance, though there are some exceptions. Mati-Akhoras embrace all the features of Sattriya dance – basic body positions, body bending, body movements, foot stances and foot movements, various jumps, turns, gaits, hastas (hand movements), head movements, neck movements, eye movements, etc.
Sattriya is essentially based on Bharata’s Natya Shastra. Other texts such as Abhinaya Darpana, Sangeet Ratnakara, Sri Hastamuktavali, etc., have also played a significant role. Various indigenous elements such as folk dance postures, sculpture, miniature painting, dance postures of pre-Sankaradeva era, etc., have gone into Sattriya too, as did all essential elements of classical dances.
They include the Natyadharmi principle (refined, symbolic presentation), Tandava-lasya (vigorous and graceful elements), nritta and nrittya elements (pure dance, based on tala and bhava based dance), etc. Though the nava-rasas are present in its optimum grandeur, bhakti is the prime rasa in Sattriya because it is derived from the Vaishnava bhakti movement.
Sattriya has a rich literature and music. Sankaradeva, Madhavadeva and many other disciples of the two gurus had composed a large corpus of lyrics based on a distinct raga and tala pattern that are practiced as the accompanying music in Sattriya. The distinctive features of these compositions are the expositions of passionate bhakti to Lord Krishna and sometime to Lord Rama.
Sattriya has the distinctive form of aharya (costume) too. The costumes, ornaments and make-up exude the local characteristics and flavours. Every Sattriya dance number has its own dress code, and it is strictly followed by the Sattras.
As the only living classical dance tradition of India, Sattriya has undergone an evolution through the ages, flourishing into a beautiful form with contribution from various adhyapaks or gurus and shishyas or disciples. Inevitably, its aesthetic appeal has taken it beyond the borders of the country.
(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)