Anwesa Mahanta:  Honoring The Sattriya Tradition
    By Rashmi Bora Das

    A sublime dance form, sattriya nritya is rooted in the vision and philosophy of Srimanta Sankardev, the founder of Vaishnavism in Assam. Its origin dates back to the 15th and the 16th centuries when Sankardev and his disciple Shree Shree Madhavdev created the dance as an accompaniment to the Ankia naat, a form of one-act plays. A dance form that is over 500 years old, sattriya has gone through a process of evolution yet preserved its sanctity and original appeal. Since its recognition as one of the eight classical dance forms of India by the Sangeet Natak Akademi in the year 2000, sattriya has earned acceptance and patronage both outside the state of Assam and overseas. It was interesting to go up close and personal with a very promising young sattriya dancer Anwesa Mahanta who has showcased this living tradition in different parts of the globe.

    Anwesa gracefully carries forth a cultural legacy of her family and is proud to be an exponent of sattriya which for her is not a mere dance form, but a spiritual quest. Hailing from a Vaishnav monastery in Assam, she was blessed to have been associated with the rituals of the sattra from a very early age, with the sacred traditions being naturally passed over to her by her father and grandmother. Family members on her maternal side were also active patrons in the field of arts, and as a child, she had witnessed doyens dancing in the courtyard, performing Ojapali, a traditional folk dance of Assam. At the age of six, Anwesa started her bharatnayam lessons with Sangeet Natak Akademi awardee Indira P. P. Bora, and when she was nine, her journey in sattriya dance began under the mentorship of eminent maestro Bayancharya Ghanakanta Bora, also a Sangeet Natak Akademi award recipient.

    It has been a meaningful excursion for Anwesa for over two decades. An active performer of sattriya in its solo form since 2001, she has to her credit many choreographic presentations that have earned her praise and appreciation in her field. Anwesa has not only performed sattriya but has researched and interpreted sattriya dance, music, and theater, which she terms a rewarding experience. She is actively involved in promotion of sattriya art and culture through her research papers and lecture demonstrations with ICCR (Indian Council for Cultural Relations), IRCEN (India International Rural Cultural Centre), SPICMACAY (Society for the Promotion of Indian Classical Music and Culture Amongst Youth ) and Sahitya Akademi.

    Anwesa has enriched the cultural heritage of her family, and her path as a danseuse is cemented with laurels and accolades. The technical correctness in her movements is extraordinary, and the dexterity with which she portrays myriads of emotions is indeed captivating. She has mesmerized audiences with her outstanding performances not only in India, but she has also earned appreciation for her dance in Malaysia, UK, Colombo, Hong Kong, New Zealand, and France. Anwesa joyfully shares her thoughts about the beautiful living tradition of sattriya.

    1. You have been raised in the sattriya culture ever since your birth. How would you define the role of sattriya ?

    Sattriya is my way of life. Belonging to a sattra (Saudkuchi Sattra, Sivasagar), I have been groomed with its philosophical content by my parents and grandparents, and I perceive the world and its surroundings with that. I am blessed to have Bayanacharya Ghanakanta Bora (Padma Shri) as my Adhyapak who has helped me in every step to explore and understand the nuances of the tradition in a different light. Also, my PhD research under Prof. P.C. Pattanaik has been an eye-opener to many different areas of thoughts interrelated to the understanding of sattriya and defining sattriya in my life.

    2. Each dance form is unique in its own way. What are the features that set sattriya apart from the other Indian classical dance forms?

    Sattriya dance follows its own pedagogy, and through the ages, it has been continued as an oral tradition in the sattras- the Vaishnava monasteries. Moreover, the rich vocabulary of the form comprising of nritta (pure dance), nritya (expressive dance) , natya (drama), graceful movements, the wavy, soft-footed nature of the steps, local terminologies of the hand gestures, and the movements make it stand as one of the most beautiful lyrical dance traditions. It has continued since the 15th century as a living tradition celebrating both the magnitude of the Bhakti tradition and individual interpretations flowing with the waves of time and space. Also, the technique of Sattriya gets divided into two representations, Purusha (male role) and Prakriti (female role), which is a unique feature of this dance.

    3. It took very long for sattriya to be accepted as a classical dance by the Sangeet Natak Akademi. Do you feel it still has miles to traverse before it gains the same level of popularity like the other Indian classical dances?

    In the year 2000, on 15th November, sattriya was included as one of the major Indian dance traditions. But personally, what stands as the most important element is the journey of the tradition since the 15th century and its acceptability and practice as a social phenomenon amidst the people. The popularity of sattriya of course has not been much compared to other dance traditions. It has remained a popular form within the borders of the state. With the serious pursuit of the practitioners, researchers, and art connoisseurs, the greatness of sattriya music, dance, theatre, and allied traditions will flow on.

    4. Please would you throw some light on the aspect of synchronization of facial expressions, hand gestures, and body movements in sattriya dance?

    Dance itself is an interdisciplinary subject which involves synchronization of so many areas of understanding and research. The basic synchronization which revolves around the entire movement analysis is the sattvik bhava from which evolves a range of mental expressions in sync with the movement. If one misses the chord of the energy of the sattvik bhava, one might end up doing mechanical movements with artificial expressions. A movement is not just a movement; there is a science, a reason and deeper meaning behind it. Without understanding the content of the movement, if a dancer simply ends up doing or showing a hand gesture, there wouldn’t be any abstraction of a thought; it might remain just as a decorative pose. Hence it's very important for a dancer to understand the philosophical aspect of the text and the body movements which also gradually get translated in the facial expressions.

    5. While playing both the male (purusha) and female (prakriti) part in a single performance, how do you mentally prepare yourself? I think it would mean emoting in different ways while playing each role, and this is rather challenging.

    Yes, of course, it's very challenging. To enact the male and female roles from the distinct body movements set for the characters, it’s equally important to internalize the character in the mental space. It requires a whole lot of preparation and hours and hours of concentration. Moreover, in a single piece itself, we deal with multiple characters. Therefore, as a dancer, we need to mould our 'selves' into various 'selves' of the characters to enliven them. The preparation process includes lot of brainstorming sessions and minute observations and body analysis. Since, there are no dialogues used and the enactment is through the body and eye movements, it's always a challenging and yet a very interesting and amazing process.

    6. Of the tales that are narrated in the dances, do you have any favorite story that is particularly close to your heart?

    I love exploring new stories and themes, and anything related to Krishna has always been my favorite. I love to deal with a character which explores the character of Krishna with deeper analysis with a new perspective. Moreover, I love reading a text with a contemporary dimension and try to individuate my humble interpretations through it.

    7. Your PhD thesis is on “Performing Arts and Oral Tradition”. What are the major areas of study in your thesis?

    I completed my doctoral degree last month (September 2014). The work was titled "Traditions of Performing Arts in Assam and the role of Sattras". It takes a holistic view of the performance traditions of Assam: its sustenance, practice, changing contexts, social appreciation of the art form, the impact of the changing demands, and its effect on the poetics of performance with cultural studies and performance studies approaches.

    8. The teacher student lineage known as the guru-sishya parampara has a very sacred place in the Indian culture. Do you feel that the guru-sishya phenomenon is somewhat altered or shaken in present times? Please would you share your views?

    The guru-shishya parampara is still continuing with changes in its operational methods. The bond of a shishya and guru is always the most special and precious one. However, at times, a commercial approach to dance limits it to simply mechanical class sessions with no philosophical and spiritual illustration of the art and movements. This has limited the scope of understanding between a guru and a shishya.

    9. Do you think sattriya is losing its appeal to the current youth of Assam?

    I don't think sattriya is losing its appeal. I could see whole number of students coming up with an enthusiastic approach to learn the dance form. However, there is a lack of persistent practitioners who could dwell deep into the art form and explore its nuances to greater heights.

    10. Do you have any dream project in mind?

    I am a good dreamer. And yes, humble attempts are also made to live up to the dreams. Kalpa – a society for promotion of literature, art, culture, and social harmony- is one of the fruits of those dreams. We are working for the promotion of Indian dance and its relevance in the present context in various places with continuous dialogues and workshops amidst the youth, who are not acquainted with the classical music and dance traditions. We have been doing Pragjyoti International Dance Festival since the last 6 years where apart from presenting the dance traditions, we are trying to see and understand dance form with a holistic view. As a dancer, to explore the literature and work on new numbers would always remain as a major task. Moreover, a center for advanced training and research is also getting framed under Kalpa, and the initial steps have already been taken. The need for a holistic understanding of performing arts traditions in Assam has been lacking, nor do we have any facilities in the universities to provide platforms to young practitioners to pursue the traditions of performances on a deeper research note. The center is aiming to actualize such a structural unit. Let’s see...the dreams never end as long as the desire to work is there.

    Passion and determination have been Anwesa's trusted companions in every step of her sattriya odyssey. In the words of English writer and poet J. R. R. Tolkien, “The old that is strong does not wither, Deep roots are not reached by the frost.” The veracity of this thought is authenticated by artists like Anwesa who with fervor and devotion have worked to keep alive an age-old treasure unswept by the winds of progress and modernization. With unparalleled sincerity, she honors a tradition inherited from her family. She is an optimist who truly believes that this dance form will traverse miles and that its beauty and sanctity will always be revered by posterity.

    For more information, please visit Anwesa's website at

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