Evolution of Assamese Theatre (with special reference to Ankiyā Bhāonā)

Evolution of Assamese Theatre (with special reference to Ankiyā Bhāonā)

Assam had a rich tradition of Assamese folk theatrical elements, though not exactly full-fledged theatre, for several milleniums. Full-fledged Assamese theatre came into being in the medieval times. In fact there had been no full-fledged theatre in any modern Indian languages at all before the advent of Srimanta Sankaradeva in the fifteenth century. It was he who revolutionized the scenario of drama and spread its wings from Sanskrit to other languages. He drew elements from the folk theatrical elements, the most prominent among them being that of Ojāpāli. Putalā-nāch or Puppet dance was another minor source for him to draw upon.
Ojāpāli is a form of semi-theatrical performance where the Ojā or the master of Ojāpāli narrates a story. He maintains a regular dramatic movement and a few colleagues known as Pāli maintain steps in tandem with him. The foremost among the Pāli is called Dāinā Pāli. Generally an Ojāpāli group consists of one Ojā and four Pāli. It is a semi-drama, where the main purpose is narration of a story. The narration is done in verse. There are different variations of Ojāpāli. Among them Vyāh Ojāpāli, Rāmāyan Ojāpāli, Bhāirā Ojāpāli, Durgābori Ojāpāli, Sattriyā Ojāpāli, Naganyā Ojāpāli, Pānchāli Ojāpāli and Dulari Ojāpāli take their narratives from the epics. On the other hand Sukanāni Ojāpāli, Bishahari Ojāpāli, Māregān, Padmapurānor gān and Tukuriyā Ojāpāli take narratives from outside the epics. All members of the Ojāpāli team wear white dresses. Some of these Ojāpāli types like Sattriyā Ojāpāli and Naganyā Ojāpāli have been developed in later period. Influence of Ankiyā play on them is very distinct.

Putalā-nāch was an old folk tradition. In fact it was a universal tradition, prevalent in most parts of the Indian sub-continent. Assam was no exception. There used to be a compere in addition to the person, who controlled the puppets with strings. But the thrust being on inanimate puppets in a Putalā-nāch, this folk tradition cannot be said to be a major factor in the growth of drama or theatre movement. The only concept that might have been derived from Putalā-nāch is that of Sutradhāra. Just as the controller of the puppets held the strings in Putalā-nāch, the Sutradhāra of Ankiyā play also holds the strings of the story. Sutradhāra literally means string holder. Since this word was used in Sanskrit plays, the influence of Putalā-nāch on Sanskrit plays might have been very old, though it cannot be conclusively proved. But its mention even in Vatsayana’s Kāmasutra, which was composed about two and a half millenniums ago indicates its ancientness.

Srimanta Sankaradeva (1449-1568 AD) was a leading playwright of Assam as well as India. His maiden play Chihna Yātrā 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 medieval hagiographies.2 Moreover several songs are also available which are traditionally known as songs of Chihna yātrā. So there must have been a script of this play which was lost due to lack of proper care.3

The plays composed by Srimanta Sankaradeva are known as Ankiyā play or Anka. Enactment of these plays in a distinctive style is known as Bhāonā. Enactment of the plays written by the followers of Srimanta Sankaradeva is also called Bhāonā. But their plays are not called Ankiyā play. The term Ankiyā play is reserved only for the plays of Srimanta Sankaradeva. Enactment of Srimanta Sankaradeva’s plays are called Ankiyā Bhāonā while the enactment of his followers’ plays composed in that genre are called Bhāonā alone. Even the plays written by his foremost disciple and successor Madhavadeva are not called Ankiyā play. These are called Jhumurā. Only the play Arjuna bhanjana by Madhavadeva belongs to the same genre as Srimanta Sankaradeva’s plays, because of which that play can be called Ankiyā play.

Scripts of several Ankiyā plays have been recovered till now. These are Patni prasāda, Kāliya damana, Keli Gopāla, Rukmini harana, Pārijāta harana, and Sri Rām vijaya. Srimanta Sankaradeva composed and enacted another play named Janma yātrā 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 yātrā 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 textile art form of the Janma yātrā play only. Unfortunately the Vrindavani cloth has been displaced; a part of it now remains in Guimet museum of Paris. Other two plays authored by Srimanta Sankaradeva were Gopi Uddhava sambāda and Kangsa badha. The script of the first was gutted in fire, while the second was lost.5 We can therefore list the plays of Srimanta Sankaradeva as Chihna yātrā, Patni prasāda, Kāliya damana, Keli Gopāla, Rukmini harana, Pārijata harana, Janma yātra, Gopi Uddhava sambāda, Kangsa badha and Sri Rām vijaya.

Once Srimanta Sankaradeva lived at a place named Gajalasuti for six months. It was during this period that he composed the play Patni prasāda. 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 Vaishnavite ideology of Eka Sarana Nāma Dharma .

Srimanta Sankaradeva set several world records with his play Chihna Yātrā. 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 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 prasāda also experimented another innovation. The playwright introduced the characters of teenage boys in this play, which was the first time in any Indian play.8 Before this, only adult characters were included in the plays. So the play Patni prasāda deserves a distinctive place in the annals of Indian drama.

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 Nāt yātrā (drama festival). Ram Rai took the responsibility of finance. It was then that Srimanta Sankaradeva composed the plays Kāliya damana and Pārijāta 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 Brajāwali language in his Ankiyā plays like in his Bargeets. Brajāwali was that form of Assamese dialect, which had affinity to the dialects in Northern India as all of them had been derived from the same Magadhi Prākrit. Srimanta Sankaradeva wanted an all India audience, so that his message could spread in Northern India. The playwright succeeded in that goal. The Bengali society and the Maithili society were highly influenced by the Ankiyā plays. The popular Yātrā movement in Bengal was derived from Srimanta Sankaradeva’s Ankiyā plays, which used this word ‘Yātrā’ in nomenclature. It may be mentioned that the name Bhāonā to denote enactment of Ankiyā play came to be popular in Assam only much later. Earlier, the Ankiyā plays were known as Yātrā. That the very first play of Srimanta Sankaradeva was named Chihna yātrā is also significant in this context. The method of entry by the actors in both Bengali Yātrā plays as well as in the Maithili plays is similar to the method of entry in the Ankiyā plays. Moreover the enactment of these plays right in the middle of the audience is also derived from the Ankiyā plays. The Nāndi is followed by prayer song to God in the Maithili plays just like in the Ankiyā plays. All these traditions were carried from the Ankiyā plays to the Maithili plays, thanks to the use of Brajāwali.

The second possible reason behind the use of Brajāwali in the Ankiyā plays is that Srimanta Sankaradeva tried to create a different type of atmosphere during the enactment of his plays by using a medium which was different from the lingua franca of the elite people. He succeeded in that too. The Brajāwali dialect chosen by him caught attention of the mass people as it happened to be a dialogue of the common people in the Brahmaputra valley. That is why his creations as well as his styles have remained alive among the masses even five centuries later. Ankiyā 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 Kāliya 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 Kāliya damana yātrā 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 Kāliya damana yātrā. Many stage managers included this play in their commercial circuit till the nineteenth century.10

The Brajāwali 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 Yātrā movement of Bengal was directly influenced by the Ankiyā plays. This influence could be deciphered in the nomenclature, 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 Yātrā of Bengal in a different direction from the Ankiyā plays.

The Maithili plays were completely influenced by the Ankiyā plays of 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 Ankiyā plays. The harana plays like Ushā harana, Rukmini harana, and Umapati’s Pārijata harana etc are vivid examples of this. The influence of Ankiyā plays in these Maithili plays is seen in the nomenclature, enactment during night, enactment at regular place like in Bhāonā, entry of Sutradhāra (compere) after the recital of Nāndi, 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 the person wants to relish taste. The saint composed his Ankiyā 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. The Ankiyā plays gave birth to a new school of classical dance, now known as Sattriyā or Sankari dance. A new school of classical music also came up as the playwright composed new Rāga on his own for all the songs.

It may be noted that the Shānta Rasa prevails over all other Rasa in the Ankiyā plays. Other eight Rasa are relegated to a secondary position in these plays. The concept of Shānta Rasa was not there in the Nātya Shāstra written by Bharata. Scholars like Ananda Bardhana and Abhinava Gupta incorporated it in the Alankāra Shāstra.12 The very fact that Srimanta Sankaradeva laid emphasis on the Shānta Rasa departing from the tradition of Nātya Shāstra 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 Bhāonā of his Ankiyā plays. He did not give importance to gross scintillating pleasures. So the remaining eight Rasas i.e Shringāra, Karunā, Adbhuta, Hāsya, Bira, Rowdra, Bhayānaka, and Bibhatsa always remained subservient to the Shānta Rasa in the Ankiyā plays. The compere Sutradhāra always reminded the audience about their spiritual duties. Thus religious sermons got the upper hand over acting in the Ankiyā plays.13

The Ankiyā plays are termed as sermons rather than plays by some writers because of the predominance of sermons and the Shānta 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 gave importance on Shringāra and Bira Rasa. The saint litterateur had his original approach in his creative works, which has been recognized. Moreover the Shānta Rasa has been accepted as an important Rasa in the period after Bharata. So we cannot say that the Ankiyā 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 Ankiyā plays were certainly a tool for Srimanta Sankaradeva to spread his religious message. He was in fact the first playwright in the world to use the plays as a medium of proselytizing. He was a forerunner to Bertolt Brekht in this respect. Srimanta Sankaradeva had achieved the purpose of using drama as a tool for social reform and reconstruction way back in the fifteenth century, a work that Bertolt Brekht 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 the Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck have similar characteristics, because of which Srimanta Sankaradeva can be called a forerunner of Maeterlinck and his symbolist movement.15

There is no record in the medieval hagiographies of Srimanta Sankaradeva making elevated stage for any play other than Chihna Yātrā. So we can guess that the present day tradition of enacting the Ankiyā plays inside the Kirtanghar was started during the lifetime of Srimanta Sankaradeva himself. The system of enacting a play in an elevated stage is called Proscenium. The Proscenium concept came into effect only after 1650 AD in the West.16 So we can say that this concept was an innovation of Srimanta Sankaradeva as the elevated stage used in Chihna Yātrā contained elements of it. 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 Nāma Dharma among the masses through his Ankiyā plays. So the materials used in the Bhāonā i.e the enactment of these plays were symbolic. The covering screen known as Pāmori bastra used to keep covering the actors before their entry symbolises Māyā (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 Bhāgavata scripture, which has twelve cantos. Srimanta Sankaradeva laid stress on two particular modes of devotion to God in comparison to the other modes. These two were chanting and listening God’s name. Two Āriyās used for illumination of the arena of acting signify these two modes of devotion.18

The audience of Bhāonā were reminded about their spiritual duties and the tenets of devotion through the above symbolic tools. A Bhāonā 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 Bhāonā is held in some place other than the Kirtanghar. It implies that the Bhāonā is actually a form of worship of the supreme God by the devotee actors. Prayer to God by singing Nāndi verse at the very outset, wishing welfare and salvation for all by singing Muktimangal Bhatimā verse at the end, etc also signify the importance given to spirituality by this performance. The Muktimangal Bhatimā is absent only in the play Patni prasāda. 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 Ankiyā plays. This was the introduction of prose style in Assamese language and literature. All literary works till the time of Srimanta Sankaradeva had been composed in verse. It was he who used prose for the first time in the Ankiyā plays. So the prose style came into being in the Assamese literature with these Ankiyā plays only. This prose was innovative and different from the colloquial prose form quite as expected from a litterateur of high calibre. Unfortunately the script of the first ever Ankiyā play, Chihna Yātrā is not available. So we will have to consider the second play, Patni prasāda as the first available instance of prose form in Assamese literature.

Some people hesitate to confer the status of first prose writing to the Ankiyā plays since these were a little poetic and since these were written in the Brajāwali 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. 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. The structure of the dialogues in the Ankiyā plays is distinctly that of prose, not verse.

It has been stated earlier that Srimanta Sankaradeva departed from the tradition of Bharata’s Nātya Shāstra in the context of Rasa. Actually he 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.

Durāhvānang badho yuddhang rājyadeshādi biplavah
Bibāhobhojanang shapotsargow mrityu ratang tathā

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 prasāda. 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 Gopāla has scene of killing. The playwright incorporated as many as three prohibited elements in his last play Sri Rām vijaya. These are battle, killing and wedding. Thus Srimanta Sankaradeva developed his own play form, independent from the Sanskrit play form. His plays are milestones in the history of Indian drama.

It may be mentioned that Sri Rām 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 Swayambara 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 ripe 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 Sutradhāra’s role. The Sutradhāra 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 Ankiyā plays. The Sutradhāra 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 Sutradhāra 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 Yātrā. This highlights the importance attached to the role of Sutradhāra by the playwright. The Sutradhāra of Ankiyā play was not derived from the Sutradhāra of Sanskrit plays. Rather Srimanta Sankaradeva created this character from the indigenous cultural heritages like puppet dance and Ojāpāli. There are many similarities of the Sutradhāra of Ankiyā play with the Ojā of Ojāpāli.22 The characteristics of the Sutradhāra of puppet dance also resemble with that of Ankiyā play to a great extent. The fact that Srimanta Sankaradeva was attracted to composing and enacting some more plays after his cousin Ram Rai had organized a puppet dance is also significant in this context. This proves that the playwright was an admirer of toy dance.

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

Ankiyā play and its performing style Bhāonā have given birth to new forms of folk theatrical elements as well as full-fledged folk theatres. While the texts of Ankiyā play influenced the later day compositions, its performing style, the Bhāonā left its mark on the performing style of other forms of performing art. For example the erstwhile Ojāpāli gave birth to different new variations under the influence of Ankiyā play and its performing style, Bhāonā. Sattriyā Ojāpāli and Naganyā Ojāpāli are the foremost among them. When a classical resource gives birth to folk materials we can understand the spread and popularity of that classical resource. Ankiyā play and its performing style Bhāonā had that spread and popularity. The Sattriyā Ojāpāli was a direct offshoot of it. Ojāpāli was incorporated as a component of daily rituals in the Sattras. In the process some modifications were made and Vaishnavite texts of Srimanta Sankaradeva’s religious philosophy were incorporated for the Ojā to recite. Such texts include Dashāvatāra verse (verse describing ten incarnations), Bargeet etc. Even Nāndi verse is recited. The final product came to be known as Sattriyā Ojāpāli. When a Bargeet is performed as part of Sattriyā Ojāpāli it is called Ojāgeet. Recital of the different Rāgas in Sattriyā Ojāpāli very often happened to be in classical style as in Ankiyā play. However it cannot be termed fully classical because of looseness in rendering and incorporation of anonymous compositions like Rāga Mālita, where the genesis of the Rāgas are narrated.

On the other hand the Ojāpāli prevalent in the Nagaon region had a special flavor, which was more intense than Sattriyā Ojāpāli. In this Ojāpāli even the costume of Ojā is almost identical to the Ankiyā play’s Sutradhāra. This form of Ojāpāli came to be known as Naganyā Ojāpāli. This author had the priviledge of witnessing the performance of a centurian Ojā named Maheswar Ojā two decades ago. The resemblance of his performance with that of Sutradhāra in Ankiyā Bhāonā was notable. The Swar Ālāp of Naganyā Ojāpāli is also akin to that of Bargeet. It starts with Krishna Sankara Guru Hari Rama..…….. just like in Bargeet. The costume of Ojā in Naganyā Ojāpāli also resembles that of Sutradhāra in Ankiyā Bhāonā. Perhaps the fact of Srimanta Sankaradeva having lived in this region for half of his life contributed to this massive influence.

Khuliyā Bhāoriyā is a form of folk theatre prevalent in the Darrang area. It is a mixture of Ojāpāli and Ankiyā Bhāonā. Just like Ojāpāli there is an Ojā in the Khuliyā Bhāoriyā. All actors act to the recitation of the Ojā. A comedian is introduced in this form of folk theatre. It is more developed compared to the folk theatrical elements which existed before the advent of Ankiyā Bhāonā. Just like in the Ankiyā Bhāonā the actors of Khuliyā Bhāoriyā also enter and leave the arena of performance by dancing. Generally the stories from any Purāna make the lyrical text of the play. Hāsya Rasa is the mainstay of this format. A performance takes about three hours.24 But it may also extend to entire night just like Ankiyā Bhāonā. It may therefore be termed a full-fledged folk theatre. The Ojā also acts like the Sutradhāra of Ankiyā Bhāonā to a great extent. The paying of obeisance by all the actors at the end of the performance is akin to Ankiyā Bhāonā. Another similarity is the playing of Khol at the beginning like Gāyan Bāyan of Ankiyā Bhāonā.25 But in spite of all these Khuliyā Bhāoriyā cannot be called classical for absence of rigid and regular text.

There is another popular folk theatrical element named Dhepā Dhuliyā in the Darrang region. In Dhepā Dhuliyā the performers play on the drum called Dhol and perform songs and dances. There is no narrative in this format. It is mainly an entertainment. It had existed from earlier days in skeletal form. But the royal house of Darrang patronised it and developed it further in post-Sankaradeva era. There are two drummers and four cymbal players in a team. Among the two drummers one is main performer and the other is in supporting role. They are called Ghāi and Pāli respectively. They wear colourful costumes. Often two teams perform together in functions like wedding and there is competition among them. 26

Ankiyā Bhāonā has incorporated some new elements over time, leading to innovative practices. One such innovation is Mukhā Bhāonā. This type of presentation is characterized by the use of Mukhā (mask) by all characters. Generally Mukhā is worn only by animal characters like Bakasura, Kali serpent, Jambavanta, Garuda etc or demonic characters like Ravana, Putana etc in any Ankiyā Bhāonā. But in a Mukhā Bhāonā every character other than Krishna and the Sutradhāra wears Mukhā. 27 Another innovation is presentation of the play over Bokā (mud). It is known as Bokā Bhāonā. The arena is made muddy and the actors perform over that mud. Such innovations aimed at increasing the degree of entertainment.

The Ankiyā Bhāonā has undergone some transformation or modification in organizational aspect too. One such innovation is the presentation of numerous Bhāonā of Ankiyā plays together in one place under a single canopy, which becomes a great festival. Twelve or more Bhāonā of plays are enacted at the same time, some of them being later day compositions in the style of Ankiyā Bhāonā. The most popular examples of such presentations are Bāresahariyā Bhāonā of Jamuguri and Hejāri Bhāonā of Karoyoni. The Bāresahariyā Bhāonā takes place at five year interval, while the Hejāri Bhāonā takes place after four year interval. Bāresahariyā Bhāonā is being performed for the last 220 years. Upto twenty one Bhāonā are performed in this festival together. Hejāri Bhāonā is comparatively new; it was started in 1969. In recent times Nagāon Bhāonā Sāmāroh has started similar performance in Nagaon since 2012 on an annual basis. All these events give stress on organizing academic events also simultaneously.

The text of the Ankiyā plays are often abridged in modern day performance of Bhāonā, especially when it is enacted outside Sattra. When an Ankiyā play is performed in town or city on stage, it is performed in 90 to 120 minutes. The songs are curtailed or pruned by the directors in such performances. But the most disturbing development is the change in original text composed by Srimanta Sankaradeva. Another degeneration is the enactment of modern plays in the name of Ankiyā Bhāonā. Later day compositions written in modern Assamese prose are presented in the guise of Ankiyā Bhāonā. This has resulted in diminishing use of Brajāwali.

The genius of Srimanta Sankaradeva was accepted by all scholars and litterateurs of medieval times. Naturally his style and format influenced other litterateurs. Thus the Ankiyā plays left its mark on the Sanskrit plays of later years. Several Sanskrit plays were composed in Assam in the eighteenth century under such influence. Kāmākumār haran, Bighnesh-janmodaya, Lakshman Shaktishel, Shangkhachura badha and Sri Krishna prayāna are such plays. Of course plays free of such influence also were written, Dharmodaya being one such example. But majority of the Sanskrit plays written in post-Sankaradeva era were influenced by his Ankiyā style. Some of them even had songs in Brajāwali. 28

In modern times also several playwrights have been influenced by the Ankiyā play genre evolved by Srimanta Sankaradeva. There have been attempts to compose plays in modern language and context while using the style of Ankiyā plays, especially its character Sutradhāra. Playwrights like Karuna Deka, Gunakar Deva Goswami, Anjan Bhuyan etc have made such experiments. They have even used Brajāwali intermittently in their plays. While the modern plays have thus started using the style of Ankiyā plays, the traditional plays of Sankaradeva legacy have started using modern prose in their dialogues, giving go bye to Brajāwali. It is in middle Assam, especially in Nagaon-Kaliabor area that the original Ankiyā plays authored by Srimanta Sankaradeva in Brajāwali language are being enacted. Thus we have performance of Bhāonā everywhere in Assam, while Ankiyā Bhāonā is only sparingly performed these days. The costume used in these Bhāonā also have undergone a lot of changes, reducing the simplicity and graciousness of the yesteryears. There is also unwarranted introduction of characters like clowns in some cases. It is time these aberrations are removed.

References and notes

1. It has been mentioned in hagiography that Srimanta Sankaradeva held Chihna yātrā at nineteen years of age. Guru charit : Srimanta Sankaradevar lilā charit, (in Assamese), Ramcharan Thakur, edited by Harinarayan Dutta Barua, 6th edition, Guwahati, 1985 AD, pp. 315-316.
2. Kathā 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 yātrā was enacted in a very elaborate and prolonged manner, we can conclude 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 Thān due to imperfect 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. Mahāpurusha Sri Sri Gopāladevar Charit, Purnananda Dwija, edited by M. C. Bordoloi & N. C. Bordoloi, 1st edition, 1978 AD, p. 215; Bordowā 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. Mahāpurusa Sankaradevar samparke Chaitanyapanthir apaprachāra, (in Assamese), Dr Sanjib Kumar Borkakoti, part II, in Natun dainik, edited by Surjya Hazarika, Guwahati, October 19, 1997 AD.
8. Ankiyā 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 Kathā, (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 prasāda, Kāliya damana, and Pārijāt harana were composed at Gajalasuti. Actually only Patni prasāda 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. Asomiyā Nātya Sahityar Jilingani, (in Assamese), Dr Harischandra Bhattacharya, 3rd edition, Guwahati, 1988 AD, pp. 28-29; Bānglā Sāhityer Sampurna Itibritto, Dr Asitkumar Bandopadhyaya, reprint, Kolkata, 2002-2003 AD, p. 336.
11. Natun Poharat Asomiyā Sāhityar Buranji, (in Assamese), Dimbeswar Neog, 6th edition, Guwahati, 1993 AD, pp. 177-178.
12. Sāhitya ālochanā, (in Assamese), Trailokya Nath Goswami, 4th edition, Guwahati, 1994 AD, pp. 50-51.
13. Aitihasik patbhumit Mahāpurusa 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 Ankiyā plays within the ambit of drama. Such analysis is not acceptable. The Ankiyā 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 Nātyashilpat Navya Proscenium, (in Assamese), Bhupen Chakravarty, in Prāntik, edited by Pradip Barua, Guwahati, August 16-31, 1991 AD, pp. 27-30.
17. Ibid, p. 29.
18. Satriya Sanskritir Svarnarekhā, (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 Sāhityar Samikhātmak Itibritta, (in Assamese), Dr Satyendra Nath Sarma, 2nd edition, Guwahati, 1984 AD, pp. 140-141.
23. Narayana Chandra Goswami, 1984 AD, p. 612.
24. Darrangar Loka Sanskriti Samikshā, (in Assamese), edited by Dr Amarendra Narayan Deb, 1st edition, Mangaldoi, 2001, pp. 31-32.
25. Asomor sanskriti kosh, chief editor Dr Narayan Das, 1st edition, Guwahati, 2009, p. 158.
26. Ibid, pp. 273-274.
27. Ankiyā shailir bhāonā āru mukhā bhāonā, Dr Chitrajit Saikia, in Sonāli saphurā, edited by Somnath Bora, Puranigudam, 2017, pp. 315-316.
28. Sanskrit nātya sāhitya, Kamakhya Charan Bhagavati, 1st edition, Dibrugarh, 2000, pp. 14-15.

[ Paper presented in an all India workshop organised by National School of Drama, New Delhi at Uttar Kamalabari Sattra, Majuli on November 24, 2017.]

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