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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Bhaona: A Critical Overview

Like the Bihu of Assam, Bhaona also got royal recognition or partial patronage. It is also known that Bhaona was held at the royal court during the reign of Ahom monarch Rudrasingh. But all the Bhaonas performed in the royal court are not Ankiya or written by the creator Sankerdev. So far history traces, besides Sankerdev’s Ankiya,the another prominent Bhaona was - Nrisingha Yatra. The famous Saint Doittari Thakur had authored the script. The Baresahariya Bhaona (People’s Bhaona) was started during the reign of monarch Kamaleswar Singha in 1797 in Jamugurihat

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By: Arup Saikia

The first Bhaona performed in Assam through “Chinha Yatra”. Chinha Yatra is the first pantomime drama of Saint Sankardeva of Assam. Later in course of time, Bhaona penetrated all the nook and corners of Assam. Almost all sections of people residing in Assam embraced Bhaona culture.

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It’s not confined to religious boundaries. Therefore Bhaona found acceptance among different ethnic groups irrespective of caste and religion. As a result of immense popularity Bhaona attained the status of national festival of Assam. There are many different types of Bhaona culture in Assam.

Royal recognition:

Like the Bihu of Assam, Bhaona also got royal recognition or partial patronage. It is also known that Bhaona was held at the royal court during the reign of Ahom monarch Rudrasingh. But all the Bhaonas performed in the royal court are not Ankiya or written by the creator Sankerdev. So far history traces, besides Sankerdev’s Ankiya,the another prominent Bhaona was – Nrisingha Yatra. The famous Saint Doittari Thakur had authored the script. The Baresahariya Bhaona (People’s Bhaona) was started during the reign of monarch Kamaleswar Singha in 1797 in Jamugurihat. There are many examples of Bhaonas held during the reign of Rajeshwar Singh, Kamaleshwar Singh and others. Competitive environment was also created for the Bhaona artists. The good performers are rewarded with cash prizes. It is said that seven hundred actors performed together in the Bhaona held by His Majesty Rajeshwar Singh to show the kings of Manipur and this is another variety of, Nowgong’s Hazari or Jamugurihat’s Baresahariya Bhaona.

These examples can authenticate that Bhaona was a very popular and respected culture during the reign of the Ahom kings. The Ahom monarchs also maintained relationships with the monasteries (Satras). After the British took over the rule from the Ahom kings, a Golden Jubilee celebration was held in Sivsagar in 1887 during the reign of Queen Victoria. The devotees of Kamalabari Satra also performed a non-ankiya Bhaona. The scripts of the Bhaonas were written by the head of the monasteries.

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Bhaona and bhakti movement:

Bhaona is a medium to popularize the Bhakti movement or cult. Bhakti cult is born out from the union of Vedic Lord Krishna worship and popular tribal cult. This religious doctrine is called Bhakti or Neo-Vaishnavism.

According to scholars, the three terms – Bhagavat, Bhakti (Devotion) and Bhakta (Devotee), which occupy the main place in the path of devotion, refer to the owner of the property of a particular tribal group, i.e. Bhagavat.  The person who receives a share of the property is called a devotee. And the devotion is the share of the property (Bhagavat). As time went on, Bhagavat is revered as God and the devotee was considered as a follower of God.  Subir Jaiswal, author of, The Origin and Development of Vaishnavism, says:

“The terms bhagavat, bhakti and bhakta are intrinsically related with one another, and that the bhagavat originally denoted Primitive tribal group which owned all tribal wealth, bhakti meant a share thereof and bhakta and individual who had received such a share. In course of time the bhagavat came to be regarded as god, and bhakta, who was a member of the tribe, came to be looked upon as belonging to him and as his devotees.”

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The Kacharis lived near Batadrava or Bardowa, the birthplace of Sankaradeva. In short, Sankaradeva was easily acquainted with the tribal cultural environment from childhood. Therefore, there is no doubt that Sankaradeva had a deep understanding of tribal society.

So, it is quite natural that the saintly poet Sankaradeva was sympathetic to tribal life when he went to spread neo-Vaishnavism. This was a mixture of devotee-God or Bhagavat devotion, which emerged from a tribal background.  Scholars believe that the Barahi king Mahamanikya, who patronized Madhav Kondoli, ruled in the present-day Nagaon region.

As a product of the Bhakti movement, Bhaona is quintessentially related to the ethnic people of Assam. So ingredients of Bhaona are taken indigenously. (Details described in– Bhaona, it’s origin and development)

Necessity of changes:

Change in the world is inevitable. Change begets beauty and beauty subscribes to our mindset to flourish culturally. Culture is a universal religion. It is natural that people’s sense of humour changes with the passage of time. Bhaona was created 550 years ago based on the needs and sensibilities of the people of that era. Therefore, it is wrong to claim that the original Brajawali Bhaona Sankerdeva himself performed can satiate the artistic appetite of the people of modern world with immense historical value. The immense progress of science and technology deeply motivates everything. Therefore, it is necessary to reform some aspects of Bhaona and provide a standardized form to improve the artistic aspects without destroying the originality. Accepting the changing times is the gateway to development.

Therefore, it is essential to reach some scientific and universally acceptable conclusions through diligent systematic study so that the uniqueness of the Bhaona can be preserved. But we have to establish it as a more attractive, enjoyable and spectacular art form. It is worth mentioning that in order to establish Bhaona in the world arena, it is necessary to emphasize the artistic aspect rather than the underlying religious practices.  The scientific and universally accepted or amused strategies of performance will guide the performers in the presentation of the artistic aspects of the Bhaona in all kinds of modern stages and repertoires.

Time span:

This matter I have written from the experiences of our foreign shows. The people of the developed countries remain very busy. They can’t spare more than one hour or one and half hour time for cultural shows. In the past, and even now, in some places of Assam, the Bhaona haona starts in the evening and continues until next full light morning. Even gayan, bayan (Orchestra) or sutradhari (Anchor) take more than two hours. In today’s busy society of the mechanical age, most people are not willing to enjoy Bhaona so long. Therefore Bilap, Poyar (Passionate expression of grief) or other dialogue should be shortened sustaining the tempo of the particular scene. Moreover the overall performance time of a Bhaona should be limited to two hours excluding orchestra and sutradhari. Bhaona is ofcourse traditional, but the technique of performance (Not style) should be like professional mobile theatres of Assam. The Assamese mobile theatre is the most popular performing show in terms of artistic presentation. Locally we expect Bhaona to be poised as popular professional drama of mobile theatre in all kinds of stages including makeshift.

Script selection:

Many people today also like to perform only Ankiya Naats of Sankardeva only. They are mentally averse to perform other Bhaona dramas fearing to be deviated from the true path of Bhaona. This is absolutely not true. Sankardeva only wrote seven Ankiya dramas including diminished Chinha Yatra. Art can’t survive without entertainment. Nobody will artistically enjoy the same scene or drama years after years. So new creation of Bhaona scripts are essential. Which will echo new time tested dramatic innovation on the same root of Sankerdeva’s Ankiya. Moreover there is no such thing regarding indigenous or non-Assamese theatrical institution. Ankiya Naats are itself the result of a combination of several theatrical institutions. Without exaggeration, Sankaradeva drew resources from non-Assamese Raasleela, Yakshagana, Indian classical dance forms etc including Assamese resources  such as Ojapali dance, puppet dance, Kushangan, Deodhani dance, etc.,

It is worth noting that Saint Sankardeva did not name the plays he wrote as ‘Ankyia Naat’. He uses only words like ‘Anka’, ‘Yatra’ and ‘Naat’ to describe drama. So dramas of Bhaona can be created endlessly on pan-Bharat perspective. Yatra resembles the Bavai, Tamasha and Nautanki of Gujarat, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh respectfully. Yatra derived it name from religious processions of devotees in Bengal. They move from one place to another singing and dancing to the tunes adoring lord Krishna. Summarily the term Ankiya labelled in the dramas of Sankerdeva and Madhavdeva may be to honour them by their follower saints. (The author is noted cultural enthusiast, writer and actor of Assam. He can be reached at arupsaikia07@gmail.com)

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