Bhabanand Hazarika is a big hope for the Sattriya dance,Â carrying simultaneously the traditions of the dance and cultureÂ of the sattras into the brave new world of our times
The island of Majuli captivates one with its legendary status as the worldâs largest riverine island located in the immense waters of the Brahmaputra. It is certainly Indiaâs largest riverine island but not the worldâs and its 1200 square kilometers has been eroded mercilessly by the surging waters of the river. However none can take away from the island its history as the artistic and religious centre of the Vaishnav faith with as many as 22 of the original 65 monasteries that once made their home in this remote and inaccessible location, still surviving. These monasteries are home to a large set of devotees and their familiesÂ and a fewer number of celibate monks. These monasteries are living representations of a lifestyle of days of yore. In beautiful Majuli, specifically its Kamalabari village, where the ferry from Jorhat docks, on 1 March 1975, to farmer and former monk, and present farmer Rampad and his simple wife Lahari Hazarika, was born a male child- Bhabanand Hazarika. When he was not yet four years old, he was offered to the Uttar Kamlabari sattra, one of the well known sattras or monasteries in Majuli, in keeping with a seven generation old tradition of the family, of offering a male child to the sattras.
However, none can take away from the island its history as the artistic and religious centre of the Vaishnav faith with as many as 22 of the original 65 monasteries that once made their home in this remote and inaccessible location, still surviving. These monasteries are home to a large set of devotees and their familiesÂ and a fewer number of celibate monks. These monasteries are living representations of a lifestyle of days of yore. In beautiful Majuli, specifically its Kamalabari village, where the ferry from Jorhat docks, on 1 March 1975, to farmer and former monk, and present farmer Rampad and his simple wife Lahari Hazarika, was born a male child- Bhabanand Hazarika. When he was not yet four years old, he was offered to the Uttar Kamlabari sattra, one of the well-known sattras or monasteries in Majuli, in keeping with a seven generation old tradition of the family, of offering a male child to the sattras.
His uncle Boluram Barbayan was the last from the previous generation to have joined the sattras. As a Borbayan with a dulcet voice, regularly singing the sacred songs of the neo Vaishnav faith introduced by Shrimant Shankardeva, the 15th century Bhakti reformer he was aÂ significant member of the sattra community. When child Bhabanand was made to bow at the âkarapatâ, the gateway of the sattra, he was crying piteously, but on seeing the other child monks running around in play, curious to talk to him, he stopped crying. Since then he has largely kept a happy countenance, and has made a mark asÂ a national award winning youth dance icon of Sattriya, the eighth and most recent classical dance form of India, hailing from Assam. This dance is a living part of the five hundred year old ritual and cultural life of the monasteries, where performance served both as a ritual and as a evangelical tool.
Bhabanand is a member of one ofÂ the sattras, the Uttar Kamlabari Sattra, that has retained the practice of daily and occasional prayer services that include dance, music and khol playing. The air in Majuli constantly carries the verses of Shankardeva or the sound of the khol, the drum that accompanies sattra arts.
âWhen we join the sattra, it is customary for every new entrant to offer salt as a gift to all the other monks. When I joined, the sattradhikar or abbot of the sattra suggested that I should offer sugar and not salt. I never understood why, but that was the first time I ended up doing something unusual within the rules of the sattra.â This was dhoti kurta clad Bhabanand, who keeps long hair that he wears as a knot, theÂ visual identification of a celibate monk. The lifestyle of a celibate monk appears to be hard with strict rules about touching, bathing, praying and eating, but not to one who has grown up with these rules and regulations.
âMy childhood in the sattra was a happy one, and I remember playing âDhora gudduâ and Bhoori Giuddu (both games are a little bit like kabaddi) with the other young monks. We would imitate the senior monks and learn the dance and music items. I had a very small khol made out of a long gourd that I first began playing on. It would hang from the top of my bed, just like the big khol hung from the beam of my Uncleâs bed. I would play every thing I heard on this gourd and eventually graduated seamlessly to play on the big Khol. In the night as I insisted on sleeping with him, actually to be honest, we did not have enough beds too, instead of stories, he taught me the finer aspects of âOja paliâ a rather difficultÂ part of the performance repertoire in the sattra.â
Sattra artistes are multi skilled and Bhabanand is no exception. He had two Gurus for dance. One was the soft hearted Parmanand Borgbayan, a Sangeet Natak Akademi awardee and the other the older and tougher, Tuni Ram Borbayan. âThey were both excellent teachers and I learnt a lot from them, including the fact that young students donât always like excessive discipline, especially not the stick.â Bhabanand attended school and college in Majuli itself. When he was 17, the year he had to take his board exam his âAdhyapakâ fell very sick and became bedridden. There was no one to lead the sattra ceremonials as a Borbayan, the senior most expert on dance and khol playing. âIt was then that destiny chose me. My adhyapak, teacher, Parmamand Borbayan approached me to apply for the post of Borbayan. It was a big leap. My family was against it. I was already doing all the responsibility on behalfÂ of the Adhyapak. By the next year, allÂ in the sattra had come around to the idea of making an 18-year-old a Borbayan. Many of those whom I was teaching were older than me. But I was very lucky because the elder ones always showed love, while the younger ones respect.â
Bhabhanand is a very determined man and grabs all the chances he gets in life. He initiated a close connection with the dance Festivals in France and took the first Sattriya team with monks of the sattra to Paris in 2008. The last time sattra monks had gone as a group was in 1975, with the then president of India Zakir Hussain. The visit was to Indonesia and his uncle Baluram was part of the troupe. Bhabhanand further broke new grounds by training students in France, and starting a course for Sattriya at the University of Paris 8, which had been founded as an experimental academic centre. He conducted master classes at the Cirque du Soliel.
He has performed and addressed audiences in Quai Branly and the Guimet Museums in Paris. At the Musee Guimet he was startled to see a bit of the sacred tapestry called âVrindavani vastra,â the weaving of which it is believed had been supervised by the founder of the faith, Shrimant Shankardeva. He was like a man possessed till he did the choreography around it, with which he broke new grounds in Sattriya. For all the world that he has successfully done in France, he owes a huge debt of gratitude to his three close friends from France, Mathias Coulange, Nadine Delpech and Edgar Moroni, who came to Majuli as tourists but have never since been able to resist the call of this wondrous island, to promote which they have created an organization called âPreserver Majuliâ.
He recently reconstructed a production called âChina Yatraâ. He has written to the Prime Minister to request support. He got itÂ and managed to successfully mount the production with villagers from the hinterland of the sattras of Majuli. This Bismillah Khan Yuva Puruskar recipient is the big hope of the Sattriya dance, who carries simultaneously the traditions of the dance and culture of the sattras into the brave new world of our times.