Sattriya, or Sattriya Nritya, is one among eight principal classical Indian dance traditions. The other seven are Bharatanatyam, Kathakali, Mohiniyattam, Kuchipudi, Odissi, Kathak and Manipuri. Whereas some of the other traditions were revived in the recent pasts, Sattriya dance has been a living tradition since it its creation by the Srimanta Sankardeva in the 15th century in Assam.
Sankardeva created the Sattriya dance to accompany the Ankiya Naat (a form of Assamese one-act plays devised by him) which was usually performed in the Sattras. As the dance developed and grew within the Sattras, the dance was named Sattriya by the literateur Maheshwar Neog, who tried to promote it. Though the dance form has come out of the confines of the sattras to a wider audience, the sattras continue to use the dance form for ritualistic and other purposes for which it was originally created 500 years ago.
The core of Sattriya Nritya has usually been mythological stories. This was an artistic way of presenting mythological teachings to the people in an accessible and enjoyable manner. According to tradition, Sattriya is performed only by bhokots (male monks) in monasteries as a part of their daily rituals or to mark special festivals. Today, in addition to this practice, Sattriya dance is also performed on stage by men and women who are not members of the Sattras, on themes that are not mythological.
Sattriya dance is divided into many genres: Apsara Nritya, Behar Nritya, Chali Nritya, Dasavatara Nritya, Manchok Nritya, Natua Nritya, Rasa Nritya, Rajaghariya Chali Nritya, Gosai Prabesh, Bar Prabesh, Gopi Prabesh, Jhumura, Nadu Bhangi and Sutradhara, to name but a few. Like the other seven schools of Indian dance, Sattriya encompasses the principles required of a classical dance form: the treatises of dance and dramaturgy, like Natyashastra, Abhinaya Darpana, and Sangit Ratnakara; a distinct repertoire (marg) and the aspects of nrtta(pure dance), nrtya(expressive dance), and natya(abhinaya).
Sattriya dance is accompanied by musical compositions called borgeets (composed by Sankardeva among others) which are based on classical ragas. The instruments that accompany a traditional performance are khols (drums), taals (cymbals), the flute. The violin, harmonium etc have been recent additions. The dresses are usually made of pat a kind of silk produced in Assam, woven with local motifs. The ornaments too are based on local traditional design.
In the second half of the 19th century, Sattriya emerged from the sanctum of Assam’s Sattras. It moved from the monastery to the metropolitan stage. The Sattras had maintained certain rigid principles within their walls, and until the first half of the 19th century this dance style was performed in a highly ritualistic manner by male dancers alone. The classical rigidity, the strict adherence to certain principles, and the non-engagement of academic research on the dance form all contributed to the delayed recognition and acceptance of Sattriya as one of the eight classical dance forms of India. On November 15, 2000, the Sangeet Natak Akademi finally gave Sattriya Dance its due recognition as one of the classical dance forms of India, alongside the other seven forms.
However, despite its delayed inclusion within the recognised schools of Indian classical dance, and the accompanying lack of organisational support from the Centre that that entailed, Sattriya continued through the centuries to maintain within its forms the classical exactitude and intricate detail that mark ancient art forms. One positive outcome of Sattriya’s strict adherence to the principles of the Sattras has been this ability to maintain its pure forms, its distinct style. Now that it has made its journey from the sanctified world of Assam’s Sattras to the demotic spaces of the world’s stages, it is time for an appraisal of Sattriya’s artistic and aesthetic qualities.