by Grant Moser
Germantown resident Madhusmita Bora, 34, has visited the island of Majuli in northeastern India several times. It is located in the Brahmaputra River in Assam, and a visitor needs to take a ferry to get there. Each time Bora reluctantly boards it.
The first time she rode on it, she remembers, the 75-person capacity boat had 375 people on board and was riding very low in the water. Three steps led down to an overcrowded cabin with the windows boarded over. She spent the entire trip standing on one leg. Above deck were squeezed two cars and a bunch of goats, cows and other animals. There were no life jackets, and the river was deep.
While the trips are dangerous, Bora’s end goal are always worth the risk. She is trying to save the ancient art form of Sattriya. In 15th century Assam lived the social and religious reformer Srimonto Sankardev. He challenged the ruling priest class of Brahmins by advocating for an equal and just society and against the caste system; preaching the adoption of monotheism through worship of Vishnu alone; and translating the sacred Hindu scriptures into the common language. To promote his teachings, he developed one-act plays that told stories based mostly on Vishnu. The dance form of Sattriya accompanied these plays and evolved into its own separate art form, still telling the same stories.
The Brahmins responded by persecuting him and his followers, even at one point banishing them to the island of Majuli. Sankardev and his acolytes decided the only way to preserve the teachings was not to trust outsiders. The dances and texts were entrusted to monks, who quietly practiced it in their monasteries (sattras) on the island.
That is where it stayed, mainly hidden from the outside world, for well over 500 years, but that has been recently been changing. In the 1970s several monks left the order, settled in nearby cities and trained people in the dance. Then in 2000, the Indian government officially recognized Sattriya as one of eight official Indian classical dances.
“I have mixed feelings about it getting the classical status,” explained Bora. “It has become the ‘hot thing,’ and there are more performances, but the flip side is that the dance is being corrupted, changed to include movements from other classical dances and appeal to everyone.”
The other classical Indian dances use the nine “rasas” (emotions) liberally during their performance, but the “absolute pure style” of Sattriya has only one emotion allowed: devotion. Every dance ends with a complete surrender to the supreme being, mirroring the culture of Assam, where the dance originated. The people of Assam are humble folk, and that should come through in the dance.
Bora knows about Assam culture because she was born and raised there, in the village of Madhabgaon. She comes from a large family and remembers seeing aunts and uncles performing in village festivals and watching Sattriya when she was a child. However, her family was also very politically active, and because of her father’s affiliations they were forced to leave the area because of assassination attempts.
She earned a post-graduate diploma at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication in New Delhi in 1999, specializing in print journalism. That year she came to the U.S. to see her fiance and study at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. She moved around the country working in newsrooms from 2000 until 2008, when her son, Arush, was born. This brought her back to Philadelphia to be with her husband, Saurav, a physicist at the University of Pennsylvania, and also helped renew her love for Sattriya.
“I wanted to pass along part of my heritage. I knew he was going to be raised an American, but I wanted him to know both worlds. That’s when I started seriously thinking about Sattriya again,” she said.
Her trips to the island and its monasteries, especially the Uttar Kamalabari Sattra, have been specifically to learn and document the pure form of the dance before its original form is lost for good. The urgency of documenting the traditional form of Sattriya is not only because of the modern influences that are being incorporated, but something more powerful: mother nature. The island is slowly getting eaten up by the river. Some monasteries have been completely wiped away already, including the art, artifacts and history inside.
In 2009 she won an Art and Change Grant from Philadelphia’s Leeway Foundation to study the choreography of the dance. In 2010 she was awarded another grant from the foundation to document the basic and traditional grammar of the dance, and then again in 2011 to write a book detailing the specifics of Sattriya.
In 2009, she and her sister-in-law founded the Sattriya Dance Company in Philadelphia and began performing at various venues, including at the Library of Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. However, some of her most memorable performances were at area schools.
“Kids always pose the best questions and see things that grown-ups don’t,” Bora said. “Someone once said, ‘Hey, that looks a lot like hip-hop, the steps.’ Can you imagine that 600 years ago they were dancing like that? It really grew into an acrobatic, exciting form of dance. You have to do headstands and backbends and all sorts of difficult moves. There are 72 exercises you do to make your body more flexible; they are the grammar of Sattriya.”
Sattriya is more of a spiritual journey for Bora than a performance. She was raised by a very secular family, but Sattriya helps her connect with something bigger than herself. “Sattriya transports me to this peaceful and happy place and it comes across in the dance. Every dance tells a different story, but every one ends in complete surrender to the universe.”
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