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Dancing Monks of Assam Program a Rare Treat

by Bonnie Rosenstock
April 26, 2018
Symphony Space
2537 Broadway
New York, NY 10025
(212) 864-1414
In the Vaishnavite monasteries, or sattras, on the river island of Majuli surrounding Assam in northeast India, monks practice Sattriya, a devotional dance-drama that is more than 500 years old. The celibate monks dance to honor the exploits of the god Vishnu in his flute-playing Krishna incarnation, which are whimsical, fanciful and sensuous, recounted in ancient texts. For centuries, Sattriya remained confined to and preserved in the monasteries, as part of their daily rituals. But in 2000, the Indian government officially recognized Sattriya as one of the country’s major classical dance forms, an important step in its acceptance and dissemination. The ensemble of ten Dancing Monks of Assam, established by Dr. Bhabananda Barbayan, percussionist, choreographer, scholar and himself a celibate monk, now perform all over the world. This is their first U.S. tour.

Madhusmita Bora and Prerona Bhuyan both began performing around the age of four. The sisters-in-law founded the Philadelphia-based Sattriya Dance Company in 2009 to promote Sattriya. Although inaccessible to women for centuries, it is now more frequently presented by women.

The two groups together presented the New York premiere of Sattriya: An Odyssey of the Spirit, choreographed by Barbayan. It was featured April 22 on Night Two of the World Music Institute’s seventh annual Dancing the Gods series. It was a rare treat.

Before both evening programs, co-curator Rajika Puri, an internationally renowned dancer, lecturer and storyteller, presented an hour-long pre-show lecture slide demonstration on “Vishnu Worship & the Performing Arts” in her inimitable animated style. She also edited the comprehensive program notes to which I have referred for this article. (Note: Puri was one of exploredance’s first writers.)

There were seven separate dances, which ran consecutively without light changes or pauses to enhance the continuity, feeling and flow. The monks led off with “Invocation and Gayan Bayan,” consisting of the lighting of a ceremonial lamp and singing of hymns backstage to herald the beginning of the performance. The space was purified by “gayan” (singers), who used “tal” (metallic cymbals) and dancing “bayan” (khol drummers), who performed with oblong-shaped Assam drums used in devotional music. A red strap was attached to one side of the drum, looped around the dancers’ necks and fastened to the other side of the drum for ease in dancing and drumming simultaneously. The dancers struck both ends of the drum and occasionally the tops. The rhythms were lively and the dance movements featured intricate footwork, turns, stomping, small leaps, squats and wonderful hand gestures.

For “Sutradhari Naas,” Barbayan as Sutradhar, or storyteller, performed a blend of dance and mime to invoke the blessings of Krishna. Barbayan, a master dancer, gestured with his fingers, hands, wrists, arms, elbows, legs and feet in subtle and grand sublime ways that kept us rapt.

Sattriya Dance Company performed two duets. “Isha Bondona” praised the flute-playing Krishna. In “Dokhobotar” they reenacted ten of the most prominent of the 24 incarnations of Krishna, which featured mimed fighting and slaying. Bhuyan performed the more intricate, demanding movements of a male monk, which was clear because of the hat she wore. But I didn’t get that Bora danced as a male monk dancing in a female role until Puri clarified. “Gender bending indeed,” she wrote. “For ritual reasons.”

However, I was completely taken aback when Puri told me that in “Ramdani,” which the Dancing Monks performed flawlessly, the two “females” were monks dressed in women’s clothing. “Ramdani, or “flower vase,” is an offering to Krishna, featuring “masculine” and “feminine” movements of pure dance, many of which are at least 400 years old, which then made sense.

Puri added that because monks are males, their dance troupes are all male. “It was only in the 1960s that a few women were allowed to even be in the presence of monks long enough to learn some of the dances,” she said.

“Ojapali” recounted Krishna’s man-lion incarnation from one of the oldest of Assamese danced storytelling traditions. Four of the monks played cymbals that seemed smaller than before, which made a softer, tinkly sound. The cymbal players and Barbayan as storyteller sang in unison or sometimes he initiated call and response. Sometimes musicians and storyteller did disparate movements and sometimes they danced in unison. As expected, there was a fight and killing integrated into the tale.

Both performing groups came together for the traditional “Kharman,” the devotional finale. They asked for forgiveness, made an offering to god and requested blessings for all present.

After the performance, I asked a group of Indian women how they liked it. They were from all parts of India and met in New York. None of them understood Assamese, the language of the monks. However, as one woman put it, “It was like listening to a sound mediation.” Indeed.

Photo © & courtesy of Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos

Photo © & courtesy of Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos

Photo © & courtesy of Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos

Photo © & courtesy of Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos

Photo © & courtesy of Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos

Photo © & courtesy of Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos

Photo © & courtesy of Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos

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