Dancer’s journey to promote Sattriya is breathing life into other art forms too

Mumbai, Jan 25 (IANS) Dance, as an art form, has many components. There is the music, the costumes, the jewellery… so when a dance form is promoted, it gives an impetus to a whole range of artistes. So, each time dance exponent Prateesha Suresh takes to the stage for a performance to promote the classical Sattriya, a 550-year-old religious dance form, she knows its a journey that is breathing life into many other art forms as well.

Born in Assam but settled in Mumbai for more than a decade now, Suresh is a trained classical dancer whose repertoire includes Bharatanatyam and Sattriya. Her NGO, Pratishruti Foundation, seeks to promote classical dance forms, with a focus on Sattriya.

“My endeavour is how I, as an artiste, can take Sattriya from the Sattras to the stage in its purest form. There is a general lack of awareness on the traditional components of Sattriya, like the costume –there is a disconnect between the traditional costume and the onstage dress we often see these days — which I am trying to bridge,” Suresh, who set up her foundation in 2008, told IANS.

The Sattriya dance was born in the Sattras-religious institutions set up by Vaishnavite saint Shrimanta Shankardeva to preserve and promote tradition, culture and religion. As Suresh says, Sattriya is the “soul of Assam” and it is her aim to promote the state’s rich heritage through promotion of this art form.

“The traditional dance costumes designed by Shankardeva had a lot of beautiful work. It’s difficult to find craftsmen who can replicate that today. But we have to analyse and recreate that. Sometimes, in performances depicting Raas — the celebrations of Krishna and the Gopis — the main dancer’s costume looks more like that of the Gopis. Such fine details which are of significance have to be taken care of,” the dancer said.

Sattriya dance also involves the use of masks. These traditional masks, made only by expert craftsmen of the Majuli river island, are unique and life-like in size as well.

“Shankardeva’s work, using bamboo to make the masks, was path-breaking; it was technically amazing. But in today’s time, we can adapt — without compromising on the essence of which character the mask is representing — so that the masks become more accessible for people to appreciate,” Suresh said.

As an example, she says that in 2013, at a function hosted by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), the masks could not be transported all the way from Majuli to Delhi for the Sattriya performance because “it was very cumbersome”. Thereafter, Suresh says, she has been in touch with the mask makers in planning strategies by which their craft could be given the exposure outside their place of origin.

“Funding is a big problem when you talk of adopting technology to make a craft accessible to all. But we are working on that, and I am in touch with the mask makers. There is a particular family which specialises in that,” she said.

When it comes to music, Suresh says that she has used Ojapali music — a treasure-house in Sattriya — in her performances, such as ‘Ravanaloi Sita’r Obhisaap’ and ‘Usha Parinay’. “This music was hardly used in Sattriya dances.”

The dance exponent who does not limit her efforts to performances alone but also organises lecture-demonstrations, cultural festivals and dance festivals, however is particular about the fame that she seeks for Sattriya.

“Popularity can be of two kinds — as an art form in its element, or commercial popularity. I want Sattriya dance to be appreciated for what it is in its purest form, outside its state of origin,” Suresh stressed.

“I believe this can be done by creating awareness about the dance form. When you talk of any dance, to be attracted to the glamour part is ok — you like the jewellery and the costume — but you also must have in-depth knowledge about the form.” Understanding the language in which you dance is one aspect — Suresh said that she learnt Tamil to understand the essence of Bharatanatyam.

Although it is true that Sattriya has few takers even in Assam, it is also true that the art form has many takers outside India — many foreigners have taken it up and teach it in countries like Mexico and Japan.

“It’s a very positive sign. Let more children, more people understand Sattriya. Only when you understand will you be able to appreciate anything,” Suresh signed off.

(Azera Rahman can be contacted at azera.rahman@gmail.com)

–IANS

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