> Creative > Dance  
Dr. Mallika Kandali
Date of Publish: 2016-03-26

The Sattriya and the Manipuri: Two classical dance forms of North-East India


The North-East India has a very colourful and rich cultural tradition of its own. Lots of folk dances represent the vibrant lifestyle and culture of this region. Besides these spectacular folk dances, the North-East has two very philosophical and devotional classical dance forms, which are already recognized as the major Indian classical dances with the other six classical dances in various parts of India. They are - Sattriya dance of Assam and Manipuri dance of Manipur. Both the classical dance forms have lots of resemblances about which we can do a comparative mapping.

History says that there is a close relationship between Assam and Manipur, and rather, Manipur was a part of Assam before political polarization after independence. Noted historian S.L. Baruah mentioned that – “A notable event the reign of Rajeswar Singha was an expedition to Manipur, whose king Jay Singha, being unable to resist repeated aggressions from the Burmese, lost a part of his kingdom to the invaders and sought shelter in Cachar…… Rajeswar Singha, agreed to help the Manipuri King Jay Singha and sent a contingent of 40,000 soldiers under the command of Haranath Senapati Phukan. ………As a token of gratitude, the Manipuri King gave his Daughter Kuranganayani in marriage to the Ahom King and offered him valuable presents1. According to H.K. Barpujari-” The Tungkhuigiya Buranji records that on the occasion of the visit of Manipuri and Kachari kings to the court of Gaurinath Simgha,. a bhaona performance called Ravana-Vadha was arranged…….. The two visiting kings were greatly impressed”². Noted scholar Kapila Vatsyayan has mentioned that –” The period of his rule ( Rajasri Bhagyachandra ), from 1763 to 1798, was one of great turmoil. He was defeated in battles, was in exile, and he re-conquered his land. Whether in exile, living with the kings of Ahom or independently.” ³.

These examples proved that there was a good relation between Manipur and Assam. It is worth mentioning that the Manipuri King Jay Singha was known as Rajashri Bhagyachandra also, who had a very important role to introduce the Manipuri classical dance in 18th century.

The Sattriya dance, evolved in later part of 15th century, was a offshoot of the new-Vaishnava resurgence, which took place in Assam with Srimanta Sankaradeva (1449-1568), the great saint, poet, artist, playwright, philosopher, social reformer, as its fountain head. The great saint with an aim of propagating of bhakti, introduced Ankiya bhaona, the distinctive form of theatre as a medium of reaching out to the people of all hues. The Ankiya bhaona is a great work of artistry combining music, dance and drama. Dances for various sequences, and for various characters both male and female of various plays find a very importance component of Ankiya – bhaona. Srimanta Sankaradeva wrote six pays. Sri Sri Madhavadeva, the main disciple of Srimanta Sankaradeva has also written another six palys, which to contained large number of dance sequences. On the other hand, Sri Sri Madhavadeva, introduced several dance numbers outside the arena of the theatrical performances. In this way during the days of the saint themselves dance flourished as a distinctive form. And these dances came to be classified into two groups (A) Dances derived from theatrical representations and (B) the dance numbers which are independent of the drama. It is worth mentioning that there various dance numbers came to be pursued and practiced in Sattra institutions – the Vaishnava monastery, introduced by Srimanta Sankaradeva, on different occasions both as a medium to pursue bhakti and as a part of various festive or ritual occasions. In this way, this dance form evolved as a major art form enduring through centuries with the support from the cognoscenti both inside and outside premises of the Sattra institutions. As the form grew and became an essential component of the various ritual and prayer services of the Sattra institutions, the Sattra community developed gradually a well structured pattern for teaching and learning of this dance form which was handed down to generations orally through the gurukul system. Thus, artists and connoisseurs of the tradition and the academic circles christened it as the sattriya dance as a comprehensive technical term covering the entire gamut of contributions starting from Sankaradeva to the later composers. Now, Sattriya is parallely performed in the sattra as a medium of ritual and as a performing art on the modern stages as an aesthetic expression.

Manipur has a very rich dance tradition. Dance has an important role in their day – today life, because the Manipuri tradition closely related to worshipping God through dance and music. History says that – dance constituted an integral part of each and every ritual in Manipur. The ancient Lai Haraoba festival (Lai means God and Haraoba means to pleased) was an example, where dance had a dominating role, ritualistic expression with choreographic presentation. It is worth mentioning that the culture and people of Manipur were highly influenced by Lai Haraoba – the ritualistic ancient theatre and its texts. During the Lai Haraoba festival many dances are performed. The Nongdai Jagoi (dance of Gods in Heaven) and the Leitai Jagoi (Dance of Goddesses on Earth) are collectively known as Leitai nongdai Jagoi – means the dance of union of Heaven and Earth, and this dance is generally performed by the Maibi (high priestess) during the Lai Haraoba festival. Like this, various dance numbers and songs are closely related with Lai  Haraoba festival. The Manipuri dance. Gurus and scholars believe that this Lai Haraoba festival or dance, is the origin of Manipuri dance tradition. Besides this dance tradition, Sankirtana is another strong dance tradition alive in Manipur. Sankirtana plays an important role in the religious life of the people of Manipur. There are many types of Sankirtana perform in different ritual occasions. There are both male and female Sankirtanas. The male Sankirtana is called nupapala and female is called nupipala. Pung cholom or drum dance and kartal cholom or cymbal dance are evolved from Sankirtana tradition. Many  such dance forms are alive in Manipur.

Though  new awareness and  cultural evolution  classical tradition  started to emerge  in 15th century Manipur during the reign of king Kyamba.  However  the classical dance  emerged in more evolved form  in the 18th century during the reign of King Bhagyachandra. King Bhagyachandra was a great devotee of Krishna cult and he himself introduced Rasleelas and Nat Sankirtana. Originally, Rasleela and Sankirtana were performed in the mandapa – a hall attached to a temple or a temporarily created large theatre. Gradually, the Gurus, artists, scholars with the strong patronage of the kings refined, re-fabricated and gave a better shape and systematic structure to the Manipuri classical dance form.

 Now when we do a comparative study between the two  dance traditions,  we see that both Sattriya and Manipuri dance forms are based on the devotional aspects of religion. In other words, both the dances are based on bhakti of Vaishnavism. The Ankiya nat or bhaona and Sattriya dance was used by Srimanta Sankaradeva as a one of the major tools to spread Vaishnavism. On the other hand Manipuri dance was also evolved from Vaishnava tradition. King Bhagyachandra was disciple of Narottamadasa of Bengal, who was follower of Mahaprabhu Chaitanya’s Vaishnavism. Only difference is that the Vaishnavism in Assam, where Krishna is the sole God to be worshiped, is based on dasya bhava or dasya bhakti (total self submission or surrender before God) and the character of Radha is not strongly visible. On the other hand, in Manipuri Vaishnavism also Krishna is considered as a sole God, but it is based on madhura bhava or madhura bhakti (amorous sentiments of devotion) and Radha has a prominent role.

 Both the dance forms are originally temple based. Sattriya dance is originally and even today also it is performed as a medium of worship to God in the Sattras of Assam. The Sattriya has been thriving in the sacred premises of the Sattras as a living dance tradition almost 600 hundred years till date. On the other hand, the Rasleelas, which is one of the major repertoires of Manipuri dance, was performed in the mandapa – a hall attached to a temple.

Further probe into these traditions exhibit   that both have various dance numbers. In Sattriya Ankiya- Bhaona contains a large repertoire dance numbers. They are – gayan-bayan, sutradhari nach, gosai pravesar nach, gopi pravesar nach, yudhar nach, rasar nach, jhumura nach, bahar nach, kharmanar bhangi etc. On the other hand, the independent dance numbers, those are not derived from theatre, they are - nadubhangi, chali, rajagharia chali, manchok, bar pravesar nach, natuwa, Sattriya ojapali etc. On the other hand, in Manipuri dance has also various dance numbers. They are – Rasleelas - (a) vasanta ras, (b) kunja ras, (c) maha ras, (d) diva ras, (e) gupa ras, bhangi pareng, gostha bhangi pareng, gostha vrindavan pareng, khurumba pareng, pung cholom, kartal cholom, mandila cholom etc.

The elements of nritta, nritya and natya are present in both the dance forms. So far nritta (pure dance) is concerned; both the dance forms are quite rich. In both the forms nrittas are primarily tala based. Sattriya is mainly divided into three parts, the first part is called ramdani (pure dance part with fixed bols), gitar nach (abhinaya part) and mela nach (elaborative pure dance). In Manipuri, Krishna nartan, gosthaleela etc are the example of pure dance.  The elements of nritya (based on bhava, rasa) are present in both the forms. In Sattriya, abhinaya or nrityabhinaya is performed in gitar nach portion. On the basis of Borgits (raga based devotional songs) composed by Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva, the songs of the Ankiya- bhaona and songs composed in the later stage by the followers of Sankaradeva, abhinaya portion is performed. In Manipuri, Rasleela, woman’s Sankirtana etc. are the examples of Nritya or abhinaya. On the basis of Jayadeva’s Geet Govinda, sanskrit poems, many bhakti poet’s compositions from Bengal and Vrindavana and some local devotional literature etc. are used in abhinaya part of Manipuri.

The elements of natya (based on story, dramatic representation) are also present in both the forms. The Sattriya is derived from Ankiya-Bhaona tradition. So, there are lots of dramatic elements are seen. In Manipuri, Rasleelas are good examples of natya. The four abhinayas – angika, vachika, aharya and sattvika are prominently present in both the dance forms. All types of rasas, nayak-nayika bheda etc. are also observed in both the dance forms.

The characteristics of tandava and lasya are visible in both the dance forms. In Sattriya, dance numbers are divided into two parts – (a) Purush bhangir nach (male dance numbers) and (b) Stri bhangir nach (female dance numbers). For example – nadubhangi, bahar, jhumura etc. are male dance numbers and chali, gopi nach, raja- gharia chali etc. are female dance numbers. The tandava (masculine mode) elements are observed in purush bhangir nach and lasya (feminine mode) elements are observed in stri bhangir nach of Sattriya. Like Sattriya, in Manipuri also, the dance numbers are divided into two parts based on tandava and lasya style. They are nupa jagoi (male dance) and nupi jagoi, (female dance). For example – pung cholom, kartal cholom, gostha bhangi pareng, gostha brindavana pareng etc. are male dance numbers. On the other hand, mandila cholom, achouba pareng, khurumba parang, dances of the gopies are female dance and lasya elements are visible through these dances.

Both the dance forms are primarily based upon Indian ancient shastras (treaties) like Natya Shastra and Abhinaya Darpana. Various shastric elements of Natya Shastra and Abhinaya Darpana are followed by these two dance forms. Besides these two ancient Indian shastras, both the dance forms follow some regional shastras also of their own.

 All classical dance traditions of India rest or have evolved for themselves a structural pattern or grammar, whether oral or written, for its sustenance and transmission. The Sattriya and the Manipuri dances also have their own structural grammar or foundation. Mati- Akhora is the basic grammar, exercise pattern and foundation of Sattriya dance. The basis of these mati - akhora the structure of the Sattriya dance has been designed. With the use of these exercise patterns various dance poses are created and combining all those poses in different patterns, different dance numbers have been composed. There are 64 mati – akhora. On the other hand, like Sattriya, Manipuri dance has also a definite grammatical structure. Chali (gaits) is the basic grammar and foundation of Manipuri dance, which is taught to beginners. Chali is a combination of movements. Feet – hands, head, eyes, everything is involved in these movements. It means, entire body is involved in each movement. Chali has a definite rhythmic pattern where bols are fixed. Besides these, some small unit of dances also are taught to the beginners. These are called bhangi pareng. Like mati – akhora of Sattriya these units of dances can be composed as a dance number. So, both the dance forms have their strong grammatical structure and foundation.

Once we deeply delve into the technical aspects of these two dance forms several revelations come up.

The basic postures or the fundamental position of the both dance forms are different. In Sattriya the foot position is in biporitmukhi pada, but in Manipuri it is in samapada. In Sattriya the basic posture is called Ora.The body movement of Sattriya constitutes the horizontal, vertical and the circular patterns. The most distinguish features of Sattriya is its ulaha (wavy or undulating movement). The ulaha is executed by holding on body weight or pulling up the body keeping pressure on the toes. In Manipuri also, very peculiar graceful body movements are observed. In the body movements of Manipuri a feeling of softness is noticed. It looks like wave of the ocean. Even the foot works are very soft. In case of deflection or body bending which is called ‘bhanga’, we observe some similarities in both the dance forms. The four types of bhangas – samabhanga (equipose), abhanga (slight flexion), tribhanga (triflexion) and atibhanga (excessive flexion) are used in both the dance forms.

Both the dance forms have a strong foundation of foot –works and hand gestures. These are based on various treatises and traditionally adhered to. Samapada, kunchita, anchita, utghatita etc. are the common foot positions and foot movements used by both the dance forms. Like that - pataka, sikhara, sharpasira, hangsamukha, ardha suchi, kapitha etc. are common hand gestures used by both the dance forms. Besides these, both the dance forms use varieties types of bhramari (turns and spins) utplavana (jumps), gati (gaits) sthana (position) etc.Both the dance forms follow the head movements, neck movements, eye movements, different movements of the eyeballs, eyelids, eye- brows etc. which are mentioned in the Natya Shastra and Abhinaya Darpana. Besides there shastric elements both the dance forms follow certain traditional features also while the above performances are made. There is a vast similarity observed between gayan-bayan of Sattriya and pung-cholom of Munipuri. Both are orchestral composition. In Sattriya the dancers play khol (drum) and in Manipuri, the dancers use pung (drum). During the performances many foot-works and jumps look alike in both the dance forms. Both the dance forms develop its own specific music, tala pattern and musical instrument. The musical instrument of Sattriya are- khol (drum), bartal, khutital,patital (cymbals), flute, doba (damana), kaliya (pipe), negera etc. Manipuri instruments are- pung (drum), kartal (cymbals), flute, esraj, jhan, mangang etc. Along with such definitive features , the    distinct  costumes and ornaments of each  reflecting  their own regional specificity, Both the dance forms continue to carry forward the vibrant cultural legacy of the north east India.

Citations :

  1. A Comprehensive History of Assam: S.L. Baruah,2009 Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd. P.D. Box-571554, Rani Jhansi Road, New Delhi-110055, Page no.: 296, 297
  2. The Comprehensive History of Assam (Volume III): H.K. Barpujari. Publication Board Assam, Guwahati-781021. Third Edition, August 2007, Page no.:412
  3. Indian classical Dance: Kapila Vatsyayan, Published by the Director, Publication Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Govt. of India, Patiala House, New Delhi-110001, Page no.:69, 70.


  1. Manipuri : RK Singhajit Singh : Wisdom Tree, C-209/1 Mayapuri, Phase-II, New Delhi – 110064.
  2. Cultural Heritage of Assam : Maheswar Neog, Omsons Publications, New Delhi, 2004.
  3. The Sattriya and The Odissi dances: A Comparative Study. (Thesis) unpublished,2005; Mallika Kandali.
  4. Nrityakala Prasanga aru Sattriya Nritya: Dr. Mallika Kandali. Written word, Guwahati, 2007.

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 )





Cartoon of the week ( Dec 1)
Conflict, Rehabilitation and Women
Graduate woman grows off-season spinach to script greenhouse success story
When paddy fields turn yellow to bring the golden moments of their life
Tale of the Fox and the Man - A Mising folktale
The new face of Bangladesh diplomacy