Assam and Its Dance Forms

Assam, an ancient and colorful land, is a rich playground of many linguistic, ethnic and religious societies that have lived in harmony for centuries. Various national and social groups have developed and prospered on their own within the geographical confines of Assam, but with distinct and major influences on one another. Several hundred languages and dialects are spoken in Assam and its neighborhoods, in a relatively small geographical area. Assamese is the easternmost Indo-European language (whose speakers range from Ireland in the West to Assam). There is substantial Hindu, Muslim, Christian and animist representation in the population of Assam. However, the Assamese and the Hindu religion are the dominant forces in Assam, and the influences of both permeate every aspect of the overall society and its cultural manifestations. Dances, devotional or otherwise, play a major role in enlivening and strengthening the cultural life of the society in Assam. There are many types of prevalent dance forms in Assam. Of the various dances in Assam, the Bihu, a folk dance with no religious connotation, is widely popular among all sections of the population. No movie in Assam is complete without a Bihu dance! There are several classical dances that have prospered in Assam through the centuries. However, until recently, the classical dances had not received the acclamation and acceptance they deserve, particularly among the wider audience outside Assam. The most prominent of the classical dance forms is the Xattriya or Satriya (informally pronounced Shot-tree-ya). This Web site attempts to give a picture of the dance landscape in Assam to people in India and the world.

Dance and The Dancer

The world is full of Art Forms, and according to common wisdom in India, among the sixty four different art forms, dance reigns supreme. A pleasant visual activity always has a positive impact on the mind of a human being. Dance is an artistic imitation of our own actions from our every day and mundane lives, depicting human actions and reactions backed by our wishes, desires and convictions, obviously presented in terms of sophisticated and sometimes, to the untrained eye, exaggerated gesticulations, exploiting every aspect of the the dancer's body, mind and soul. The body. mind and soul are represented in the form of Nritta (pure dance. i.e., attractive and sensuous physical movements of the body, without expression), Nritya (dance accompanied by expressions of the face) and Natya (drama, a combination of both Nritta and Nritya).

The Nartaki or The Dancer

It is best to quote an ancient book to obtain an apt description of the idealized dancer. The Natya Shastra (or The Principles of the Dramatic Arts, circa 200 BC) describes how to find the ideal dancer: "Amidst a crowd of youthful artistes who are beautiful and intelligent, look for the one who possesses inborn pride, is bold, zealous, beauteous and is a scholar of music and dance, she is the Nartaki (Dancer) who stands above the rest."

From The Abhinaya Darpana

The Abhinaya Darpan (circa 200 BC), another acclaimed and ancient book that describes the art of acting, describes the model dancer as: "The one who is slender, beautiful, young with round breasts, large eyes, self confident, witty, pleasant, who knows when to begin and end a dance, who is able to perform accompanied by vocal and instrumental music, who obseves proper rhythm, who has spendid costumes and a happy countenance, a girl having all these happy countenance, a girl having all these qualifications is called a Nartaki (dancer )".

VARIOUS DANCES OF ASSAM

The dances of Assam can be categorized as:

1. Tribal Dances

2. Folk Dances

3. Classical Dances

A Tribal Dance is the visible rhythmic formulation or expression of the joys and beliefs of people once referred to as Aborigines. For such people, a dance is more than an expression of physical or emotional exuberance, something more than a form of mere entertainment. Dance is their religion. The dance depicts the society's successes in chase and victory in war, fertility in women and yield from the land, pacification of the elements and elemination of pestilence, protection from evil and fruition of love. Tribal dances of Assam include the Faarkanti Dance, the Chakhela Dance, the Wangala Dance, the Hmar Dance, the Kherai Dance, and the Karbi Dance.

Almost akin to Tribal Dances, but less ritualistic in content are the Folk Dances, which are varied and reflective of the day to day activities of the mass of the people.The most popular Folk Dance of Assam is the Bihu Dance. The Bihu Dance generally reflects the joys and merriment of life, celebrated specially during the springs. Several tribal communities like the Mishings, Deories and Morans also perform the Bihu in their distinctive styles, but the inner meaning is the same.

Another popular Folk dance of Assam is the Jhoomoor are generally perform by tea garden workers.

Classical Dances Of Assam

It is widely accepted that there is an inseparable relation between God and dance in Assamese culture. Assam has a very rich tradition of dance.

Bharata's Natyasashtra or the "Principles of the Dramatic Art" (circa 200 B.C.) mentions Assam's ancient traditions in dance in details. Natyasashtra deals with all that concerns the drama; singing, music, dancing, the use of different dialects, and so on. Natyasashtra specifies four different divisions of Natya - Dakkhinatya (the Decean or the Southern part of Modern India), Awanty , Panchalee or Panchal-Mdhyama, and Udra-Magadha. Out of these four , Udra-Magadh indicates the Eastern Countries. It is mentioned in the Natyashastra that Banga, Kalinga, Battchya, Udra, Magadh, Nepal, Maladh, Tamralipta, Mallawartak, Pulinda, Pragjyotishpur, Baideha, Mahendra etc followed the Udra-Magadha style. In time, Pragjyotishpur-Kamrup became Assam. Assam remained fiercely independent of India till the advent of the British, but became a part of British India when the King of Burma signed it over to India without asking the native Assamese.

Besides Natyasashtra, references to dances of Assam are found in other ancient Sanskrit books Joginitantra, Kalikapurana, Abhinayadarpana, etc. The existence of sophisticated forms of dance in Assam since the earliest times has been further corroborated by the discovery of the Nataraja figures (Dancing Shiva) carved in stone and the figure of dancing Ganesha. It is interesting to note that there is a vast difference between the famous Nataraja postures of South India and that of Assam.The Nataraja postures found in Assam is known as Lalita-Bhujanga, are also found in Ajanta and Elora caves near Bombay in Modern India. .The Nataraja in Assam has 10 hands and each hand holds different Ayoodh (a weapon and other instrument, for eg. the damaru, symbolises rhythm , lotus- the sign of peace, etc.), and it is the Nandi Bishava (the bull) upon whom Nataraja dances.

At least three different styles of Assamese dance can be categorzsed as classical, because elements of the Natyasashtra are found in these dances.They are namely:

(1) Sattriya dance

(2) Savaguwa and Rang-guwa Ojapali dance

(3) Dewgharar Dev-Natir Nritya

Out of these three different style, Sattriya dance has gained the classical acclamation in India only on 15th of November, 2000. The latness in this acclamation is a perfect example of how Assam and its neighbors in the Northeast have remained outside the mainstream of Modern India, politically as well socially.

Xattriya Dance of Assam

Though Xattriya Dance has its origin in religion and was practised and performed for centuries by celibate male monks in the Sattras, the Vaishnava monasteries of Assam, in recent years, it has been adapted for stage performance. The major part of the academic and scholarly cultural world is still ignorant about this dance due to lack of proper documentation. The Xattriya dance form was started by the 15th century Vaishnavaite saint and social reformer Mahapurush Srimanta Shankardev. Mahapurush Shankardev was a singer, dancer, music composer and a poet. His works, creativity and involement in every field of human activity ushered a new cultural and spiritual renaissance in Assam.

Like the other classical dance forms in India, the Xattriya dance has also its own distinctive characteristics. For example, the first position of Xattriya is called 'ORA', it is of two types Tandava (Vigorous) and Lasya (Elegent and Graceful). This 'ORA' is called 'Aramandi' in Bharatanatyam dance of Tamil Nadu of South India and 'Soak' in Odissi dance of Orissa. Over and above, in Xattriya the Griba Karma (the movement of neck), Dristy (eye movement), Pada Chalana (foot movement), Bhramari or Paak (the circular movement of the body) etc., are note worthy. The Hasta (hand gestures) are very beautifully described in Suvankara's 'Srihastamuktavali'. There are six types of Angya (Limb), six types of Pratangya, six types of Upanga (Lower limb), nine different types of Gati (gait or movement), eight types of Dristy (eye movement), sixtyfour types of Karana (Matiakhora or Exercises), ninetypes of Shirakarma (Head movement), four types Gribakarma are found in Sattriya dance.

VARIOUS SATTRAS OF ASSAM

There are more than five hundred Sattras (monasteries) in various places of Assam. The most famous and well known Sattra is Kamalabari Sattra situated at Majuli, the biggest river island of the world. The other known Sattras are Titabar Kamalabari Sattra, Uttar Kamalabari Sattra (all in the island of Majuli), Jharabari Sattra (in Jorhat), Barduwa Sattra (in Nagaon), Barpeta Sattra (in Barpeta), Dakkhinpat, Pathbaushi, Gormur, Auniati, etc.

Matiakhora, the Syntax of Xattriya Dance

The Xattriya dance syllabus begins with the Matiakhora. Matiakhoras are the basic exercises which help in the formation of the body and clearity of hands. Matiakhoras are considered as the grammer of Sattriya dance. Each Matiakhora is like a letter in an alphabet and if we join together some postures of the Matiakhora it gives rise to a beautiful dance sequence. Matiakhoras are of sixty four types and they are divided into eight broad categories:

  1. ORA
  2. SATA
  3. JHALAK
  4. SITIKA
  5. PAAK
  6. JHAP
  7. LON
  8. KHAR 

Below are some links giving more details of Matiakhora.

Musical Instruments for Xattriya Performace

The musical instuments those are used in Sattriya are namely:

  1. KHOL (CYLINDRICAL DRUM)
  2. PAATI TAAL, KHUTI TAAL, BHOR TALL ( ALL THESE ARE CYMBALS)
  3. BAHI(FLUTE)
  4. NAGARA(ALSO DRUM)
  5. VIOLIN
  6. TANPURA
  7. HARMONIUM
  8. KAAH/GHANTA (BELL)
  9. SHANKHA (CONCH SHELL)
  10. DOBA (ALSO DRUM)
     

Costumes for a Xattriya Performance

  1. LOHONGA: Lohonga is a long skirt with pleats.
  2. TANGALI-I: Two long pieces of cloth like scarfs which are pleated and placed on either side of the shoulders.
  3. TANGALI-II: A belt designed to keep the costume in position.
  4. KASALI OR ANCHAL: A piece of cloth wrapped around the chest.
  5. PAGURI: Like Turban. There are sixteen different types of paguries used in Sattriya, most commonly used are the KUKHAPATIA PAG worn by a Suttradhari (the chief Interlocutor), TOEKUNIA PAAG worn by the Gayan (singer),the Bayan (drummer) etc.
  6. BLOUSE: Short sleeved blouse.
  7. DHOOTI: A long cloth wrapped round the legs and tied round the waist by making 'THOOR' (pleats which are not parmanent).
  8. SADAR: A long piece of cloth that is worn over the upper part of the body.

Jewellery for a Xattriya Performance

(1) SITIPATI OR KAPALI(HEAD ORNAMENT)

(2) GOLPOTA (NECKLACE)

(3) GEZERA OR DHOLBIRI (NECKLACE)

(4)BENA OR JOONBIRI (NECKLACE)

(5) DUGDUGI (NECKLACE)

(6) LUKAPARO (NECKLACE WITH EARRINGS)

(7) KERU(EAR RINGS)

(8) THURIA (EAR RINGS)

(9) SONA (EAR RINGS)

(10) GAAMKHARU(BANGLES)

(11) MUTHIKHARU(BANGLES)

(12) JUNUKA (FOOT ORNAMENT OR TINKLING BELLS)

Hasta or Hand Gestures in Xattriya Dance

Sage Bharata has described in the Natyasashtra the various poses made by hands, eyes, eye-lashes, nose, lips, cheeks, feet and head. The Srihastamuktavali, written by Subhankara Kavi of Assam, is a large treatise on hand poses or hand gestures and an elaboration of Natyasashtra on the subject. Only a single manuscript copy of this treatise has been found in the Auniati Sattra Library. It contains over 1,000 Sanskrit slokas, each followed by an Assamese rendering in prose. It is stated that this manuscript belonged, originally, to one Sucanda Rai Ojha. It may be taken for granted that the Assamese translation of the work, which could not have been of a date later than the eighteenth century A.D., was made for the use of this Ojha. As a matter of fact an Ojha must have known some, if not all, of the hand poses numbering 2079 as described in this work. According to Srihastamuktavali, the hand, for different gestures, is divided into three broad categories, namely:

(I) Asanjukta Hasta or Single Hand

(II) Sanjukta Hasta or Joined Hands

(III) Nritya Hasta or Dancing Hands

Asanjukta Hasta is of thirty different types.They are:

(1) Patak, (2) Padmakusa, (3) Hankhamukh, (4) Kartarimukh, (5) Alapadma, (6) Tripatak, (7) Musttik, (8) Shikhar, (9) Ardhachandra, (10) Sharpashira, (11) Suchimukha, (12) Khatakaamukh, (13) Araal, (14) Sukatundu, (15) Sadansa, (16) Kangul, (17) Urnanav, (18) Kapitha, (19) Mrigasirsa, (20) Hansapakhya, (21) Tamrasur, (22) Satur, (23) Mukul, (24) Bhramar, Salanta Madhukar, (25) Kadamba, (26) Krisnasarmukh, (27) Ghrunik, (28) Singhashya, (29) Ankus and (30) Tantrimukh.

Sanjukta Hastras are of fourteen different types. They are:

(1) Gajadanta, (2) Kaput, (3) Bardhaman, (4) Anjali, (5) Nisadh, (6) Karkat, (7) Utsanga, (8) Abahittha, (9) Swasttik, (10) Makar, (11) Dul, (12) Pushpaput, (13) Maraal and (14) Khatakabardhamaan.

Nritya Hastas are of twenty seven different types. They are:

(1) Keshabandha Hasta, (2) Nitamba Hasta, (3) Resit Hasta, (4) Ardharesit Hasta, (5) Satur Hasta, (6) Udhrittu Hasta, (7) Pallab Hasta, (8) Pakhyabanchit Hasta, (9) Lataanaam Hasta, (10) Natamukh Hasta, (11) Swastik Hasta, (12) Biprakirna Hasta, (13) Abwidhabaktru Hasta, (14) Susyasya Hasta, (15) Araalkhatakaamukh Hasta, (16) Bakkhyumandali Hasta, (17) Urahpaarshwardhamandali Hasta, (18) Paarshwamandali Hasta, (19) Urdhamandali Hasta, (20) Musttikswasttik Hasta, (21) Pakhyapradyutak Hasta, (22) Kari Hasta, (23) Dandapakkhya Hasta, (24) Garurpakkhya Hasta, (25) Alapadmunnut Hasta, (26) Uttanresit Hasta and (27) NaliniPadmakus Hasta.

Bbarir Abasthan or Position of Feet

There are five positions allowed.

(1).Samapaad, (2) Bisampaad, (3) Akunchit, (4) Kunchit and (5) Ogratalsanchalan.

Bharir Maan or Steps

Fourtyfour different types of steps are used in Sattriya dance. Each movement of the foot is mainly based on these steps.They are namely;

(1) Juti, (2) Bar Juti, (3) Adha Juti, (4) Uthi Siral, (5) Bahi Siral, (6) Solona, (7) Pani Paruwa, (8) Pani Pisoluwa, (9) Khuwali Pisaluwa, (10) Tewari, (11) Bagali Ghutiuwa, (12) Baahir Sula Ghuruwa, (13) Vitar Sula Ghuruwa, (14) Nepur Soluwa, (15) Haati Khujia, (16) Maan Solona, (17) Kawai Bulan, (18) Dhera Paak, (19) Naandi Khuj, (20) Sitika, (21) Shalika Juti, (22) SoruJuti, (23) ThiaJuti (24) Kaatir Salona, (25) Borah Jaap, (26) Khusora, (27) Soria Jaap, (28) Dulpata, (29) Harin Jaap, (30) Bagali Thengia, (31)Bhauri Paak, (32) Sorusola, (33) Barsola, (34) Danchakra, (35) Gubardhan Dharan, (36) Tini Juti, (37) Thekesoni, (38) Utha Khuj, (39) Boithaku Buwa, (40) Akpakia Sitika, (41) Bulani, (42) Pitika, (43) Dupakia Sitika, (44) Laahani Mara.

Taals or Rhythmic Beats

Main Taals those are used in Sattriya dance are :

(1) Suta Taal, (2) Thukuni Taal, (3) Rupak Taal, (4) Sarubisam Taal, (5) Jati, (6) Rupganjal And (7)Mishra Taal (Combinations of four- Suta, Duwas, Rupak and Jati).

Description of Some Matiakhoras:
   

Purush Ora:

The dancer is in the semi sitting position which is Ora position. The heels are placed at a distance of six inches with toes pointing outward. The two feet make a horizontal line and the knees will bend outwards. The two hands will make the Patak Hasta and (the thumbs will bend inwards) The elbows will bend and the hands (middle fingers) will be placed at shoulder level.

BOL OR MUSICAL NOTATION OF PURUSH ORA

TAAL: SUTA TAAL(4 BEATS)

0 DHI- NA | * JEEDHEY | 0 NADHEY | 2 DHEYDAO ||

0 DHENEE | 3 TADHE | 0 NEETA | 4 DHEENA || 4 TIMES
 
 

Prakriti Ora:

Same as the Purush Ora except that the hands are put in front of the chest. This position is known as Prakriti Ora. The musical notation is same as the Purush Ora.
 
 

Orat Botha-Utha:

Maintaining the Ora position and hand folded in front of the chest ( like the Indian salutation of Namaskar) one should go from semi sitting (ora position) to sitting position.

BOL (USICAL NOTATION)

DHEI | * KHEER | 0 KHEER | 2 KHEETAW ||

0 DHEI | 3 GEER | 0 GEER | 4 DHEENAW || 4 TIMES
 
 

Harbhonga:

Sitting in the Prakriti Ora position, the dancer should strike the floor with her or his right foot and then push towards the lefthand side corner while bending it at the knee at the same time and then stretching it. The hand be at Prakriti Ora position and then should be pushed in the opposite direction of the upraised foot. Head and neck movement should be in the same direction of the upraised foot.

0 DHEE- | * NAAK | 0 KHEE- | 2 TAAK ||

0 DHEE- | * NAAK | 0 KHEE- | 4 TAAK || 4 TIMES

Athoowa:

The dancer is in the sitting position with one knee almost touching the ground and of that side of which the hand is facing towards the ground and with the other hand at the chest level, mudra (hand gesture ) is Kartarimukh hasta.

BOL ( MUSICAL NOTATION )

0 DHE - ERDHEE | * NAA- UTA | 0 KHITTITI | 2 DAWTA ||

0 DHE - ERDHEE | * NAA- UTA | 0 KHITITA | 4 DHEI || 4 TIMES


Written by Bonmayuri Kalita, Colorado Springs, CO, USA. Kalita herself is a Xatriya dancer and trainer.