Assam is a land of dance, a land of music, a land of literature and philosophy.
In this period of cultural
re-organisation of India, if a scholar turns over his eye to the forlorn pages of
Assamese cultural history, he will find there his aspirations in concrete shape
and form, practiced and merged with life existence itself.
During the period of Saint Chaitanya Dev
in Bengal, Namdev in Maharashtra, Ramananda in Allahabad, Ballabhacharja and
Kabir in South India, Sree Shankardev appeared in Assam. He was born at
Alipukhuri in the district of Nowgaon in 1449, at the moment when corruption was
rampant and grew to such and extent which could have annihilated the entire
social fabric of the land.
Shree Shankardev remodelled the society
by removing untouchability, ignorance, inequalities between man and man and
other corruptions. He gave to the people religion, literature, poetry, music,
dance drama. On the whole a new culture, which has been a source of life energy
to the nation uptill now. Sree Shankardev the far-sighted saint sowed the seed
of democracy, removed untouchability, introduced village Panchayat ,
co-operative efforts etc. etc. before five hundred years. Once Mahatma Gandhi
remarked "Assam is beyond my dream. My services are not required here".
Sree Shankardev was given to the school of Mahendra
Kandali. He became a Sanskrit scholar and a genius at the age of twelve. The
people were struck with wonder to learn about his unique imaginative power and
extra-ordinary intellect during his schooling time, Shankardev wrote several
poems and Kavyas which had drawn the attention of the learned Pundits of the
time. Shankardev finished his studies at the age of twenty and had to confine
himself at his own residence for some years.
In the year 1481 A.D. Shankar left home
for an extensive pilgrimage along with his Guru Mahendra Kandali and seventeen
other companions. During his pilgrimage he visited places like- Mathura,
Brindaban, Gaya, Kashi, Puri, Prayag, Dwaraka, Ajodhya, Sitakunda, Brahma Kunda,
Badrikashram and all other temples and sacred places of Northern and Southern
India. So, naturally he got the opportunity to come into contact of many
Vaishnava Scholars and Saints with whom he had many learned and authentic
discussions which helped him in taking a definite shape of his mission of life.
He returned home after an extensive tour
of a decade.
After coming back he started a Satra (Monastry) and
built one Namghar (a congregational prayer house) where hundreds of
devout-disciples assembled around him for congregational prayer and community
singing. This ‘Namghar’ is the main institution of Assamese villages which is
run under democratic style uptill today. From this Shankardev started religious
movement with great vigour and enthusiasm, with these disciples.
Shankardev accepted as his faith the system of qualified ‘Monism’ or
‘Visistadwaitabad’ alike the South Indian reformer Ramanuja Swami. It was neo-Vaishnahism
with its allegiance to one Supreme God. In this system ‘Dualism’ was rejected
which presents the finite-self as something different from the divine self. The
relation between master and servant was the idea adopted by Sree Shankardev (Dasya
Bhaba). Shankardev described himself as the servant of Sree Krishna. Shankar
made known the attributes of Sree Krishna who is attributeless. Sree Krishna
assured in Gita that "Sarba Dharman Parityajya Mamekom Saranam Braja". Be
dependent on me and worship me only. And therefore, Shankar’s neo-Vaishnavism
was based on Gita and Bhagawata.
Shankardev was a prolific writer.
Besides Kirtan and Dashama Shankara wrote innumberable Borgeets (noble songs),
many kavyas, poems and several dramas. Over and above this Shankardev was an
artist, musician, (Singer and instrument player), dancer and actor. He stressed
upon these mediums as the ‘Margo’ (Paths) as these mediums are ‘Yogas’.
Banking upon these mediums of art (Yoga)
Sree Shankardev showed the path of ‘Vakti Margo’ which can lead one to supreme
For congregational prayer Shankardev not
only composed ‘Bargeets’ but also turned and sang them. Due to his magic touch
these songs become very much popular within a very short time throughout the
State. Besides Bargeet, Shankardev wrote innumberable songs for prayer and for
Ankia Nat (one act drama) which were turned and sung by himself. It is
interesting to not that all the tunes have a special type which can be called a
special setwal. His Kavyas were written in ‘Brajabuli’- a Mixed Maithili and
Assamese language as quoted below:-
Mana Meri Rama Charanehi lagu
Tai dekha na Ontaka agu
Mana ayu Ksane Ksane tute
Dekha Prana Kon din Chute-...
(Rest my mind rest on the feet to Rama
See thou not the great and approaching?
My mind, every moment is leeting
Beware any moment it might flee away.)
As mentioned above Shankardev broke the
seal of classical learning and made literature easy for illiterate mass. He
wrote Kavyas, Akhyans and ‘Ankia nats’ in order to make it easy for the people.
Because of these reasons even unlettered People of Assamese villages can sing
classical tunes as wel as can dance classical forms of dances of Natyasastra
style. Shankardev linked up Assam with other parts of India linguistically,
culturally besides his religious teachings.
He employed an artificial dialect to
make it easy for all people of Northern India. He received healthy suggestions
from Kabir, Vidyapati and some other poet-saints of India.
Besides this Shankardev collected the Sastras and the
best books and scriptures written on religion and philosophy, as for example,
there were much controversy as to the authorship and date of the work known as "DIPIKA
CHAND". The author is said to have been a king called Purusottama Gajapati.
Several Assamese writers and scholars have attempted to locate the said writer
somewhere in Assam. But all have failed and later on it was brought to the
notice that Purusottam Gajapati was a well known and powerful king of Orissa
(1476-1497), whose empire extended form Hoogli District of Bengal as far as the
Guntur District of Madars Presiden- cy . He was the son of Kapilendra Gajapati
and the father of Pratap Rudra (1497-1541) A.D, the last powerful and celebrated
Gajapati and Orissa. He was contemporary to Sree Chaitanya Dev. Purusottam
Gajapati was a devout Vaishnava and he might have writting this book known as "Dipika
Chanda" in order to ridicule the post Buddhist cult and the Tantrik system.
There was close connection in between
Kamrup and Orissa in the sixteenth centuy on account of the existence of famous
temple ‘Jagannath’, It is known that an Assamese Vaishnatya Saint translated
this book into Assamese language.
Again it is learnt that the Orissa King
Purusottam Gajapati was the author of another work known as ‘Nam Malika’ in
Sanskrit. Shankardev brought a copy of this book which later on Sree Madhabdev
translated into Asssamese (Descriptive catalogue of Assamese Manuscript,
In case of painting since time
immemorable yet it is difficult to stress out the technique.
In seventh century the king Bhaskar
Varma sent valuble gifts to King Harshabardhana along with various beautiful
coloured paintings. At the time of Bhaskar Varma and pal dynasty Buddha culture
so, it can be belived that the various
paintings and Terracottas were made during that time . On the other hand the
time of Naranaryana, Akbar engaged his own painter Abdul Samaddak and Md. Nashir
of Samarkand to teach the Hindu and Muslim painters. After great extent in
various places. Besides this, it is evidently proved that the people of Assam
were artistically luxurious.
Though it is out of place to discuss the
requisites of the technigue of painting yet it should be pointed out that the
Moghul painting were based on living things not on spirtual or philosophical
In my opinion Shankardev after studying all the
paintings of the time such as Moghul , Rajput, Buddha and Kangra paintings,
revolted and created a new technique of this own wich can be called Kamrupian
technique or Shankari technique.
Paintings of Chihnayatra, Brindabani
cloth, illustrations of old Bhagawata on Sachipata dharmapurana, Kirtan Ghosa,
Sankhasura badh and the famous "Srihastivdyarnaba" are the examples of Kamrupi
school of painting where some exceptions were marked, such as composition of
colour, feeling method and expressions. Shankardev’s selection of colour was
simple. He used mainly red (Indian red ) blue (navy blue ) and yellow. These
colours were popular with the rural and tribal people of Assam. Probably this
was the reason of using these colours for embellishing Baishnavite Text like
Bhagawat where he kept the relationship with folk art.
Of course, a research work and a
detailed study of this method of this painting is essential.
After along travelled experience
Sankardev took the medium of most natural expression through dramatic art. Sree
Shankar gathered experience not only from the local traditional dances like Oza
Pail, Deodhani, Nati and etc. but also from Yatra Ramleela, Yaksagana, Nautanki,
Ramnattam, Bhagawattam, Devdashi and Odissi.
Keeping all these experiences and social
conditions in view (Shankardev wrote a new type of drama known called "Ankia
Nat". It once act drama in classical concept which was a new genre in Assamese
Sree Shankardev painted scenes of seven
classical abodes of Narayana. It is probably done with a view to emphasis the
effect and to create an atmosphere of the dramatic scenes. Perhaps this was
quite a new style adopted in 15th Century.
The "Ankia Nat" is a dramatic
composition in one act, and is generally based on the belief of Vaishnavite
faith. In this Ankia Nat certain theories of Sanskrit drama were applied such as
use of Sanskrit verses, Nandi. The role of Sutradhara in Ankia Nat is different.
In Ankia Nat the role of Sutradhara is most important in absence of which the
drama cannot move at all, whereas in Sanskrit drama the Sutradhar disappears
from the stage after invocation is over.
As there were no more scenes in the play the
announcement for change of scenes were made by Sutradhar or by Orchestra with
singing. As the majority of audience were illiterate the explanation was
required at every succeeding stage of the drama. So, the Sutradhar has to attend
to the various sides mainly the production, direction and commentation of the
entire drama upto the end and as such Sutradhar must be an expert in dance,
music, acting and painting.
As mentioned above Sree Sankardev was
expert in all respects. It is mentioned in Guru Charitra by Ramcharan Thakur–
Hingula Haitela, Jetikhyane Anilata
Yatna Kari Pate Baikuntha Likhipanta. (Immediately Shankar brought Hingul and
haitel (colours) and painted the picture of Baikuntha.
Ahimote Pote Jebe Nat Likhilanta
Natua Sikhaiya Tebe Sanga Karilanta.
( Like this he wrote the drama and
taught dance for Natuas.)
Baradhemali Sarudhemalika Baila
Nat Dhemali bai lokaka Tushila
( He entertained the people by playing
all ‘Talls’ (Khol Nritya and Singing)
Pache dharilanta Dev dhemalita Goi
Ashe Pashe Nogota Khol Asha loi
( Then he started invocation Khol Nritya
by playing nine Khols together (nine khols were kept in all sides)
Ram Ram Guru Pache Sutra Siyailanta
Angi Bhangi kari Shankar Nachanta
(Then Shankardev started Sutradhara
Nritya with beautiful movements)
Ahita Shankara dekhe Tahita Shankara
Dekhanta Shankara Gayamora Maje Nai
Pat Baikunthara Maje Dekhila Dunai.
(People saw Shankardev in all side here
and there sometimes among the Gayan and Bayan and sometime in the Baikuntha
From this description of his biography
one can understand how extraordinarily talented and genious he was.
Songs of Ankia Nat are also of a special
type which are called "Ankar Geet" and Bhatima Borgeets are also used in some
plays. The Ankar Geet bears a Dhuwa or refrain, as it bears Raga with Tala and
Mana. There are various tunes in Bhowna Geets, such as : Aswari, Ahir, Bhupali,
Dhamsiri, Belwar, Gandhar, Dev Gandhar, Kou Kalyan, Syam, Ramgiri Mahura, Suhai,
Borari, Sindhura, Gouri, Bhairabi, etc.
From Ramayana or Bhagawat Purana mainly
the subject matter of these dramas were selected. The "Ankia Nats" were written
mainly to create devotional sentiment of the audience, the mass people.
specialty which can be observed in Assamese Bhowna
is the coordination and harmony of songs, rhythmic dances, instrumental melodies
and dialogue. All the actors enter the stage and move with dances with
appropriate "Padacharai" or gaits from the beginning to end with gestures and
postures. The dialogue is also delivered in dancing postures. Geets such as
‘Madhyawali, Muktawali and other songs (descriptive emotional and pathetic
songs) are also sung in dancing postures.
The actors are called Bhawria who
produces Bhaba or emotion. The dancers are called " Natua or Nata". The singers
are called "Gayana" and instrumental players are called "Bayana". The jokers are
The skilled village artists are called
‘Khanikar’ who are experts in making wooden and earthen images of God. They also
prepare ‘Cho’ (effigies) and masks (mukha) life size of grotesque type masks such
as Ravana, Yama, Kumbhakarna, Hanumana, Kali Nag, Garuda Pakhsi are amde by
Khanikar which are essential in Bhowna.
Actors are to paint for their makeup
which be fits their roles. For the makeup Hingul (cinnabar) and Haitel (yellow
orripment) are used with some necessary colours such as blue and red. But
colours were used according to their characters viz. Bhima in black, Krishna in
blue, Brahmins in white, brutal characters in red and tamashik in black.
Thus the Bhowna is performed in Assam.
This Bhowna performance is generally continued all through night.
At the end of drama Sutradhara begs
forgiveness to God for the omissions and commissions of the play and prays for
the audience to attain the path of righteousness by singing ‘Mukti Mangal
In Sanskrit dramas the ignorant and
illiterate mass failed to enjoy like the critical and educated audience.
But the Bhowna of Assam was the most
powerful agency to carry the religious and ethical ideas to the illiterate mass
which broke the social barriers and served all the purposes mentioned above.
It is most interesting to note that ‘Barakhelia’ or "Bara
Chaharor Bhowna" (which I mentioned in my article on classical and folk dance of
Assam) is performed by 20–30 villages together under the same pandal made for
the purpose. The pandal is made so huge that a number of 30– 35 thousand people
can sit together and enjoy several numbers.
DIAGRAM SHOWING THE MAIN STAGE OF
The holy Throne with the Bhagawata
placed on it (Sinhasana).
Where the Goswamis and the Mahantas
Annular space for the movement of the dramatic personae from one stage to
The main stage (Rangabhumi).
Space for the spectators with a
Gate for entrance and exit.
Space for free movement of the spectators.
The broken line with arrow–mark
indicates the direction through wich dramatic personae revolve around the
of Bhownas. This was one of the unique
contributions of Sree Shankardev. Perhaps nobody could imagine to perform such a
huge performance in India where two to three thousand actors and Gayan Bayan
(musicians) took part.
The village people construct the pandal
by collecting subscriptions of bamboo, thatch ,cane and other materials. There
was no bar of caste and creed. Probably this was the policy of Sree Shankardev
to make the people march towards democracy and co– operative efforts,
Arrangement of this Bhowna is made as a period of two to three months. A
Managing Committee is formed under democratic style to manage the entire
The reharsals are of course arranged
seperately in every village.
On the day of the performance a "Nam Prasanga" is sung
by all people in day time. After that "Mahaprasad’’ is distributed.
The actual activities of Bhowna is
started from the evening. Thousands of audience start coming to the pandal in
due time. The sitting arrangements of audiences are made on mats and dharies.
After the congregational prayer of evening is over the Khanikars start painting
the actors. Before starting the performance all audiences are entertained with
‘Dahichira’ or ; Chowal dahi’ (tiffin) and betal nut. Probably this custom of
entertaining audience with tiffin is nowhere in India.
After the tiffin is over the ‘Barmedhi’
the main man of the committee announces to get the actors and Bayan Gayan ready
(Of course now a days the microphone and other modern facilities are taken).
After a few minutes the Barmedhi orders to beat the
drum. As soon as the drum is beaten all the thirty– forty drums are beaten
together. The other instruments such as Negera, Conch, Borkanh are also played
together and then gradually the Bayans and Gayans enter into their respective
stages with similar Khol playing and dances. When these 1000– 1200 Bayans and
Gayans with Khol playing and dances, move toghether in Bordhemali (quick tempo)
on the border lines of petals of lotus (as shown in the diagram) it looks like a
dreamland. The high sounds of Khols and Talas, drums and other instruments roar
to such an extent which can be heard from a distance of 10–15 miles.
After that all the sutradharas appear in
their respective stages with their dances and move towards the right hand stage
(shown in the diagram) and after completing a round all through they come to
their own stages for dramatic activities.The actors also follow the same style.
this Bhowna is performed 2/3 nights
continuously. Of course it is not performed every year as it is very much
expensive and as such it is performed at an interval of 5–7 years.
This was one of the greatest plans of Sree Shankardev to
unite the people together, to make them work together, to eat together, to enjoy
together and to worship together. This was the foundation of the Assamese
culture laid by Shankardev.