Stand for Sattriya

What does it take to bring a dance form to visibility? Mallika Kandali, a steadfast exponent of the Assamese Sattriya, has the answer

Mallika Kandali

Mallika Kandali is presently one of the foremost exponents of the classical Sattriya dance of Assam. As a teacher and an experimenter, she has made a valuable contribution to this performing art in the Vaishnavite tradition that Guru Srimanta Sankardeva introduced in Assam in the Middle Ages.

Why Sattriya and not any other form of dance, you ask. Prompt comes the answer, “It couldn’t have been any other way.” Mallika explains, “We grew up in a place called Majgaon in the Nagaon district. It’s not far from Bordowa.”

This is where Sankardeva established one of the first than’s, a sacred place, also known as sattra (monastery), to propagate his new religion that had humanity at its core. People from all castes and social strata were welcomed as equals by the seer.

Bhaona (one-act play) on different phases of Lord Krishna’s life, Sattriya dance and naam-kirtan (singing of devotional songs) are integral to the Sankari culture.

An introduction

Mallika remembers that her uncle, who was not only a freedom fighter but also a connoisseur of music and dance, regularly held jalsa — musical evenings, at home. He taught her to dance in this tradition. “We children took part in dance-dramas during the Holi festival and other functions. Later, my father was transferred to Diphu, now called Karbi Anglong. There, I got enrolled in a dance institute called Kala-Kendra. A tradition had to be carried on, after all. We had fun learning; it was a cosmopolitan place and children from different communities — Bodos, Punjabis, Bengalis, besides us, Assamese, danced together.”

Mallika performed in many places meanwhile but continued her studies, and after post-graduation, joined a college as a teacher in Digboi, the oil town, in upper Assam. “But it was while coming to Guwahati on a transfer that my life changed as a performer, giving me more scope to delve deeper into the tradition of Sattriya dance,” she says.

One such was an opportunity to pursue a PhD on dance in the Gauhati University. Mallika recalls how difficult it was at first to convince her interviewers about her project, The Sattriya and the Odissi Dances: A Comparative Study, as research subject. It was something new for the institution. In fact, she was the first woman researcher in this field in the university. But once she succeeded in convincing them, she found a way to realise a lifetime ambition.

As she reveals, “My uncle always told me that I had to establish the unique character of Sattriya dance.”

To contextualise, for a long time there was an impression created in the pan-Indian arena that Sattriya was just a branch of dances in the Vaishavite tradition of Bengal and Odisha. True, Sankardev travelled extensively in these regions for 12 years and got introduced to the Vaishnavite ethos as he was seeking another ‘way’ of worship after getting disillusioned with the excesses of ritualistic pooja. “He took recourse to tools like dance, drama etc to attract the largely illiterate mass to this neo-Vaishnavite movement. They were different from other regions — dances like Gotipua in Odisha, for example, as they were more steeped in local Assamese ethos and folk traditions.” Mallika points out.

But this proposition needed extensive research to establish itself. It was the beginning of Mallika’s association with the Uttar Kamalabari Sattra in Majuli, world’s biggest inhabited island in the midst of Brahmaputra river. Majuli is the repository of authentic Sankari culture with its many sattras established by Sankardev and his disciples. “I have been going there for the last 25 years to study practical and theoretical aspects of the dance. I stay as a guest of the head in the premises of the sattra, in a simple bamboo cottage and follow the lifestyle of the devoted bhakats (disciples). I learn something new every time,” Mallika feels.

Journey of learning

To make a comparative study for her dissertation, Mallika had to go to Odisha quite often. She also had to read scriptures and communicate with the practitioners of Odissi style of dance. So she started learning Oriya language and the dance, too. With her extensive work, Mallika was able to establish that though both the dance styles have many things in common, following the tenets of the Natya Sastra, Yogic mudra, etc, both are different, too, from historical and technical points.

Though she follows the authentic style of Sattriya, Mallika does not hesitate to improvise within the boundaries of the prescribed format.

For example, she has also choreographed dance-dramas like Asta Nayika based on Natya Sastra’s eight epic women, Mondodori Puche Ravanka (Mandodori questions Ravana in Brajabuli language) from a feminist point of view with modern sensibilities, and many others.

Mallika has won numerous awards and has performed extensively at home and abroad in dance festivals, offering the audience glimpses of the beautiful Sattriya dance of Assam, about which even within the country there is limited knowledge.

She has authored three books, including Sattriya: The Living Dance Tradition of Assam in English. As Mallika continues to teach in a college as an associate professor, and her students in her dance school, her learning curve has not stopped expanding. “Dance is like meditation for me,” Mallika says, and lives by the philosophy.

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