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Homegrown Plus: The Sattriya Dance Company with the Dancing Monks of Assam

In the Homegrown Plus series, we present Homegrown concerts that also had accompanying oral history interviews, placing both together in an easy-to-find blog post. (Find the whole series here!) We’re continuing the series with the Sattriya Dance Company with the Dancing Monks of Assam Traditional Dance from Assam, India. This is one of two related articles on east Indian dance, the other, on Kuchipudi dance performed by the Kalanidhi Dance Company, was published last  week.

Three dancers in traditional Assam male dress and two in traditional female dress. Photo by Stephen Winick, 2018.

The Dancing Monks of Assam perform a traditional dance at the Library of Congress. The dance was originally performed inside the monastery and so the monks played the roles of both men and women, as is done here. Photo by Stephen Winick, 2018.

Sattriya is a dance form that is more than 500 years old and comes from the Vaishnavite monasteries of Assam northeast India. Vaishnavism is a branch of Hinduism that worships the god Vishnu or one of his incarnations, usually Rama or Krishna, that developed sometime in the about the second millennium BCE and became widespread with the development of  new sects in the middle ages. The Ekasarana Dharma, or Satra, religion in Assam is a form of Vaishnavism established in the 15th century by Mahapurush Srimanta Sankardev, a revered saint, poet, philosopher, and scholar. Ekasarana Dharma is monotheistic and its followers worship Krishna, who is said to have transcended through his many incarnations to become a unification of Hindu deities. It is also egalitarian and its foundation was an early movement rejecting the Indian caste system. One early purpose of plays, songs, and dances that arose from this philosophy was to spread the teachings of the religion to the people, especially reaching out to those denied an education because of their caste. The common language of the people was also used to teach this faith. These arts celebrate Krishna, particularly his childhood adventures, as a way of inspiring love towards the divine through pure love, as one loves a child. The religious plays included music and dance. Traditionally all the dancers were men, so men took roles as women in the dance.

The monastery, Uttar Kamalabari Satra on the island of Majuli on the Brahmaputra River, became regionally famous as a center for these religious arts. Sattriya was performed in a religious ceremonial context inside the monastery, so it was not accessible to women for centuries because women were not allowed inside. But by the middle of the 20th century the tradition was diminishing and in danger of vanishing, so monks from the monastery on Majuli began performing and teaching the dance in the local communities in order to preserve it as a living tradition and spread its teachings. The monks even began teaching dance to women. Guru Raseswar Saikia Barbayan, who passed away in 2000, is usually credited with the vision of bringing Sattriya to stages outside the monastery and was the first to train women. This was a revolutionary change and extremely controversial, as explained in the oral history below. But the experiment was successful as the dance became revitalized in the communities. The monks taught women to take on male roles in the dance so that women danced with women in performances. It was inappropriate for monks to dance with the women that they taught and so women did the dances together. As women became important bearers of this dance tradition, some developed a talent for taking on male roles just as some of the monks who taught them had specialized in female roles in all male dances.

Two women in traditional Assam dress dancing. Musicians can be seen in the background.

The Sattriya Dance Company performing at the Library of Congress. The Dancing Monks of Assam perform the music, and you can see the violinist and flutist in the background. In this dance Madhusmita Bora portrays the female character, and Prerona Bhuyan portrays the male character. Photo by Stephen Winick, 2018.

The Sattriya Dance Company in Philadelphia was launched in 2009 with a mission to tell the story of Sattriya and raise awareness about Majuli and its monastery through performances, lecture demonstrations, and classes. It is the first Sattriya dance company in the United States. The company’s artistic directors and performers are Madhusmita Bora and Prerona Bhuyan. In the video, you will see Madhusmita Bora dressed as a woman in a costume based on the traditional dress of Assam women, a long skirt, blouse, and chadar. The chadar is a rectangular cloth that can be worn in many ways. Dancers may wear it folded in narrow pleats then draped around the shoulders and held close with a traditional sash belt. Sattriya costumes may also have stylized versions of this costume, such as using a narrow woven band instead of a full chadar. Prerona Bhuyan dresses in male costume, including the traditional peaked turban.

Continue reading below the video player for more about Sattriya dance. But it may help to see what is being discussed, so here are the Monks of Assam and the Philadelphia-based Sattriya Dance Company performing at the Library of Congress.

Here is a brief log of the concert program:

  • The video begins with introductions by staff of the American Folklife Center followed by Madhusmita Bora, who provides a brief introduction to Sattriya.
  • The Dancing Monks of Assam open the concert by placing candles on a small altar, then perform a dance with drums.
  • At about 25 minutes into the video Dr. Bhabananda Barbayan performs a solo dance, Sutradhari Naas, taking the part of a storyteller in a dance that mixes pure dance with mime.
  • At about 36 minutes into the video Sattriya Dance Company, Madhusmita Bora and Prerona Bhuyan, perform a dance praising the young Krishna who plays the flute.
  • At 44 minutes into the video a Ramdani dance is introduced and performed by the Dancing Monks of Assam. While the previous dance provided an example of women playing a man and a woman, this dance represents the earlier tradition where male and female parts are taken by men. It is also an example of pure dance in the tradition, that is, it is intended to convey a mood rather than to tell a story.
  • At 50 minutes into the video, the Sattriya Dance Company concludes the performance with a dance that tells of 10 of the 24 incarnations of Krishna: Matsya, the fish;  Koorma, the turtle; Baraha, the wild boar; Narasimha, the half-man half-lion; Bamana, the dwarf holy man;  Parashuram, the ax-wielding warrior; Holiram, the tiller and brother of Krishna; Ram, the just ruler; Buddha, the enlightened one; and Kalki, the vengeful horseman whose arrival will mark the end of the current cycle of time.
A man holding a drum places candles on a small altar.

Dr. Bhabananda Barbayan places candles on the altar at the beginning of the performance. This small version of the traditional altar is for traveling programs. Photo by Stephen Winick, 2018.

Religious dances by monks in Assam may be performed without melodic music, such as the dance done to the rhythm of  two headed drums called khols and cymbals you see in the first dance performed by the Dancing Monks of Assam in the video. These instruments can be played by the dancers or played for them. This type of dance is related to the rhythmic folk dances of Assam and is thought to be one of the oldest forms of dance in the region. Assamese religious dance that tells a story is also extremely old. For example, Byahar Ojapali, a dance/drama form of unknown antiquity performed by men and used to tell religious stories, is the ancestor of one style of Sattriya, Sattriya Ojapali. Mahapurush Srimanta Sankardev is credited with developing Sattriya dance into its present form to accompany performances of plays used for religious teaching. By the 15th century the flute had become part of the performance, and Sankardev composed music for the dances. The violin and the harmonium are two instruments added more recently. In the beginning of the concert video, as the monks come to add candles to the small altar, you will see an unusual instrument being played, the sarinda. This bowed instrument is a relative of the western violin. The violin we are familiar with is descended from instruments that came from the far east and took various forms as they traveled westward across Eurasia. Many of them were used in religious music. So it is not surprising that the western violin has become a new addition to the sacred music accompanying Sattriya dance.

The spread of Sattriya outside the monastery in communities along the Brahmaputra River increased the visibility of the dance to the public. As tourism has become a major source of revenue in these communities, a wider interest in the dance was beneficial to the local economy. In 2000, the Indian government’s Sangeet Natak Akadem (academy for the performing arts) recognized Sattriya as one of the country’s major dance forms along side the other seven: Kuchipudi, Manipuri, Mohiniattam, Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kathakali, and Odissi. This has helped to increase interest in the dance and it is enjoying a revival. Sattriya dance is now spreading well beyond the communities of Assam. Religious aspects of the dance remain an important part of the presentation. While other dance forms of India also have important religious components and may be performed before an altar with a statue of an appropriate Hindu deity, Sattriya does not use a statue of Krishna. Instead the altar for dances holds a copy of the Bhagavata Purana, the sacred text that includes the stories of Krishna. In this performance the altar is simplified and does not hold a text. (The book Sattriya : Classical Dance of Assam, edited by Sunil Kothari, 2013, is a collection of essays on this rich tradition that gives more detail than I can provide here.)

A group of men in traditional white monastic dress kneel on the floor as they perform a dance. Each holds a drum.

The Dancing Monks of Assam perform a dance with khols (double headed drums) and cymbals at the Library of Congress. Photo by Stephen Winick, 2018.

In the oral history with members of the dance company, Sally Van de Water spoke with Madhusmita Bora, Dr. Bhabananda Barbayan, Naren Boruah, and Gobin Kalita Bayan. Dr. Bhabananda Barbayan (to the left of Ms. Bora on the screen) is a scholar, teacher, and choreographer as well as a monk. He established the Dancing Monks of  Assam as well as the Sattriya Academy in New Delhi, so he is a major force behind the revitalization of Sattriya dance. Bora introduces Naren Boruah (left of Dr. Barbayan), and Gobin Kalita Bayan as her teachers and translates for them in the video. They discuss the dance, as well Madhusmita Bora and Dr. Bhabananda Barbayan’s research on a 17th-century textile from Assam, India, held in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The cloth contains images telling stories from Hindu mythology that relate to the stories told in Sattriya dance. In an event at the Museum, the monks presented their dances along with those of Madhusmita Bora and Prerona Bhuyan. It was this event that brought the monks to the United States and created the opportunity for this concert at the Library.

Sattriya shares some similarities with Kuchipudi dance, which I wrote about in a previous “Homegrown Plus” just recently on the performance of the Kalanidhi Dance Company (find that post with accompanying videos here). In the above oral history, Madhusmita Bora and Dr. Bhabananda Barbayan mention Kuchipudi and confer on whether the female dancers wear male costume as in Sattriya. They explain that Kuchipudi, like Sattriya, was once a dance done by men but that women entered the tradition and helped to revitalize the dance. Women take male roles as they do in Sattriya. What gave Ms. Bora a moment’s pause was whether the women who dance Kuchipudi wear male costume, and she is correct that they do not, but I can see why she hesitated. In Kuchipudi the issue of women taking on male roles has been solved in a different way. Women wear saries, but tie them up in such a way as to keep their legs free. They dress their hair as women do, but keep their adornments spare. That way they perform as women, but can dance in the same energetic way that male Kuchipudi dancers do and take either male or female roles. In Kuchipudi dance it is acceptable for men and women to perform on the same stage, so many options arise for a dance company depending on the dancers available, but in the US there tends to be a shortage of male dancers. It seems to me that the solutions artists have used to update and preserve these two traditions of sacred dance have a good bit in common, although the dances come from different ethnic groups, one in the southeast of India and the other in the northeast.

As Sattriya dance takes its relatively recent place among the recognized classical dances of India, it is likely that it will continue to spread, not only through India but to other parts of the world. It has gone through understandable changes as it has adapted to new performers and venues, but I hope that even as it reaches new audiences it will continue to retain much of the traditional and sacred character that the monks hoped to preserve.

Resources

Hall, Stephanie, “Dance!” Folklife Today, April 19, 2016.

Hall, Stephanie, “A Dance for the Birthday of the Buddha” (Lao traditional dance), Folklife Today, May 12, 2016.

Hall, Stephanie, “Homegrown Plus: Kalanidhi Dance Company Performs Kuchipudi Dance,” Folklife Today,” March 21, 2019.

Hall, Stephanie, “Vasant Panchami: A Celebration of Learning,” Folklife Today, January 24, 2015.

Hocking, Jesse, “Collection of music and dance from New York immigrant groups now available for research,” Folklife Today, September 19, 2018. (The Center for Traditional Music and Dance (CTMD) Collection described includes South Asian dance.)

Kothari, Sunil,  Sattriya : Classical Dance of Assam. Marg Foundation, 2013. This book is a collection of articlees on Sattriya dance. It includes a more detailed history and discussions of different forms of Sattriya, related dance forms, and religious plays with many illustrations.

Surati: Indian Classical and Folk Dance from New Jersey (webcast), November 19, 2008, Library of Congress.

Sreevidhya Chandramouli & Friends — Traditional Indian Karaikudi Vina Music from Oregon (webcast), August 20, 2009, Library of Congress.

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