As a preliminary field trip for my PhD, I set out to travel to Majuli- once the largest river island in Asia but now constantly haunted but the mighty Brahmaputra, having lost many of its villages to its current. On my journey upto Nimatighat (the ferry ghat) on the banks of Jorhat, Assam, I remembered all the warnings given to me by my colleagues at the University about the rigidity and the conducts and the decorum I was about to encounter with these celibate Monks!
With almost a pre-conceived notion I boarded the boat. As I waited for it to leave, I saw a young gentleman dressed in white dhoti-kurta, long hair tied in a bun, made himself comfortable. This was my first sight of the Vaishnavite monks of Majuli. On reaching the banks of island, my friend and I were flustered with how to reach our destination, I gathered the courage to speak to the representative of the community we were there to meet. Gently, he offered us to drop to the Sattra where we were expected and did so. Much later did I come to know that this gentleman was none other than Adhyapak Bhabananda Borbayon of Uttar Kamalabari Sattra, a master of the Sattriya tradition of performing arts who is a pioneer in introducing this rich form of performance from the heart of Brahmaputra to a foreign audience.
This is a part of an interview with Adhyapak Bhabananda Borbayon:
SG: What is Sattriya?
BB: Sattriya is a system of practicing spirituality not only through prayer but also through Art and Culture. It is an aesthetic way of thinking and it’s application in daily life of a normal human being; propounded by Srimanta Sankardeva in 15th -16th century AD. Sattriya Dance is an integral part [but just one part] of Sattriya, which is evolved into an independent art from and has established itself as a classical style in the Indian panorama of classical dances. It originates as an integral part of the one act plays written and enacted by Sankardeva and his apostle Madhavdeva. Madhavdeva presented the dance pieces on attractive stages separated from the main drama and nurtured them as independent art forms. Some of the Dances that are presented through Ankia Bhaona [One Act Plays] or separately are Gayan- Bayan, Sutradhari Nach, Goshain Prabeshar Nach, Gopi Prabeshar Nach, Rashar Nach, Gayan-Bayan, Oja-Pali, Jhumura etc amongst many others
SG: Since when have you been learning Sattriya?
BB: My parents sent me to the Sattra when I was three and half years old. There I was brought up by my uncle, Adhyapak Baloram Bargayan, doyen of Sattriya music. He was the seventh generation from our family to be sent to the Sattra. And since then I have been learning Sattriya Dance, Bayan, Gayan, Ojapali, Namlagowa, Pathak, Dramas (Ankia Bhaona) under the able guidance of respected Adhyapaks of Uttar Kamalabari Sattra. I had begun playing with khol at early age when my father Mr. Rampad Hazarika let me play with khol and introduced me how to produce such divine sounds as his duty as a Borbayon of the village. I am what I am because of my great Gurus’ ashirbad (blessings).
SG: From your first performance to being a Borbayon… how has the journey been?
BB: I am trying to learn new things which are valuable to improve my artistic knowledge to spread Sankardeva’s art and philosophy. I still am a student.
SG: You have taught in Majuli and now you teach in Delhi. What made you take a decision like that?
BB: I still teach in Majuli. Even when now I am in Delhi, I need to give lessons in the Sattra, Majuli as I am an Adhyapak of Uttar Kamalabari Sattra. I was conferred Borbayon there when I was hardly 17 years old. I was entrusted with this responsibility as the youngest amongst other Adhyapaks. It is my duty to teach at the Sattra. But at the same time we as bhakats of this philosophy have the responsibility spread this massage to the masses. We have a lot many good teachers in our province then why not outside. So, I decided and chose Delhi to begin with. And you are aware that this initiation is not only in Delhi, but abroad also. But my root still lies in Majuli.
SG: You come from a celibate order of the faith where interacting with women is restricted. So how did you begin to accept women as your disciples? Wasn’t it a problem for you internally? Wasn’t it a problem with the Sattra that you belong to?
BB: Yes, [initially] there was a little problem at the Sattra but now they have overcome such an unnecessary issue. As human beings we also have the same sentiments as you have, but we have been learning since childhood about how we must transform our sentiments for welfare to the universe. Celibacy life is a lesson of sacrifice.
SG: How are your disciples of the Sattra different from the disciples in the Metropolitan?
BB: Disciple is the same whether in the Sattra or in the Metropolitan. There are dissimilarities between them because of the difference in their desires. A Sattra’s boy is sent by his parents to reside permanently but metropolitan parents send their child only for taking lessons for few hours [in a month]. Even then, both of them need to follow their prescribed lessons inspite of their own unique lifestyle, thinking and behavior etc. I think it is very important to communicate with either to nurture them. I am a very lucky person who can teach in the Sattra and in the metropolitan city like Delhi and Europe at the same time.
SG: How is it different performing in the Namghar in Majuli and a Foreign audience in a strange land? Do you see yourself as a ‘Performer’ rather than a Bhakat while growing up?
BB: It’s actually quite simple. We perform in Namghar not only as an offering of our prayers to God but also to please the Bhakats (the Namghar audience). Same way when we perform in front of a foreign audience our goal is not only how to please the audience but also God as God exists in the heart of every being. As performers it is our responsibility to reach out to all those who have been able to realize the necessity of creativity, of aesthetics and value this form of art. The purpose of the arts is to devote itself as a medium to enhance the living standard of human beings. I am a Bhakat but yes I would be happy if someone recognizes me as a performer.
SG: From rituals to proscenium…Have these interactions and exposures changed you in any way especially in terms of Production themes/stories or approach?
BB: I think it will better to say that we have some opportunity to extend the subjects. The change that you are asking about, I did when I was in the Sattra. I did some experiments which were accepted even by Sattra’s people. Now what I do is a continuation on the basis of relevance to the time. For example, now I am working on a new choreography based on ‘Brindavani Bastra’, a magnificent textile weaved under Srimanta Sankardeva in 16th Century in Barpeta, Assam. It said to be kept preserved in Musee Guimet in Paris. Prior to this no one thought about this. I am researching all kinds of documents as I need to go deep as the subject demands. Obviously we need to put those elements which are in the ‘Bastra’. This is difficult to be accepted by the expert of these traditions. Alongside it is also true that I have respect for our originality, and my mission and vision is based on this.
SG: Have you interacted with other performers in terms of a collaborative production or maybe experimentation within or outside India.
BB: Yes, I am working with some contemporary dancers from France for my proposed production which will be in Paris in June this year.
SG: Somebody’s gain is somebody’s loss… Don’t you feel like going back to the place where you learnt everything and staying and teaching?
BB: You are absolutely right. I am fortunate that we have the link with the main stream and am still a member of my family [in Majuli].
My several trips to this river island have not only unveiled hidden treasures of Performing and the Visual Arts, but also disillusioned me about the Monks and their infamous reputation of orthodoxy and rigidity. These fine gentlemen unraveled the meaning of faith through their social conducts and etiquettes, for it’s the reality of these people. Bound by a strong, undying Guru-Shishya parampara they have nurtured the performance tradition in this steadily eroding river island.
To read more about Sattriya log on to http://majuli.fr/majuli_en.html