Georgie Pope visits the drumming, dancing and singing monks in a monastery of Assam, north-east India
On my first evening on Majuli Island in the Brahmaputra river, I find the monastery in complete darkness. It’s yet another ‘load-shedding,’ a government-sanctioned power cut frequently experienced in India’s rural areas, and I have to use the light on my mobile phone to guide me. At the monastery gate, I slip off my shoes and walk barefoot towards the sound of the nagara drum, which announces the start of evening worship.
Inside the namghar – the monastery temple – more than 50 monks are assembled. A single light bulb illuminates the large hall, powered by an inverter. Aged between four and 90 years old, the monks – all male – are dressed in white dhotis, shirts and pointed turbans. They organise themselves into two groups. The gayans (singers) stand shoulder to shoulder, facing the holy book on its altar at the east end of the hall. Swaying a little, marking the beat gently with large cymbals in unison, they sing a slow borgeet invoking the various names of Vishnu: Ram, Hari, Krishna. The bayans (dancing drummers) kneel side-on to the singers, with their faces also turned towards the book. Each carry a khol, a long twin-faced drum, supported by a length of cloth slung diagonally across the back. They begin to play a complex rhythm, ringing out in harmony with the gayans. After 20 minutes, they rise up, stepping and swaying in formation, their hands forming elegant shapes as they fly. Their movements become swifter and more energetic, until, after more than an hour of dancing, they’re leaping and rolling with the drums. The sound grows louder and the gayans raise their voices in a crescendo of devotion that vibrates the hall.
“The sound grows louder in a crescendo of devotion that vibrates the hall”
I’m in Uttar Kamalabari Satra in Assam, north-east India, during the month of Bhadra (mid-August to mid-September), when the monastery’s inmates perform all month long in honour of their founder gurus. They are Neo-Vaishnavites, who worship the Hindu god Vishnu in his various avatars through music, dance and drama. Their sect traces its origins to the 16th-century poet-saint reformer Sankaradeva who is said to have believed that chanting the name of God and performing episodes from his life were far more effective acts of devotion than prayer, sacrifice or sermonising.
In Assam a number of dancers, scholars and historians campaigned for more than 40 years to gain recognition from the government that the dance forms of Assam’s Satra (monasteries) were considered to be ‘classical.’ On November 15 2000, they won, and Sattriya took its place in the Indian dance hall of fame, alongside Bharatnatyam, Kathak, Odissi and the like. Parties were thrown, the news was splashed across the headlines, and each year a three-day festival is held in Assam’s capital to celebrate. A lot of fuss, it might seem, over a genre label.
Recognition has brought pride to the state and performance opportunities for the monks, within and beyond India, as well as government-sponsored scholarships, workshops, teaching and research positions, affording opportunities to expand and deepen the monastic repertoire. But Sattriya’s classical status has been a double-edged sword.
In their quest, the monastic dances have started to change. They have incorporated ‘classical’ elements, such as abhinaya (mimed gesture), tabla (drums) and even put their exercise regime (mati akhara) to music, to make it attractive to audiences. A search for ‘Sattriya dance’ on Google Images will give you a clue. Instead of the dhoti-clad monks, khol drums, or sacred performances before holy books I saw in Majuli, the web is dominated with images of solo female dancers, sporting recently designed costumes and performing on proscenium stages. Sattriya has started to look like all the other classical dances. The term has brought fame and opportunities, but at what price? Must India’s art forms homogenise in order to gain funding and opportunities abroad? Seeing the strength and beauty of the performances in the monastery of Uttar Kamalabari, I can only hope the monks will be able to resist the forces of bureaucracy, and retain artistic control over their dances.