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Sattriya Dance: Assam's classical dance

S Balakrishnan *



The Majulii island in Assam is not only geographically unique but also culturally. The Vaishnavite mutts in that island, locally known as 'sattra', have been nurturing religious-oriented music and dance forms, including masked dance, as well as other traditional arts and skills. This dance form has now acquired, after centuries of refinement, the status of classical level.

I had the opportunity to witness a Sattriya dance performance recently in Chennai. During the Tamil month equivalent of mid-December to mid-January called 'Margazhi', a lot of music (vocal & instrumental) and dance program are organized in Chennai. These will mostly be traditional / classical varieties from all over our country; a high percentage will, however, be based on South India's Carnatic music tradition.

One of the multitude sabhas, Karthick Fine Arts Society, had arranged the sattriya dance at Bharatiya Vidhya Bhavan auditorium in Mylapore locality. During Dec.-Jan., Chennai witnesses a very pleasant weather condition, ahead of the hot, hotter and hottest months to follow.

Every year this Music Season attracts fans even from abroad some regularly and Chennai becomes a haven & heaven for music/dance lovers. The canteens attached to these Sabhas serve traditional items like dosai, idly, vadai, etc. Served 'garam garam' (hot), sometimes this menu becomes the hot topic than the actual menu inside the auditorium!

There are some fans who make a round of the sabhas just for the canteen menu.

The Sattriya performance was by the mother and daughter duo, Indira P.P. Bora and Menaka P.P. Bora. The former is also the Guru of the latter. Indira Bora from Assam, to my surprise, is also an exponent of Bharathanatyam, the classical dance form of Tamil Nadu; not only that, she is also an exponent of Kuchupudi, the classical dance form of Andhra!

In addition, she had learnt them respectively from the immortal Rukmani Devi Arundale and Dr. Vempatti Chinna Satyam, both legends! It was Rukmini who gave a new life to Bharathanatyam which was once considered to be inferior as it was performed by Devadasis and was called 'Sadir'. Indira Bora is a Sangeet Natak Akademi awardee. Following her mother's footsteps, Menaka Bora is now an ethnomusicologist and a research scholar abroad.

I could observe a lot of dissimilarities between Sattriya, Assam's classical dance, and Bharathanatyam, the host state's classical dance form. The costume was simple unlike the elaborately bejeweled & bedecked Bharathanatyam dancers.

Though simple, the costume was traditional, smart and striking, unlike the silk & zari attire of Bharathanatyam dancers. Whereas the younger Bora took up challenging brisk movements, the elder Bora generally performed graceful slow movements. The program began with Guru Vandana by Menaka; naturally, there was an item on Rass Leela, the Sattras being Vaishnavaite-based. The one hour or so program also had a few other interesting items.

Majuli is one of the world's largest inhabited river islands; it has several satras Vaishnavite monasteries some dating back to the 15th century. The Institution of Satra is a unique feature of Vaishnavism in Assam, founded by Sankardeva, the father of Assamese culture. The satras are not just monasteries but centres of traditional performing arts. Majuli has now been declared as a District, a single Island District at that!

The first Satra was founded in Majuli in 15th century. Since then sixty five Satras have come up for the propagation of ethics and socio-cultural ideals. However, at present there are only twenty two Satras in Majuli. The others had to be shifted to safer places due to the devastation of flood and erosion.

The songs and dances initiated by Shri Sankaradeva such as Borgeet, Bhatima, Jumora, Chali, Paalnaam, Noyua, Apsara, Satriya Krshna, etc., are taught and promoted here apart from numerous other crafts of which mask-making is particularly significant.

For its unique geographic and cultural aspects, Majuli has been included in the tentative list of UNESCO's World Heritage Centres/Sites.


* S Balakrishnan wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer can be contacted at krishnanbala2004(AT)yahoo(DOT)co(DOT)in
This article was posted on April 19, 2017.


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