Sattriya: From ritual to performing art

This article is an excerpt from a conversation with CHARUKESI & S. JANAKI, published in September 1999 in which Indira and Menaka explained how the ritual art of Sattriya dance attained the status of a performing art,  

Dancers Indira P.P. Bora and her daughter Menaka P.P.Bora were in Chennai recently when they presented two performances of Sattriya, the neo-classical dance-form of

Assam. Some of the items they performed were Sootradhari, Guru vandana, Krishna vandana, Jhoomra, Dasavatara and Raas nritta.


Indira Bora learnt Bharatanatyam at Kalakshetra and has taken this art-form to the eastern part of India. She runs an arts institution called Kalabhumi in Guwahati where as many as 500 students learn Bharatanatyam, Sattriya, and other fine arts like painting. Indira has been actively involved in the transformation of Sattriya from a ritual to a neoclassical art-form. Menaka too is a student of Bharatanatyam. Her guru-s are her mother Indira Bora and Shanta & V.P. Dhananjayan.


What is Sattriya dance?

Indira: Sattriya was evolved in the 15th century by the great Vaishnavite saint Sankaradev. Nearly 500 years ago there were about 500 Vaishnavite monasteries all over Assam, and this ritual art was performed by male monks • with or without any audience. The word sattriya is derived from 'satra', which means monastery.

Menaka: We pronounce 'sa' as 'kho' with an intonation peculiar to the Assamese language. In fact, we pronounce 'sattriya' as 'khottriya'. No idols were kept in front while this ritual

art was performed; the Bhagavad Gita or some other Vaishnavite text, called keertan puthi (book), was kept on a pedestal. The objective was to present

only bhakti throughout. their brotherhood and return to family life if they so desired.


Who performs Sattriya?

/: Earlier, women were not allowed to perform Sattriya. The men performed the female roles as well. However, there was no caste bar for men. There was no richpoor

distinction either.

M: Usually boys who belonged to the Mahanta or Gosain family would perform the Sattriya rituals. There was an old custom which allowed any family to dedicate a son to the satra and this boy could perform Sattriya as long as he continued to be in the monastery. These boys/men were free to shed is the oldest satra; the Bardua Satra in middle Assam; and the Barpeta Satra in lower Assam. The distinct gharana-s followed in these satra-s have, by and large, influenced the styles followed in various satra-s.


Where did the monks perform the Sattriya rituals?

I: The monks used to perform the Sattriya rituals inside the naam ghar or the nama sankeertana hall, while the audience watched from outside as the hall was open on all four sides. Whoever came first, could take his place first, among the limited audience

seated inside the naam ghar.

M: Even now women are not allowed inside the naam ghar, although they are nowadays allowed to come to the satra-s. Every satra has a naam ghar.

/: Sattriya was, and still is, presented in a naam ghar. And because these halls are open to the audience on all four sides, we have the practice of repeating the Sattriya movements on all sides. Even now most villages in Assam have a naam ghar which has its own special design and decor. Most famous is the one in Kamalabari Satra, situated in Majuli, the biggest river-island on the Brahmaputra river. Lots of tourists come here every year.


Are the Sattriya rituals the same in every satra?

M: No, some of the items vary from satra to satra. In some cases, even an item with the same name is performed in different ways in different satra-s, as for example, the item called 'sootradhari' in the Supuha satra and in the Kamalabari satra. The ways of playing the khol (a percussion instrument) and some of the bol-s are also special to certain satra-s. In fact, if

one is familiar with Sattriya, one might be able to identify even the satra to which the percussionist belongs!


/: One could say there are three main satra-s in Assam: the Kamalabari Satra in Upper Assam

M: It is during Janmashtami in August, the month in which Lord Krishna was born, that the general Mcnaka & lndira public gets a chance to see Sattriya being performed

outside the monasteries, in wide open spaces.


Tell us how you were initiated into dance, Indira ji?

/: When I was very young, about eight years or so, Pradeep Chaliha, my maternal uncle, inspired me to learn Sattriya. I did not know its importance, then. Pradeepji knew Rukmini Devi Arundale and he advised me to go to Kalakshetra and so I came to Madras. I stayed here for about 13 years learning Bharatanatyam. I completed my post-graduate diploma in Bharatanatyam at Kalakshetra with distinction.


Do you perform Bharatanatyam in the eastern region with the traditional Tamil and Telugu lyrics?

/: For the last 17 years, I have been performing Bharatanatyam in Assam. I am maintaining the traditions of Kalakshetra. The late Sankara Menon once remarked after seeing my performance here: "It is the same tradition [you learnt at Kalakshetra]." Most often, when I perform Bharatanatyam to Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit lyrics set to Carnatic music, I perform to taped music. It is very difficult to get accompanists all the way from Chennai every time.

In fact, the practice of using taped music is catching on fast with dancers in the north-eastern region. I also perform Bharatanatyam to Assamese lyrics, for which I do choreography in the traditional Kalakshetra-style. I have also taken the compositions of Sankaradev and Madhavdev, which are semi-classical songs in Brajavali (the language used in Assamese

manuscripts) which are called 'Bor geet', and have composed dance in the Bharatanatyam idiom. Such items have been widely appreciated in Assam and

elsewhere in the northeast.


Why did you go back to Sattriya dance, after learning


/: I felt that Sattriya too had classical elements. It had grammar, it had its own music, it had bol-s or sollukattu-s.

M: The basic stance for Sattriya is 'ora' which is somewhat similar to the ardhamandali of

Bharatanatyam, but when you take the ora position, the distance between the heel of the two feet should be one foot, which is much more than for the


/: In Sattriya too we have to learn the basic adavu units plus exercises. Only these are called the 'matiakhara-s'. They are 64 in number. So I thought why not take this ritual art-form from the monasteries and develop it into a dance-form which can be presented on stage. I was the first woman dancer in Sattriya dance. I was the first to give it a neoclassical