An Odyssey of the Spirit with the Dancing Monks of Assam

by Ashabi Rich for the Dance Journal | photo credit Bill Hebert

Drexel University’s Mandell Theater in the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design presented the Dancing Monks of Assam who performed in the Indian classical dance style called Sattriya. This dance style received the official designation of “classical” from the Indian government in 2000. This style was inaccessible to women to perform for many centuries. It remained the province of the monastic artists of the remote Assam sastra (monastery) on northeast Indian island of Majuli.   Philadelphia- based Sattriya Dance Company performed the classical Indian dance style with women rather than the tradition of men only. Madhusmita Bora, co-founder of Philadelphia-based Sattriya Dance Company was raised in Assam. Bora has traveled back to Assam frequently and worked tirelessly to put the divine worshipful art of the monks on a world stage.  In 2009 Bora and Prerona Bhuyan founded Sattriya Dance Company. Women dance all the roles, a complete change of tradition from the monastery’s presentation where all the roles are danced only by men. Through her efforts, Bora brought the monks for a maiden tour of the United States. They have toured widely in Asia and Europe.

Dancing Monks of Assam was founded by internationally recognized Sattriya scholar Dr. Bhabananda Barbayan. Barbayan, also a monk, is a choreographer, a dancer, and a percussionist. In addition to the khol drums and tal cymbals played by the dancers, there was live accompaniment of violin, cymbals, flute, bell, and vocals performed by musicians Gobinda Kalita, Basanta Saikia, Dwipendra Sarma, and Niranjan Saikia.  These particular double-headed drums are called khol. Khol drummers who also dance are known as bayan. In addition to Barbayan, the dancers were Naren Boruah, Krishna Kumar Saikia, Sorbananda Dowaria, Satya Nath Borah, and Dina Nath Boruah.

Spiritual devotion, by way of this dance form, is manifested in reverential movement, music, and poetic recitations. Dancing, as devotion and offering to a deity, is an ancient practice in many cultures ancient and new. This form of Hindu spiritual devotion, Sattriya, is in the modern sense of the phrase, “praise dancing”. Like much of Near Eastern dance, this style is minutely choreographed with isolated movements that flow together in animated sculptures. Students enter the monastery as children to begin the extensive training. If anyone should decide that the lifestyle of celibate devotion is not his path, he is free to leave the sattra with blesses and well-wishes.

Credits for the costumes go to Naren Baruah, Prerona Bhuyan, and Mohammad Sayyed Ali. The designs and materials are visual complements in color, fit, and beauty.  The costumes, able to stand on their own as artful, are perfect frames for the disciplined and lithe dancers.

Many of the dance movements are at least four centuries old, such as in the fourth work, Ramdani (flower vase), which displayed masculine movements (tandav) and feminine movements (lasya). The fact that Sattriya was inaccessible to women meant that men and women did not then and do not now dance together on stage. Thus feminine movement, known as lasya, was danced by men dressed and made up as women. Conversely, when Bora’s all female dance company Sattriya performed in Isha Bondona (a praise dance to the Supreme deity Krishna and his flute playing), costume and gesture distinguished the male and female roles.

Invocation and Gayan Bayan, which opened the program, was a mesmerizing work that featured percussive artful footwork and hand gestures that offered beautiful flourishes and extended expression to the drumming and singing. The dancers played the gorgeous, cylindrical double-headed drums as familiar extensions of the self. Their hand gestures punctuated the songs with emphatic expression. A blend of mime and dance, Sutradhari Naas was a strong piece that came majestically alive in its portrayal of Lord Krishna and danced by Barbayan.

Dokhobotar, danced by Bora and Bhuyan, was a complex piece of movement and meaning. Highlighting ten of Krishna’s twenty-four incarnations, this female dancer represented the male Krishna with tandav movement. She was distinguished as male by her costume of loose pants while the woman in sari had her soles, toes, palms, and fingers stained red representing female energy. Program notes were extremely helpful in interpreting the story.

The seventh piece and finale Kharman brought both companies on stage to pay respect to Lord Krishna. The dancers suffused blessings of peace, love, and happiness from Krishna to all. This folkloric company was a wonderful cultural immersion experience as well as a moving, visual, audio work of art. Five of the works were based on folkloric texts, the listing of which invited further study and the promise of enjoyable reading.

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