As a pure Sattra by birth, by heart, and by soul, she has embodied the unique Sattriya dance form. She has been conferred with the prestigious Bharat Kala Ratna Award 2018 by a Kerala Based cultural institute, Navanittam Cultural Trust for her contributions to Sattriya dance form. Introducing Dr. Anwesa Mahanta, who has, by liberating the soul of the performance, transformed the Sattriya dance into a unique art-form and form of communication in itself, without limiting its definition into as just “dance form”. While performing in the contours of the literature; original elements; principles of the Sattra; and others, she has always kept a step forward to explore the beauty of Sattriya dance.
She holds a PhD degree from the University of Delhi and has received the prestigious Charles Wallace Fellowship (2015). She did her Post-Doctoral research at Queen’s University in Belfast, United Kingdom. As a cultural activist and the Festival Director of KALPA (a Society for Promotion of Literature Art, Culture and Social Harmony), she coordinates the Pragjyoti International Dance Festival, a festival of young classical dancers, which she has been organizing for ten years now, in three different places. Through this fest, she has been trying her best to reach out to the young and budding talents and encouraging them to exchange knowledge and ideas through cultural expressions, in addition to promoting some lesser known performance traditions of Assam and North-eastern India. This is a sort of Anwesa’s offering to the region as a resident and practitioner of the region. Get to know her more with this short rendezvous.
Tell us about yourself.
I belong to the Vaisnava monastery of Assam. My Mother Ms. Minati Choudhury is an eminent litterateur of the region who has also served in Doordarshan. My father Prof Pradip Jyoti Mahanta is a Professor and Head in the Dept. of Cultural Studies, Tezpur University. He was an erudite scholar in the genre of Cultural History of Assam and North-eastern India.
What lured you into the world of Sattriya dance?
I belong to sattriya lineage, the Vaishnav monastery. Right from the childhood, the essence of Sattriya dance has imbibed in our lives. We are born and brought up in the aura or environment of traditional rituals and customs of Sattras. I have seen a lot of traditional theatres. My father was also into traditional theatre. The theatre has always fascinated me. When I get to see the actors getting transfrmed, that area has always touched me deeply. A farmer of the village works like a farmer all day long, and as a theatre artist in the evening or during occasions. This transformation enchanted me. Gradually, I was taken to a teacher for systematic learning. Initially it was a physical exercise. I have always taken this form of art with a sense of respect. However, my connection with this art form as evolved gradually with time, when you stat performing and getting involved in the acts. There is no single and defined instance.
If I have to communicate or relate to any contemporary or social reality, my first point of expressing it is through dance.
At what age you started learning the dance?
The informal training started much early. My formal training in Sattriya began in my early childhood at the age of six under the tutelage of the eminent maestro, a Sangeet Natak Akademi Awardee and Padmashri Bayanacharya Ghanakanta Bora.
Tell us about your journey thereafter.
In 2001, my formal entry as a performer began, which is called as “Ranga Pravesh.” There was a ceremony usually done for this. That preparation itself, for this ceremony, gave me a professional take from the lessons, which I had learned to the point that I had to build up my stamina and perform in several occasions. And at that point of time, I was also learning Bharatnatyam, under the guidance of Guru Indira P.P Bora, who is an internationally acclaimed dancer.
It began all the way in a same manner, starting from the classroom learning to the point where you present yourself on the stage. This gave me the first step or push towards choosing dance as a profession. After that there have been opportunities to present the dance form, and with each presentation, the understanding of the dance has evolved because more you perform, more you get to learn and understand various performance techniques and ways of presenting your art. All of this gradually helped me grow. When an audience sees a dance performance or an art form, he or she won’t see anything else but you as an artist. They see that the entire art as a lens through you. For me, this professional work is about how can I work more towards perfection and take it to a larger audience.
Anyone you would like to express your gratitude to?
A lot of people actually, starting with my parents, who have supported me immensely throughout the journey, especially for whatever decisions I have taken for my career, especially for academics. My teacher has also been quite supportive. He has been a liberal mentor in a sense that he has given me a liberal outlook of the tradition. When you take the purest version of an art form, a lot of people may come to you asking for variations and trying to change the forms. With him, that liberal outlook has given me platforms to explore more and more, and interpret it more. Through my interpretations, I have been able to connect much better and deeply with this art form. That is not something that has been handed down to me. It’s something that I have embodied. The connection has been very important and there he plays a vital role.
My father has been an erudite scholar in this field. Therefore, his approach and knowledge has helped me in embracing the art form as a kind of my own language.
Also, the team with which I have worked (musician, percussionist, vocalist and others) has collectively contributed in the making of me as a dancer. We have worked as an excellent team. Each of them has a significant role in the entire presentation. A dance isn’t just about the solo work; it’s a collective effort.
There have also been people who have helped and encouraged me throughout my journey, including several dancers whom I have met on several occasions; their work has also inspired me. Also, audience’s reaction has been immensely helpful, especially, when they come and share their journey during the presentation.
I follow the works of Dr. Kapila Vatsnayan, a danseuse of unique abilities in the Indian classical dance. Her works are very inspiring. Several scholars have also inspired me throughout.
Any other dance form you have learnt?
Yes, I have also learnt Bharatnatyam under the guidance of Ms. Indira P.P Bora. No other dance forms I have learnt apart from these two. I was learning Sattriya and Bharatnatyam simultaneously. Bharatnatyam has given me a very stong exposure to the technique and grammar of the classical dance. This art form has also helped me in understanding the Sattriya dance form in a better way.
Do you see any kind of similarities between both the dance forms?
Some way or the other, you would see similarities if you put all the dance forms together on the stage. However, each and every dance form belongs to its place of origin, and it will have its own flavour and exceptionality. Being rooted in the classical dances, one will find some similarities. However, Bharatnatyam is very angular with sharp geometrical lines. While Sattriya, on the other hand follows circular and semi circular patterns and movements. It has a very wavy nature. Yes, if you ask me about the hand gestures, you may find certain similarities, but there is not much exactness. Each dance form has its own distinguished feature. The dances of India give a good example of unity in diversity.
Sattriya has evolved because of the Vaishnava movement, and mostly the compositions are of Shankardeva and Madhavdeva. Mostly the poems and doxologies written by him are mostly dedicated towards Lord Krishna, and Bhagavad Purana. You will find the stories of Bhagvada in various renditions, and you will find them in the form of poems or doxologies. One of the main motives of Shankaradeva and Mahadeva is to convey the philosophy of Bhakti movement in this dance form through the stories & of Lord Krishna mainly. Lord Krishna plays an important role in the Sattriya depictions.
These days there is a wide range of thematic explorations. I’m more interested towards some aspects of Sattriya Philosophy, which are there in the Bhagavad Gita itself. I have worked on performances like “Paramachitra,” which is based on the Shankardeva philosophical treatise of “Anadi Patan”. Then, I have also given dance performance on the ten principles of the text Bhagavad from Shrishti to final Moksha, related to the journey of birth and life.
We start our presentation with “Vandana”, which is mostly dedicated to Krishna or the guru, Srimanta Shankardeva, followed by pure dance sequence to Geetarnach, which is Krishna/ Vishnu related.
Five elements of Sattriya dance that are this art form’s identification mark.
It starts with the Sattriya dance itself, the two basic dances. The repertoire, which gets divided into two are: “Purush” and “Prakriti,” which represents the male and female representations. Next element is about the techniques and patterns of the dance. These patterns have circular movements. Then we have a lot of “Bhramaris.” The costume serves as a great identification mark. Then the exhaustive literature also comes into the scene. Mostly, we use Assamese compostions.
Explain the costume of a female Sattriya dancer.
It includes a skirt, aanchal, kanchi (a belt), head gear (belongs to rudra Madhavi style) and traditional ornaments of Assam (Gamkharu, Junbiri, etc.). If someone wants to not to wear the head gear during the abhinaya part, then one can remove it, but in the pure act part at least one should wear the head gear, which means the performer’s head needs to be covered.
Do you feel Bihu festival and dance has an impact on this dance form?
Umm... It’s very difficult to say that as there is a fine line of demarcation in the comparison of how Sattriya has influenced Bihu and vice versa. Bihu festival has influences of its essence on the dance. It is quite difficult to say in clear cut terms, but both the dance forms have uniquely differentiating features. However, technique-wise, I would say, there is a resemblance of a few foot steps. We don’t have hip movement in Sattriya, but in Bihu we have a lot of hip movements. Also, the costume of Bihu is very different. Even its rhythm pattern is different. I would like to say that if you trace back any art form, it evolves in its original place. If you see any classical art, an art form evolves in that regional context and desi-margi pattern too evolves, like the musical rendition, but how that shared element takes place is very difficult to say.
Which performance or renditions of Sattriya dance form is your favourite one?
In case of performance, there are several ones. I had premiered my work, Bhagavad Dasalakshna, in Chennai, that is quite special to my heart. In Hongkong, where the audience was entirely different with hardly two or three Indians present there among the foreign viewers, performing Sattriya dance there among different audiences was in itself a very good moment for me. There was a program in Japan, where people hardly knew about the Indian Classical dance form and again imbibing the Sattriya context in it was difficult. But representing India before such a large audience was quite a memorable experience.
In case of dance number, it’s very difficult to say which one is my favourite because it’s like me choosing which part of the body is my favourite. I love all of them. The moment one chooses a dance form, it becomes a part of one’s thinking as the performer has to delve deep into it. The stories of Krishna however, have been quite inspiring. In one dance number, you show Lord Krishna playing flute and how entire nature gets mused with it, while spreading the message of harmony in nature. In another one, I have also performed Lord Krishna’s tale of “Kaliamardan” and addressed the issue of water pollution. I could quite easily relate with the character of Lord Krishna. For me, to reach out to the kids also, I could talk about various issues through the character of Lord Krishna.
Have you ever tried fusing Sattriya with folk or contemporary dance? If yes, then where?
I have done it. One of the instances was in Japan, it was a collaborative program, but I wouldn’t call it as a Sattriya number as the dance itself has its own traditional lineage. But since I’m a Sattriya dancer, my movement were specific or oriented to Sattriya. It was an experimental work. It’s an art form in itself.
Who is/ has been your inspiration?
There have been several people. My mentor has been constant source of inspiration. My supervisor, an eminent folklorist Prof. P.C Pattanaik has consistently encouraged me to hone my dance skills. Then, the traditional practitioners, their constant faith, hardwork, their body memory and how they have preserved their tradiiton, all of this has contantly kept my curiosity on high and I wanted to learn more and more.
And, at different point of life, I have been meeting different dancers, who have helped me a great deal in polishing my understanding skills and techniques, in fact in polishing the dance performances overall. Each interaction for me has always been an inspiration.
What was your research topic of PhD in Sattriya Dance?
Well, my research topic was “Traditions of Performing Arts in Assam and the Role of Sattras.”
Many of you might not know that Anwesa has done an array of Research Explorations
Anwesa has worked on the area of performance studies in the context “Ankiya Bhaona”, the Vaisnava theatre form of Assam, “Hybridity and Performance”, “Kirtan Ghosa” as the text of literature orally handed down through performances, Bihu as a cultural phenomenon, and so on. Her area of research is also extended in exploring the richness and vivacity of the performance traditions prevailing amidst diverse ethnic groups residing in Assam and thus the journey of researching the varied aspects of Assamese Cultural Heritage continues.
She has also conducted collaborative research with the University of Otago on the “Performance Ethnography.” She has also done a research project on Mask Performances of Assam. Anwesa has also presented research papers in National and International Seminars and has given lecture demonstrations on variegated dimensions of Sattriya art and culture, with ICCR, SPICMACAY, IRCEN, Sahitya Akademi and also with other prestigious organizations in various places of the country and abroad. She is invited for workshops to teach and interact with students in different parts of the country. She also contributes articles and research papers in the monthly journal like Prantik etc. and Newspaper dailies like The Assam Tribune and Aamar Asamfeaturing music and dance traditions of Assam.
- Your favorite holiday destination: Venice
- Favorite book: The Glass Palace by Amitabh Ghosh
- Cuisine that you can have as many times in the day: Anything with paneer
- The motto of life: To dance & dance
Given a magical wand, which three wishes would you like to fulfill with it?
- I would go for traveling
- Dance across the famous platforms
- Go for trekking and adventures
If you’re left alone on an island with only three things with you, what would they be?
I think I will take my laptop and a pillow. No TV at all. I would just love to lie down under the sky and relax.
Your New Year message would be...
Let the New Year bring in blossoms of hope, peace, prosperity, and creativity. Happy New Year 2019!