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Sattriya: Monastic to modern


DEFIANT DANSEUSE: When Indira Bora (left) started learning sattriya, the move drew the ire of the conservative elements in Assam

Sattriya dance has come a long way since its inception 600 years ago in the monastries of Assam. It was then practised under the guidance of saint Srimanta Shankardeva. But it took Indira Bora, an Assamese classical dancer, to transform it from a raw, monastic style to one acceptable on the modern stage.

Sattariya never really died out but came pretty close to it because it wasn't finding enough audiences. Thanks to Bora's decadelong efforts, sattriya was recognised as a classical form by the Sangeet Natak Akademi in 2000. The dancer herself believes that the recognition could have come much earlier. "We lacked patrons at every level, " she says.

It was hard work breathing life into the ancient art that had been the domain of male dancers for centuries. "It needed a lot of guts to stay close to the root of the dance and retain its original form while making subtle changes in the costume and music to make it stagefriendly, " says Indira's husband and cultural activist P P Bora.

Indira herself believes in retaining the purity of the form with a few unobtrusive changes. "What we do is experiment a bit with the music, the text or the costume. Earlier, in the monasteries they only used the taal and the khol for musical accompaniment. Now we use harmonium, tanpura, violin and flute as well, " she said.

The couple is upset with the state government for not supporting the endeavour enough. The state, they say, is doing almost nothing to push rare and precious classical art forms like ojapali and deodhani. "Without appropriate funding we cannot get desired results, " says Indira. "Until we get really serious about reviving these arts, they will be lost to us. "

Indira started learning sattriya from an uncle at a very young age. And she stuck to it though it was not considered 'respectable' for a girl to take to dance as a profession. She defied tremendous odds to continue with dance for the next five years. "I had, by then, fallen in love with dancing. And I was fortunate to have very encouraging parents. From then on, dance was to be my life and career, " says Indira. At the age of 13, she moved to Kalakshetra to learn Bharatnatyam under Rukmini Devi Arundale. "I think those were the best years of my life. There were so many great teachers there and it was lovely to be in an environment full of dance and music. I was part of numerous Kalakshetra dance drama productions that travelled to Europe, Asia and Russia in the 1960s and 1970s, " she says. During these tours, Indira performed sattriya at various venues. After a brief stint learning Kuchipudi, the dancer returned to Guwahati. "Since then, I have been sticking to the Kalakshetra style of dance and also working constantly to revive and revitalise sattriya, " she says. To this end, the Bora couple set up Kalabhumi, a cultural organisation, in the state in 1982. Its patrons include luminaries such as Kapila Vatsyayan, Bhupen Hazarika and Sunil Kothari.

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