Carrying the tradition forward

Carrying the tradition forward

Carrying the tradition forward

As we sat swapping stories about growing up in Assam, over a cup of tea and a plate of scrumptious Til Pithas, (rice pancakes filled with sesame seeds and jaggery) a popular Assamese snack, I realised that Sanjukta Barooah Swargari is a determined young woman who knows her mind and follows her heart.

And follow her heart, she did, when it came to learning the Sattriya, an ancient dance form of Assam. Jokingly, she exclaims, “I was a selfish daughter,” and reminisces about the days she attended dance classes as a child. “Despite my father’s disapproval, I never gave up dancing.” So strong was her commitment to this art form that she even gave up Bharatnatyam to ensure that her focus remained on only one style of dance.

Getting married at an early stage of her student life was another decision that Sanjukta took, although that did not stop her from pursuing her further studies in journalism in London. It was during this phase of life abroad that she realised where her heart lay. “I wanted to work towards spreading awareness about Sattriya and our dance traditions. Even today, though it is recognised as one of the eight classical dances of India, Sattriya nritya is not very popular,” she says.

Passion, they say, is a great motivator. Perhaps it is this passion for her chosen dance form that takes this young mother of two to the island of Majuli, in Assam. Sometimes, she is away for weeks at a stretch, leaving behind family and friends, adopting a life of simplicity and devotion — all for imbibing the purest techniques of the dance form. For, it is in Majuli, one of the largest river islands in the world, do the origins of Sattriya lie.

A living tradition

Conceived by the revered Assamese Vaishnav saint, Shrimanta Shankardev, in the 15th century, Sattriya nritya is quite unique in itself. For, unlike other classical dance forms which no longer exist traditionally but had to be reconstructed and revived to their current forms, Sattriya is a living tradition, still practiced by the bhokots (male monks) in the sattras (monasteries) of Majuli.

Shankardev spread his ideologies on Vaishnavism using music, dance and drama as an artistic yet effective tool. The origin of Sattriya can be traced back to it being an integral part of Ankiya Bhaona (one-act plays), written and enacted by the saint and his chief apostle Madhavdev, who later separated the dance pieces from the main drama and nurtured them into independent art forms.

Over the next few centuries, Sattriya was preserved and kept closely guarded within the sattras. It was only the bhokots who practiced and performed the sacred dance, away from the prying eyes of the commoners, wherein women were neither allowed to enter the monasteries nor partake in the performances. Even female roles were enacted by male monks.

It was only during the 1950s that Sattriya emerged from its cloistered existence and was exposed to a much wider audience. It was also during this time that women started to learn the male-dominated dance form. The monks of the Kamalabari Sattra played a vital role in taking the dance tradition to the people in the form of performances, lectures and workshops, the world over.

Even then, it was only in the year 2000 that Sattriya was recognised as one of the eight classical dance forms of India by the Sangeet Natak Akademi. Due to the lack of awareness and absence of credible research on the sacred dance rituals, clubbed with the almost impenetrable sattras, ever so fiercely guarded from the masses, it is no surprise that the recognition came way after the acceptance of the other seven classical dance forms.

Sanjukta reveals, “Even today, everything is not open to public; the monks shut the doors of the kirtan ghar or naam ghar (prayer hall), and perform the rituals. I am extremely lucky to have one special monk, Adhyapak Bhabananda Barbayan from the Uttar Kamalabari sattra, who has accepted me as his student.”

Life on Majuli, Sanjukta says, “is devoid of any materialism”. The monks live simple lives and “one tends to get lost in the natural surroundings and the beauty of the dance form; the surreal experience makes you forget everything materialistic”.
A regular day for her while living on the island involves visiting her adhyapak’s (teacher) house early in the morning and helping him with household chores. Entering the kitchen, for women, however is still taboo.

The day progresses with mati aakhoras (basic floor exercises and dance postures) that are similar to the yogasanas, but extremely strenuous in comparison. These aakhoras prepare the body for the more elaborate dance routines that follow.

But while Majuli’s popularity as the epicentre of Vaishnavite culture and tradition has grown over the years, many of us are oblivious to the fact that a huge threat looms large over the very existence of the island and the livelihood of the locals.

Annual floods, coupled with massive erosion caused by the mighty Brahmaputra, have resulted in the island shrinking at an alarming rate with almost more than half of its landmass gone. With no more land to till and houses being swept away, more and more locals are relocating to other towns and cities in desperation. Yet, others hang onto the hope that with the Archeological Survey of India campaigning hard to get a UNESCO World Heritage Site tag for preservation of the island, there might still be a chance for its survival.

Sanjukta chose to go to Majuli to learn this art form while many of her contemporaries have yet to make this journey. In a formal ceremony called the ranga pravesha, she debuted as a solo dance artiste last year, and is the first established Sattriya dancer, in Delhi/ NCR region.

While popularising Sattriya through her performances across the country remains her top priority, Sanjukta also plans to start teaching the dance form to the future generations to help in its preservation. While continuing her further research on the subject, she nurtures the hope of portraying the mystic life of the monks of Majuli, in the shape of a coffee table book, someday soon.

As for her family, she smiles and says, “They appreciate the art form and encourage me, hence, I don’t feel guilty for being away for long. Rather, I feel happy and free.”

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