Ankiya Play and Bhaona of Srimanta Sankaradeva

Srimanta Sankaradeva (1449-1568 AD) was a leading playwright of Assam as well as India. He set several world records as a playwright and director. His maiden play Chihna yatra launched the movement of regional plays in the modern Indian languages. This play was enacted in 1468 AD at Tembuwani (Bardowa).1 Unfortunately no script of this play survived, because of which many persons opine that it was not a written play. But there are vivid descriptions about Srimanta Sankaradeva writing this play in the ancient hagiographies.2 Moreover several songs are also available which are traditionally known as songs of Chihna yatra. So the script of this play was lost due to lack of proper care.3

The plays composed by Srimanta Sankaradeva are known as Ankiya play or Anka. Enactment of these plays in a distinctive style is known as Bhaona. Enactment of the plays written by the followers of Srimanta Sankaradeva is also called Bhaona. But their plays are not called Ankiya play. The term Ankiya play is reserved only for the plays of Srimanta Sankaradeva. Even the plays written by Madhavadeva also are not called Ankiya play. These are called Jhumura. Only the play Arjuna bhanjana by Madhavadeva belong to the same genre as Srimanta Sankaradeva’s plays, because of which that play can be called Ankiya play.

Scripts of several Ankiya plays have been recovered till now. These are Patni prasada, Kaliya damana, Keli Gopala, Rukmini harana, Parijat harana, and Sri Ram vijaya. Srimanta Sankaradeva composed and enacted another play named Janma yatra when he was residing at Patbausi, according to the hagiographer Ramcharan Thakur. The saint composed that play after returning from his second pilgrimage.4

The script of the play Janma yatra is however not available now. The Vrindavani cloth which was woven later, incorporating the incidents in Sri Krishna’s life starting from birth till the killing of king Kangsa was a painting form of the Janma yatra play only. Unfortunately the Vrindavani cloth has been lost and only a part of it remains in a London museum. Other two plays authored by Srimanta Sankaradeva were Gopi Uddhava sambada and Kangsa badha. The first was gutted in fire, while the latter was lost.5 Any way, we can list the plays of Srimanta Sankaradeva as Chihna yatra, Patni prasada, Kaliya damana, Keli Gopala, Rukmini harana, Parijat harana, Janma yatra, Gopi Uddhava sambada, Kangsa badha and Sri Ram vijaya.

Once Srimanta Sankaradeva lived at a place named Gajalasuti for six months. It was during this period that he composed the play Patni prasada. It was written in 1448 Sakabda or 1526-27 AD, according to Ambika Nath Bora. This play is not enriched with dramatic characters like the other plays of Srimanta Sankaradeva.6 This is however not hard to understand. The playwright wrote this play in order to express his anguish. It was composed as a reaction to the stiff resistance to his effort for preaching the ideology of Eka Sarana Nama Dharma .

Srimanta Sankaradeva set several world records with his play Chihna yatra. He used drop scenes in it for the first time in the world. Also he constructed stages in higher levels than that of the audience.7 It may be mentioned that a seven layer stage was constructed for this play, which was yet another innovative experiment in the entire world. It was also the first play in all modern Indian languages. The second play of the saint litterateur, Patni prasada also experimented another innovation. The playwright introduced here the character of teenager boys for the first time in any Indian play.8 Before this, only adult characters were incorporated in the plays. So the play Patni prasada deserves a distinctive place in the annals of Indian plays.

Ram Rai, a cousin of Srimanta Sankaradeva once organized a toy dance at Dhuwahata. Srimanta Sankaradeva then asked Ram Rai if he wanted to enjoy a good festival. Ram Rai immediately answered in the affirmative and requested Srimanta Sankaradeva to hold a Nat yatra (drama festival). The former took the responsibility of finance. It was then that Srimanta Sankaradeva composed the plays Kaliya damana and Parijat harana. He enriched them with dramatic components as he did not have to worry about the pecuniary aspect during their enactment. People came from far and wide to enjoy these plays when these were enacted.9

Srimanta Sankaradeva used Brajawali language in his Ankiya plays also like in his Bargeets. Perhaps he wanted an all India audience, so that his message could spread in Northern India. The playwright succeeded also in this goal. The Bengali society and the Maithili society were highly influenced by the Ankiya plays. Even the popular Yatra movement in Bengal was derived from Srimanta Sankaradeva’s Ankiya plays, which used this word ‘Yatra’ in nomenclature. It may be mentioned that the name Bhaona to denote enactment of Ankiya play came to be popular in Assam only much later. Earlier, the Ankiya plays were known as Yatra. That the very first play of the saint was named Chihna yatra is also significant in this context. The method of entry by the actors in both Bengali Yatra plays as well as in the Maithili plays is similar to the method of entry in the Ankiya plays. Moreover the enactment of these plays right in the middle of the audience is also derived from the Sankari plays. The Nandi is followed by prayer song to God in the Maithili plays just like in the Ankiya plays. All these traditions were carried from the Ankiya plays to the Maithili plays, thanks to the use of Brajawali.

The second possible reason behind the use of Brajawali in the Ankiya plays is that Srimanta Sankaradeva tried to create a sombre atmosphere during the enactment of his plays by using a different medium in these from the lingua franca of the majority people. He succeeded in that too. That is why his creations as well as his styles have remained alive among the masses even five centuries later. Ankiya plays still remain a vibrant style in the world of drama. These are looked upon as a source of healthy entertainment in the Assamese society even in the twenty first century.

The play Kaliya damana crossed the geographical boundary of Brahmaputra valley and became widely popular in Bengal too. Even a cultural era was created there by this play. The period from sixteenth century to the middle part of nineteenth century is known as Kaliya damana yatra era in Bengal. The popularity of this play was so high that all plays with the subject matter of lord Krishna’s life and activities came to be known as Kaliya damana yatra. Many stage managers included this play in their commercial circuit till the nineteenth century.10

The Brajawali language used by Srimanta Sankaradeva could be easily understood by the people in North and East India. So the songs and plays written by the saint became very popular in these regions. The Yatra movement of Bengal was directly influenced by the Ankiya plays. This influence could be deciphered in the entry and exit of the characters, the tradition of acting in a place amidst the audience, make-up, selection of story matter. However the local influence in costume and stories gradually took the Yatra of Bengal in a different direction from the Ankiya plays.

The Maithili plays were completely influenced by the Ankiya plays by Srimanta Sankaradeva. Two Maithili playwrights influenced by the saint were Govinda, who composed his plays around 1640 AD and Umapati, who was a playwright of the transition period between the seventeenth and the eighteenth century. The Maithili playwrights derived the concept and materials for their harana plays from the Ankiya plays. The harana plays like Usha harana, Rukmini harana, and Umapati’s Parijat harana etc are vivid examples of this. The influence of Ankiya plays in these Maithili plays is seen in the nomenclature, enactment during night, enactment at regular place like in Bhaona, entry of Sutradhar (compere) after the reading of Nandi, costume, headgear etc. The Maithili historians have accepted this truth.11

Srimanta Sankaradeva did not want his devotees to live a dull and insipid life, even though they lived very pious lives. Every person has aesthatic sense, because of which he/she wants to relish taste. The saint composed his Ankiya plays in order to offer quality entertainment to his disciples as well as lay public. That was why he embellished them with a lot of songs and dances.

It may be noted that the Shanta rasa prevails over all other rasa in the Ankiya plays. Other eight rasa are relegated to a secondary position in these plays. The concept of Shanta rasa was not there in the Natya shastra written by Bharata. Scholars like Ananda Bardhana and Abhinava Gupta incorporated it in the Alankara shastra.12

The very fact that Srimanta Sankaradeva laid emphasis on the Shanta rasa departing from the tradition of Natya shastra proves that he was quite revolutionary for his time. This rasa gives the pleasure of spiritual bliss to the audience. Srimanta Sankaradeva wanted to deliver this pleasure to his audience through the Bhaona of his Ankiya plays. He did not give importance to gross scintillating pleasures. So the remaining eight rasa i.e Shringara, Karuna, Adbhuta, Hasya, Bira, Rowdra, Bhayanaka, and Bibhatsa always remained subservient to the Shanta rasa in the Ankiya plays. The character Sutradhara always reminded the audience about their spiritual duties. Thus religious sermons got the upper hand over acting in the Ankiya plays.13

The Ankiya plays are termed as sermons rather than plays by some writers because of the predominance of sermons and the Shanta rasa in these.14 But this is not a proper analysis of these plays. We cannot judge the plays of Srimanta Sankaradeva by the standard of ancient Sanskrit plays which always gave importance on Shringara and Bira rasa. The saint had his original approach in his creative works, which have now been recognized. Moreover the Shanta rasa has been accepted as an important rasa in the period after Bharata. So we cannot say that the Ankiya plays are deficient in dramatic characteristics. Srimanta Sankaradeva created his own style which had the dual purpose of proselytizing and giving entertainment to the audience. It would be an injustice to Srimanta Sankaradeva if we judge his original play form by the standard of other play forms.

The Ankiya plays were certainly a tool for Srimanta Sankaradeva to spread his message. He was the first person in the world to use the plays as a medium of proselytizing. He was a forerunner to even Bertolt Brekht in this respect. The former had achieved the purpose of using drama as a tool for social reform and reconstruction way back in the sixteenth century, a work that the latter performed only in the twentieth century. Moreover Srimanta Sankaradeva used his static plays for a different purpose by keeping the actors in a low profile and giving them minimum actions. The plays of Materlink have similar characteristics, because of which Srimanta Sankaradeva can be called a forerunner of Materlink.15

There is no record in the hagiographies of making elevated stage for any play other than Chihna yatra. So we can guess that the present tradition of enacting the plays in the Kirtanghar was started during the lifetime of Srimanta Sankaradeva himself. The system of enacting a play in Kirtanghar or any open space amidst the audience is called Proscenium. The purpose of Proscenium is to achieve contact between the actors and the audience. This Proscenium concept came into effect only after 1650 AD in the West.16 So we can say that this concept also was actually an innovation of Srimanta Sankaradeva. Thus the rest of the world lagged behind him by as much as one century. They lagged behind him in incorporating religious elements in the plays also by 79 years. The religious play of Valentiena was enacted in the Mansion stage of Paris only in 1547 AD.17

Srimanta Sankaradeva preached the main tenets of Eka Sarana Nama Dharma among the masses through his Ankiya plays. So the materials used in the Bhaona i.e the enactment of these plays were symbolic. The covering screen used to keep covering the actors before their entry symbolises Maya (illusion). The character of Krishna enters the arena of acting after this screen is removed. This symbolizes the fact that truth dawns in one when the veil of ignorance is removed. Similarly nine wicks in the Agnigarh symbolises nine types of devotion. Sometimes twelve wicks also are given there. Then they signify the Bhagavata scripture, which has twelve cantos. Srimanta Sankaradeva gave stress on two particular modes of devotion to God more than on other modes. These were chanting and listening God’s name. Two Ariyas used for illumination of the arena of acting signifies these two modes of devotion.18

The audiences of Bhaona were reminded about their spiritual duties and the tenets of devotion through the above symbolic tools. A Bhaona is generally performed in the Kirtanghar. A Naibedya has to be offered to God in that place before starting the performance. This is compulsory, even if the Bhaona is held in some place other than the Kirtanghar. It implies that the Bhaona is actually a form of worship of the supreme God by the devotee actors. Prayer to God by singing Nandi verse at the very outset, wishing welfare and salvation for all by singing Muktimangal Bhatima verse at the end, etc also signify the importance on spirituality by this performance. The Muktimangal Bhatima is absent only in the play Patni prasada. The background of this play has already been described. So this exception is not surprising. Moreover the spiritual aspect has been duly highlighted in this play also through several songs.

Srimanta Sankaradeva did a noteworthy act by composing these Ankiya plays. This was the introduction of prose style in Assamese language and literature. All literary works till the time of Srimanta Sankaradeva were composed in verse. It was he who used prose for the first time in the Ankiya plays. So the prose style came into being in the Assamese literature with these Ankiya plays only. This prose was innovative and different from the colloquial prose form. Unfortunately the script of the first ever Ankiya play, Chihna yatra is not available. So we will have to consider the second play, Patni prasada as the first available instance of prose form in Assamese literature.

Some people hesitate to confer the status of first prose writing to the Ankiya plays since these were a little poetic and since these were written in the Brajawali form of language.19 But we should consider these plays as such an innovation in the medieval Assamese literature, which later became an indispensable part of this literature. Now we cannot and do not exclude these plays from the realm of Assamese literature. They should be considered as the first instance of prose form in the Assamese literature.

It has been stated earlier that Srimanta Sankaradeva departed from the tradition of Bharata’s Natya shastra in the context of rasa. Actually he had departed in several other aspects also. For instance, he did not abide by the prohibitory norms of this scripture. Some activities are not enacted in the Sanskrit plays.

Durahvanang badho yuddhang rajyadeshadi biplavah
Bibahobhojanang shapotsargow mrityu ratang tatha

This means that the scenes of calling from a distance, battle, revolution, killing, death, wedding, eating, giving curse etc are not depicted in the Sanskrit plays. But Srimanta Sankaradeva did not abide by these prohibitions. For instance, he incorporated a scene of eating in the play Patni prasada. Again, the play Rukmini harana has scenes of battle and wedding; in fact these constitute the very subject matter of this play. The play Keli Gopala has scene of killing. The playwright incorporated as many as three prohibited elements in his last play Sri Ram vijaya. These are battle, killing and wedding. Thus Srimanta Sankaradeva developed his own play form, independent from the Sanskrit play form.

It may be mentioned that Sri Ram vijaya was the last play as well as literary work of Srimanta Sankaradeva. He composed this play in 1490 Shaka or 1568 AD, at the request of Chilarai.20 The swayambar of princess Sita and the wedding of lord Rama was the main theme of this play. Srimanta Sankaradeva arranged the enactment of this play at the request of Chilarai and even directed it himself in spite of his old age.21 This proves the special interest of Srimanta Sankaradeva in plays.

Srimanta Sankaradeva was encouraged to evolve his own form of play because of his flair for it as well as his inimmitable expertise in this medium. He departed from the Sanskrit plays in the respect of Sutradhara’s role. The Sutradhara does not have any duty in the Sanskrit plays after the introduction of the subject matter, when he comes off the stage. But he remains there from the beginning till the end in Srimanta Sankaradeva’s Ankiya plays. The Sutradhara keeps the audience abreast of the developments in the story from time to time and also explains the spiritual significance of these. He assists the Khol players and the singers too. If necessary, he participates in acting also.

Srimanta Sankaradeva presented his spiritual sayings through the character of Sutradhara since he was using his plays as a proselytizing medium. It is significant that he himself acted in this role in his maiden play Chihna yatra. That highlights the importance attached to this role by the playwright. The above analysis also proves that the Sutradhara of Ankiya play was not derived from the Sutradhara of Sanskrit plays. Rather Srimanta Sankaradeva created this character from the indigenous cultural heritages like toy dance and Oja pali. There are many similarities of the Sutradhara of Ankiya play with the Oja (compere) of Oja pali.22 The characteristics of the Sutradhara of toy dance also resemble with that of Ankiya play to a great extent. The fact that the saint was attracted to composing and enacting some more plays after his cousin Ram Rai had organized a toy dance is also significant in this context. This proves that the former was an admirer of toy dance.

It may be mentioned that there are instructions like “Iti Sutra niskrantah” in some places of the Ankiya play. But in reality the Sutradhara remains in the arena of acting through the entire performance. So we can term these words as later entries.23 The elaborate and independent functions of the Sutradhara of Ankiya play proves the originality of this character created by Srimanta Sankaradeva. For instance, the Barbhangi and Sarubhangi presented by Sutradhara of Ankiya play is not found in any other play form or in any scripture on acting. Thus the ingredients of Ankiya play establish it as an independent form of play.

References and notes

1. It has been mentioned in hagiography that Srimanta Sankaradeva held Chihna yatra at nineteen years of age. Guru charit : Srimanta Sankaradevar lila charit, (in Assamese), Ramcharan Thakur, edited by Harinarayan Dutta Barua, 6th edition, Guwahati, 1985 AD, pp. 315-316.
2. Katha Gurucharit, (in Assamese), Chakrapani Vairagi, composed in about 1758 AD and collected by Dr Banikanta Kakoti, edited by Upendra Chandra Lekharu, 15th edition, Guwahati, 1987, p. 36. Since the play Chihna yatra was enacted in a very elaborate and prolonged manner, we can guess that it had a written script. The well planned event would not have been possible without a written script.
3. As many as twenty eight boxfull of ancient books have been damaged at Ganakkuchi Than due to ill preservation. Since Madhavadeva resided there, we can guess that many of Srimanta Sankaradeva’s own hand written scripts had been preserved there. Unfortunately, these have been lost for ever.
4. Ramcharan Thakur, 1985 AD, pp. 732-733.
5. Mahapurusha Sri Sri Gopaladevar Charit, Purnananda Dwija, edited by M. C. Bordoloi & N. C. Bordoloi, 1st edition, 1978 AD, p. 215; Bordowa Gurucharit, Puwaram Mahanta, edited by Maheswar Neog, 1st edition, 1977 AD, p. 165.
6. Sri Sri Sankaradeva, (in Assamese), Dr Maheswar Neog, 5th edition, Dibrugarh, 1985 AD, p. 77, 129. Neog himself also opined that this play was composed at Dhuwahata. [ibid, p. 88] But the hagiographies do not support this view.
7. Mahapurusa Sankaradevar samparke Chaitanyapanthir apaprachara, (in Assamese), Dr Sanjib Kumar Borkakoti, part II, in Natun dainik, edited by Surjya Hazarika, Guwahati, October 19, 1997 AD.
8. Ankiya Nat and the Medieval Indian Theatre, Dr Sisir Kumar Das, in Glimpses of Vaisnava Heritage of Assam, edited by Dr Pradipjyoti Mahanta, 1st edition, Guwahati, 2001 AD, p. 131.
9. Gurucharit Katha, (in Assamese), Chakrapani Vairagi, [name not mentioned], composed in about 1758 AD and collected by Dr Naren Kalita, [unedited], in Katha, Vol 1 No 1, Guwahati, 1992 AD, pp. 146-147. The collector has also wrongly opined in his brief foreword that Patni prasada, Kaliya damana, and Parijat harana were composed at Gajalasuti. Actually only Patni prasada was written at Gajalasuti. Remaining two plays were written at Dhuwahata. Moreover Ram Rai did not stay with Srimanta Sankaradeva at Gajalasuti, as opined by the collector.
10. Asomiya Natya Sahityar Jilingani, (in Assamese), Dr Harischandra Bhattacharya, 3rd edition, Guwahati, 1988 AD, pp. 28-29; Bangla Sahityer Sampurna Itibritto, Dr Asitkumar Bandopadhyaya, reprint, Kolkata, 2002-2003 AD, p. 336.
11. Natun Poharat Asomiya Sahityar Buranji, (in Assamese), Dimbeswar Neog, 6th edition, Guwahati, 1993 AD, pp. 177-178.
12. Sahitya Alochana, (in Assamese), Trailokya Nath Goswami, 4th edition, Guwahati, 1994 AD, pp. 50-51.
13. Aitihasik patbhumit Mahapurusa Sankaradeva, (in Assamese), Bap Chandra Mahanta, 1st edition, Jorhat, 1987 AD, pp. 353-354, 364.
14. Ibid, p. 353. Mahanta even cites the lack of stage as a reason of not including the Ankiya plays within the ambit of drama. Such analysis is only result of ignorance. The Ankiya play’s arena of acting was unique and not like other plays elsewhere.
15. Trailokya Nath Goswami, 1994 AD, p. 141, 176.
16. Sankaradevar Outdoor Theatre aru Natyashilpat Navya Proscenium, (in Assamese), Bhupen Chakravarty, in Prantik, edited by Pradip Barua, Guwahati, August 16-31, 1991 AD, pp. 27-30.
17. Ibid, p. 29.
18. Satriya Sanskritir Svarnarekha, (in Assamese), Narayana Chandra Goswami, 1st edition, Majuli, 1984 AD, pp. 67-68.
19. Dr Maheswar Neog, 1985 AD, pp. 132-133.
20. Chakrapani Vairagi, 1987 AD, p. 214.
21. Sriguru charit, (in Assamese), Ramananda Dwija, written in 1678-80 AD, 1st part, edited by Maheswar Neog, 1st edition, Nalbari : Guwahati, 1957 AD, p. 390.
22. Asomiya Sahityar Samikhatmak Itibritta, (in Assamese), Dr Satyendra Nath Sarma, 2nd edition, Guwahati, 1984 AD, pp. 140-141.
23. Narayana Chandra Goswami, 1984 AD, p. 612.

[This article was earlier published in the author’s book ‘Unique contributions of Srimanta Sankaradeva in religion and culture’, 2006.]

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