Even in this contemporary age of augmentation of different audio-visual media, the Ankia Nat (a form of one-act play) and Bhaona, (a mythology-based theatrical performance) devised by Srimanta Sankardeva have prevailed as the timeless and the integral parts of Assamese literature and culture.

This zeitgeist is perhaps the first one to emerge as the composer, director, as well as the producer of ‘drama’ in Eastern India. His contribution towards Assamese drama and theatre is incredible. He has manifested unparalleled talent in the production and staging of drama.

Ankia Nat and Bhaona are the wonderful assembled creations, consisting of the influential contenders of Sanskrit drama and dramatic entertainment, such as, rasleela, ramleela, jatra, kathak, yakshagan, bhagwatam et al, and the regional ojapali, puppet dance and deodhoni.

In the place of Sankardeva neither the scenes, nor the acts are changed simultaneously with the changing events, but all take place in the same platform through the direction of sutradhar, melody of dance and songs, ragas of the slokas and the mesmerizing notes of the orchestra.

In the publication of his Ankia nat and Bhaona, Sankardeva has followed only a little of the Sanskrit dramatic theory. He has started his play with the Sanskrit sloka (a couplet of Sanskrit verse) and has used ‘Nandi’ through Ankia songs and slokas and the dialogues of the sutradhar (A stage manager). Different “Dhemalis” have given glimpses of the “Purvaranga” of Sanskrit plays, but the other allied components are the exclusive contribution of the genius.

Like Sanskrit place his sutradhar does not disappear after the prelude (prastawana), he is just omnipresent throughout. Sutradhar is the heart of Ankiya Bhaona. He is simultaneously the producer and the commentator. He dances which the songs and music of Gayan Bayan (a religious dance performed by disciples of Sankardeva in satras), sings with them, introduces the characters to the audience and also announces their entry and exit. He keeps the audience, (samajik lok, mass) mesmerized through dance, songs dialogues and through his comments on the moral context.

Ankia Nat is actually a poetic creation. Songs express the intricate details of the events and unfold the emotions of the characters. Dialogues too are as melodious as the language of the songs. But the dialogues obviously express the emotions of the characters in extended details.

The songs of Ankia Bhaona are called Ankia Geet. There are approximately 33 ragas to tune up Ankia Geets. Each song is directed to execute in their specific raga.

In Sanskrit drama, the sutradhar neither sings nor recites Nandi geet or Nandi poems, but the sutradhar of Ankia Naat sings as well as comments on the behavior of the characters. Just after presenting a synopsis of the play, he engages himself in its direction. According to the Sanskrit theory of drama, diseases, deaths, wars, weddings, sleep, eating or love scenes should not be displayed, but in Ankia Bhaona, wedding, wars, murders, love scenes etc are presented in an interesting style.

The language of Ankia Naat is Brajavali, i.e- the language of brojdham. But it can’t be said that it is not Assamese. Many Assamese words- original or newly created as well as Assamese idiomatic expressions too are added to the frame of Brajavali language, that results in the creation of a little sweetly artificial Assamese language of the Assamese vaishnavaits. When it is dialogued by Shri Krishna, Shri Ramchandra or any other heroes, it sounds like been spoken by the originals. Ankia Naat is unparalleled from this angle too. Vaishnavites believe that this kind of language maintain the gravity and esteem of the characters. Maybe that’s why, in Sanskrit plays, the main characters converse in Sanskrit, but the females and the common people talk in Prakrit language. But in Ankia Naat, everyone speaks Brajavali. The depth and the gravity of language are obviously maintained in the leading characters.

Before enactment of Bhaona, the gayan bayan perform the recital of khol-tal and physical postures. This is called Dhemali (preliminary). The categories of dhemali are soru dhemali (minor preliminary), bor dhemali (major preliminary), ghosa dhemali (preliminaries with ghosa verses) etc. The word dhemali has its origin in the Sanskrit word- ranga. Family is a type of hymns through songs, and they can be compared to the purba ranga of Natya Sastra.

The role players of Bhaona are called bhaoarias, not actors. All bhaorias should display their activities, their entry and exit through dance only. There are different kinds of dances suggestive of war. Shankardeva’s creative prudence has been prominent in four kinds of dances included in Bhaona. They are krishna nas, gopi nas, ras nas and notua nas or chali nritya. Now a days, they are called sattriya dance or Shankari dance. Bhaona’s key feature is a balanced combination of songs, dances, instruments, music and dialogue. Its management too is compatible with the open stage. Thousands of audience can relish a Bhaona together. It is known from the “charit puthi” that a single performance of Shankardeva’s Bhaona had attracted more than a myriad of audience at a time. That’s why, even today, Bhaona has remained as the unparalleled medium of religious propagation.

A curiosity arises– what was the provision of light in those ancient days, where thousands of spectators could watch Bhaona? Charit puthi has given some glimpse of it. One of these is:

The start up of “dhemali” is called “Jora Utha”. Fire is lit before before it, earthen lamps are kept on the curved structure made up of bamboo and wood. It is Agnigarh, and it is the symbol of nine types of bhakti. Lanterns are lit by pouring mustard oil into two big pieces of bamboo holes (a special bamboo species namely bhaluka is used for it and the bamboo pieces are thereby transformed into “Aaria”). “Aaria” is the symbol of Shravana and Kirtana. Moreover, “bhota”, made out of hollowed banana tree is used as main source of light. Thousands of bhota are used in an around the whole open theatre.

According to the Mahapurushiya vaishnavites, bhota is the symbol of the “Eksaran” sect of namdharma. Magic of colour is also displayed through a tool namely “Sengeli”. This is made through red and blue alkaline. This craft is called “mota”. Potassium Nitrate, sulfur, the plants namely “solanum torvum” and “bahok” are burnt together and the carbonaceous material produced out of it is filled in a pipe.

Numerous sparks come out when a splinter is inserted into the hole. The tool through which this spark is produced is called sengeli. These lighting fixtures keep the arena as bright as like that of the daylight.

Bhaona is performed in namghar or pendal. Numerous audiences can watch it because no walls are there. The pendal is covered with dual toned clothes– white for the upper part and red for the lower. The white part suggests salvation and the rate part suggests illusion.

The Khanikar (make-up artist) uses organic colours like khoi mati, hengul haital, vermillion, earthworm nectar, indigo, ash, gum extracted from wood Apple, liquid jaggery etc for the make-up of the bhaorias.

After the salutation chant of “sree mat josowa suto puto komole”, the entire ambience gets mesmerized with the sound of Khol Tal and the awesome footsteps of gayan-bayan.  The na dhemali in followed sequentially by naat dhemali (dancer’s preliminary) and soru dhemali, and then bor dhemali, deva dhemali (the Gods preliminary) and ghosa dhemali.

Midnight occurs when bor dhemali is performed. So, the gayan sings in b”orhari” raga—

“Nisa honte bojailonto bor dhemali ?

Othoro purano kotha konthe bonomali ??

Motsyo mogoro sagoro toro kori jaai ?

Sehi bela kanai borhari raaga gaii ??

Bor dhemali is followed by sutra dhemali, the entry of sutradhara and dance. At first, there occurs the sloka. Then the starting nandee geet– in “raaga suhai ektaali.” Then the bhaorias enter with the Ramakrishna chanting and let the audience (samajiko lok) know about the summary of the play by dancing and singing bhatima.

This is the sequence of Bhaona.

The attire of gayan-bayan is arresting. Pointed “paag”(headgear) in head and on it, garland of tulsi (Holy Basil), “suriya” around the waist and snow white “chapkon” and seleng (a particular traditional Assamese drape) made of paat (Assam Silk).

Sutradhar too wears a pointed pag (headgear) with golden border around it. A handspun of white cloth hangs from the back of the pag, a body hugging shirt up to the waist, gam kharu (a type of bangle), floral printed tongali on the waist and an floral embroidered seleng over the shoulders and up to the knee.

The role of Khanikar too is extremely outstanding in Bhaona. He advices costumes for everyone. He makes “so mukha” (mask) and ariya, mota, bhota etc. Each character in Bhaona doesn’t have to wear mask. Only those who play the roles of Ravana, Kumbhakarna, Kali Nag, Jaambuvant, Hanuman, Yam, Garuda, Jatayu etc, need to wear masks.

This is the theatrical form of Ankia Naat or Bhaona. Its popularity is timeless, but its revival as a powerful mass media is the need of the hour.

By putting his plays in a different language, he made it clear that they were the entertainments of a basically different order. In addition, Maithili has the advantages of a long established prestige and elegance. At the same time, it was close enough to Assamese, so that the audience would have very little trouble in following it. The result is an ingenious compromise between innovation and tradition, a happy marriage of classical and the popular, the theatre of Sankardeva”–Dr William L Smith.

The article originally written in Assamese by DR LAKHINANDAN BORA is translated into English by DR DIPSIKHA BHAGAWATI.

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