Promoting Sattriya Overseas: A Profile On Madhusmita Bora

    By Rashmi Bora Das

    A creative and open mind, when nurtured by the spirit of exploration, sees the window of life opening up to a dazzling kaleidoscope of opportunities and possibilities. Immensely gifted Madhusmita Bora is that artist who has always seen in the horizon the shining prospect of fulfilling her cherished goals. It's a flight from one continent to another, from Asia to North America, where with confidence and ease she undertakes a project to propagate sattriya dance far away from her homeland Assam. It's a mission Madhusmita enjoys from the core of her heart with success greeting her as she journeys on to reach her milestones.

    Madhusmita Bora

    Since her early childhood, Madhusmita has grown up in the sattriya culture closely acquainted with this sacred dance form which embraces grace, rhythm, melody, and spiritualism in its pristine beauty. She bloomed into a dancer and made her debut at a very tender age when she was not even four years old. The sattriya journey continued thereafter, and she was blessed to have had extensive training under revered gurus Padmashree Jatin Goswami, Guru Ramkrishna Talukdar, Guru Naren Barua, and Adhyapak Gobinda Kalita from the Uttar Kamalabari sattra. Madhusmita is well versed in kathak too and has performed with Kathak Guru Janaki Patrik of New York at Lincoln Center Outdoors Festival and the Alvin Ailey Theater in New York City.

    A professor at Lincoln University and a freelance business journalist, Madhusmita successfully balances her passion for sattriya with her career. Along with her co-artistic director Prerona Bhuyan, she launched the Sattriya Dance Company in Philadelphia in 2009 to spread awareness about her splendid heritage through performances, lecture demonstrations, and dance lessons. The determination and persistence bore fruits when she received the Art and Change Grant from the Leeway Foundation for the years 2009, 2010, and 2011. She was also conferred the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Grant for the year 2013 and the Nritya Saradhi Award, 2014. 


    Madhusmita has performed extensively in India and in the United States and her performances have earned her praise and critical acclaim (visit The summer of 2014 has been especially eventful with sattriya being showcased for the first time at the Erasing Borders Festival and Drive East Festival in New York. It was an honor when sattriya joined the pantheon of the other classical dances of India at the 36th Annual San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. The San Francisco Chronicle noted, “Sattriya (almost unknown in this country) found exquisite interpreters in Philadelphia's Madhusmita Bora and Prerona Bhuyan. The piece built into a mystic web of feelings.\"

    So what does Madhusmita have to say about her love and passion for sattriya and the mission she has undertaken to evoke interest in this dance form which is more than five centuries old?

    1. You have a family to take care of, a teaching job at Lincoln University, and you are also a freelancing business journalist. To pursue a dance form so religiously in the midst of such a busy schedule requires determination, patience, and of course superior time management. Where do you get the vibrant energy from?

    From being a woman. I think women possess this innate power to be a wife, a breadwinner, a mother, a daughter, and a daughter-in-law. I have incredible support from my family. I am in India for long durations every year (7 months last year alone), and my husband never complains that he's away from our only son. My parents babysit while I go for my lessons to Majuli or in Guwahati. My son (6 years) has been a trooper, missing meals, bedtimes, and quality time with his dad for his mom's sattriya passion. As a family we don't really follow a strict routine, but I set deadlines for myself and get things done. I think my training as a journalist has helped in juggling deadlines and prioritizing my work. I try to work out, dance, and meditate everyday. Sometimes, long nature hikes with my son help me recharge.

    Of course all this multi-tasking means I don't really hang out with friends much and miss out on community and family events when I am home. I am glad I have a forgiving, supportive extended family.

    2. Madhusmita, you have made us immensely proud by taking up this creative task of promoting a dance from Assam in the United States. What motivated you to take up this project?

    Sattriya is not just a dance for me. It’s a way of life, my identity. I find my solace and spiritual awakening in its movements. It gives my life meaning, purpose and expression. I see myself just as a messenger. I feel so blessed to play that role.

    3. It is definitely not easy to raise awareness and promote a dance form in the United States which took so long even in India to be accepted as a classical dance. What are the challenges you have faced so far?

    Honestly, I never saw it as challenging. Initially, my dance partner and sister-in-law Prerona and I took sattriya and its story to any school, library, or museum that would give us a platform. Once people became aware of it and its incredible history and philosophy, it took off. Our goal has always been to take sattriya to a wider audience. Personally, I have received tremendous help from my Kathak Guru Janaki Patrik (didi), who has a huge heart and allowed me to pursue my passion while abandoning kathak. The Philadelphia Folklore Project gave me space initially to teach the dance. Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and Leeway Foundation have funded my trips to India to record music, document the dance, and train in it. I obsessively tell the sattriya story to anyone who is willing to listen to it. It has been a wonderful journey so far.

    For the first time, sattriya was showcased at the Erasing Borders Festival and Drive East Festival in New York this year. Please share your experience.

    Prerona and I were very fortunate to have been able to collaborate with senior dancer and our guru sister Anita Sharma (baidew) for these two very amazing festivals. We’ve had a good summer. We were featured in the 36th annual San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival among all the other classical Indian dances. Sattriya received great reviews there.

    At Drive East, we had an exclusive one-hour sold out show, where we featured pure dances as well as abhinaya pieces. Set against the backdrop of the Hudson and Statue of Liberty, the Erasing Borders was a magical setting. We got encouraging reviews at all our shows.

    4. As a performer, how do you connect with the audience?

    I think to be a good performer you have to be a good human being.....a good wife, mother, and daughter. I strive to be all that. I bring stories to my audience and share with them a spiritual journey that’s filled with purity and honesty. I always tell my light technicians to leave a small light on the audience, so I can communicate and interact.

    Could you throw some light on the performer's imaginative or creative power in sattriya dance? Does it play any role in dictating the movements of the artist or does the performer strictly need to adhere to set parameters?

    Gurujona has left a rich legacy and treasure of texts to draw from. There has been tremendous creative work done by many, including monks from the monasteries and great masters such as my Guru Padmashree Jatin Goswami. Senior dancers such as Anita Ba have used sattriya vocabulary to tell the stories of Rabindranath Tagore’s Chandalika and Jyoti Prasad Agarwala’s Sonit Kuwori. So yes, there’s a lot of room for creative and imaginative play as long as the artist doesn’t deviate from the basic philosophy of the dance.

    5. The beautiful costumes and jewelry worn in sattriya dance exhibit the rich grandeur and cultural legacy of Assam. What major changes have come about in this arena over the years?

    The costumes have definitely become grander. Dancers today have access to better costume designers, materials, and jewelry. I think we are using better silk, and we are not compromising on design and fit. To be a performing art, the dance has to be seen in its totality. My first guru Ram Krishna Talukdar always emphasized the importance of aharya. My company’s effort is to showcase not just the dance but our beautiful silk and traditional jewelry and motifs.

    6. In some performances today, it is seen that because of lack of time, all three of the guru vandana, ramdani, and geet abhinaya, are not performed. Does it make the dance less intense or involving?

    Time is of essence, and unfortunately, audiences today don't have the attention span or the time as people did before. Ideally, the order needs to be followed to give audiences a taste of what the dance is really about. But, as performers, we ought to be flexible. I know many classical dancers who turn down performances when not offered a specific time slot. Unfortunately, as the youngest kid on the block, sattriya doesn't have that luxury. I take it to whoever would offer me a legitimate platform. Even if I get 8 minutes, it's about making an impact, making those present aware of this rich treasure. Once you get people’s attention, you can work on those hour-long performances.

    7. A hypothetical question no doubt, but in the near future, do you see the possibility of sattriya being fused with any other Indian classical dance to arrive at a new creation?

    I don't think it's necessary to fuse, though all dance forms evolve within their own dynamic. Among the other classical dance forms, sattriya has its own niche. There have been efforts to present sattriya alongside other dance forms. I have done a conversation between sattriya and tap to a tremendous reception from the audience. I think it’s important to maintain the spirit and sanctity of this grand living tradition. It wouldn’t serve it well to fuse it or dilute it in anyway. It should and it will meet other dance and other art forms, and it will experience the world. But I am convinced that sattriya will pick from its experiences on its own terms.

    8. How do you dream to see sattriya emerge in the future in the Indian cultural platform?

    I am an idealist, and I dream big. To me, sattriya's essence and philosophy transcends all kinds of barriers, geographical and otherwise. In India, it stands tall among its counterparts. In Philadelphia, it has been embraced in mainstream showcases and festivals alongside tap, modern and hip hop. This is just the beginning. Sattriya has arrived to capture the mind and hearts of people world-over. If done right and if its spirit remains intact, sattriya will continue to impress audiences with its unique storytelling tradition and narrative style.

    To feel a strong connection to one's roots and cultural heritage and to preserve it with honor and pride is what bestows an individual with an identity clearly defined and unscathed by changes in time and place. Across the miles and seas from Assam, the birthplace of sattriya, Madhusmita has remained true to her vocation by pursuing it with unwavering earnestness. Visionary leader and prominent environmentalist David Brower had said, “We must begin thinking like a river if we are to leave a legacy of beauty and life for future generations.” To pursue a tradition and to promote its revered niche requires relentless determination. Madhusmita Bora has not only practiced with grace and dignity the living art form of sattriya, she has strived in her own humble ways to raise awareness and propagate it among a much larger audience. It is a sincere endeavor to carry forward a sacred tradition to a younger generation, always living the dream for it to reach the crest!

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