During 16th century, the sage of Assam Srimant Shankerdev and his disciple Sri Madhavdev embarked on a tradition called Ankia- Bhaona, to unite the state into the fold of communal harmony.
The Ankia-bhaona traditional dancedrama emphasises the victory of good over evil while sending a message for elimination of difference in levels of castes. It highlights the good deeds of Lord Krishna and Lord Rama.
Continuing the tradition
For staging of an ‘Ankia Bhaona’, a large rectangular pandal is erected in the ‘Satra’ (monastery) campus. The pandal is open from three sides. The fourth small side end is closed and a throne made of bamboo framework and white cloth is erected. The Bhagvat Gita is placed on the throne. Opposite this holy throne, the seat of the singers and musicians is established. Between the ‘dohaar’ and the holy book, the available ground serves the purpose of ‘stage’ on which the artistes perform according to their roles.
The play usually starts with the prelude, or Purvaranga. Playing of the traditional percussion instruments accompanied by the big cymbal (mridangam) by the singer and musician duo (Gayan-Bayan) in a group. The instruments are played with exaggerated hand movements and in two paces called Saru-Dhemali and Bor-Dhemali. This creates alertness in the audience and they follow the message in the song with rapt attention. The success of the dance-drama lies in the forceful play of songs and ‘mridangam’ beats.
Performing the Tradition
After the prelude, the narrator, or Sutradhar, enters the stage and begins the actual performance. His dance gains speed as he chants the shlokas while the singers sing about the characters who are about to enter the stage for the dance-drama. By telling the audience about the play in advance, the Sutradhar plays the role of a modern ‘anchor’
onstage. Towards the end, the Sutradhar goes near the holy-stage where the holy-book is kept on a small wooden stand called ‘thoga’, lifts it and goes towards the Satradhikar to seek his blessings and places the book at its designated spot in the ‘dohaar’.
After the exit of the Sutradhar’, the main Guru of the play announces the beginning of the Ankia and introduces the artistes. Throughout the presence of the artistes on stage, the singer loudly tells the audience about the role they play, after which the dance-drama begins. During the entire performance, the dialogues are exchanged by the characters directly or sometimes the background singer narrates the events being played. There is also loud background music throughout the play. The role of background singers is very important, as it is through their voice-modulation and music that the characters gain force onstage.
At the end of the play, the Sutradhar again comes dancing on stage and lifts the holy book from the ‘dohaar’ and respectfully places the book at its original place. At this juncture, the full team of artistes, along with Sutradhar, come to seek the blessings of Satradhikar. The Ankia programmes begin late evening and may continue up to early morning.
Text: Tej Narayan