Although to a layman (such as I), for a few fleeting seconds it might seem to resemble Manipuri dance, which is familiar to Bengalis, it shouldn't take long to distinguish the uniqueness and magnificence of Sattriya, dance of the Assamese monks.
For me, what immediately established the dance form's individuality was the basic foot position, or “ora”: the feet are turned out and the knees are bent sideways directly over toes.
The introduction to Sattriya, one of the eight principal classical Indian dance forms, happened at Shadhona's dance studio in Banani, Dhaka on April 16. The occasion was a workshop conducted by “bhakat” (Vaishnavite monks) of Uttar Komolabari Satra (monastery) of Majuli, Assam, in India. The workshop was facilitated by Artes Nomades.
Dance exponent and researcher Lubna Marium, who is also the general secretary and artistic director of Shadhona, briefed the participants on the history of the dance form prior to the arrival of the monks.
Sattriya has remained a living tradition since its creation by the founder of Vaishnavism in Assam, Srimanta Sankardev, in 15th century.
Sattriya is derived from the word “satra” or monastery, as the dance was exclusively practised and performed by the monks.
Sankardev employed the dance form as a tool of storytelling in “Ankia Naat” -- drama primarily centred on Krishna.
Sattriya dance has some distinctive footwork patterns. The basic stance, ora, involves both feet and hands. There are two types of ora: “purush” (masculine) and “prakriti” (feminine).
The team of bhakat arrived and were greeted by Lubna Marium and dancers of Shadhona.
The demonstration by the monks, led by Bhabananda Barbayan, began. To the beats of khol (two-sided drum) and taal (big cymbals), the monks clad in white showed young dancers how to execute the ora, and the stretches they do to stay flexible. Shadhona dancers also learned about “alapadma” or “lotus hand gesture” and “dhwaja”, the raised open-palm stance.
Life of a dancer monk
Before lunch break, I had the opportunity to talk to Bhabananda, who provided a glimpse into the lives of the dancer monks.
The bhakat are celibate monks, sent to the satra by their parents. They join the monasteries as children. Bhabananda joined the Uttar Komolabari Satra when he was a little over four. There have been monks in his family for five generations. His uncle was a musician at the satra.
The children go through a disciplined upbringing: waking up very early, studying in the satra, doing chores, practising dance, praying, going to public school, doing homework, going through more lessons etc. The “Burha Bhakat” or head of the “boha” (each house within the boundaries of a satra) takes care of the children. The head of a satra is called a “Satradhikar”.
The satras are self-sustaining; they accept but don't solely depend on donations. Though traditionally the main occupation has been farming, bhakats can choose to be teachers or entrepreneurs. If a bhakat chooses to marry, he leaves the satra.
Bhabananda studied at Gauhati University and taught for a year. He did a PhD in “Rhythmic Pattern of Sattriya Dance” from Rabindra Bharati University (under dance exponent and researcher Dr. Mahua Mukherjee). He is a visiting faculty at Université Paris 8.
Bhabananda is the artistic director of Satraranga, a troupe of bhakats. The troupe has 25 regular artistes (dancers, actors and musicians).