About 15 people sat at the 500-seater Sri Sathya Sai Auditorium at Lodhi Road recently as Mumbai-based Sattriya dancer Prateesha Suresh, in her early 50s, took the stage at a concert organised by Assam People Welfare Association. Those present, spoke in hushed tones about how the concert wasn’t promoted enough by the organisers. But when Suresh walked onto the stage, dressed in a sea-green costume in pat silk, to the rhythm of khols, tunes of the flute, and a melodious Borgeet, and presented a story from Krishna Karnamrita, the one where Suresh became Bal Krishna, playfully stealing butter and dancing, the lack of people in the hall didn’t matter. Suresh didn’t stomp her feet as one would in Kathak or Bharatanatyam, but kept the movement nimble and lyrical. “Sattriya is not linear, it’s quite soft and very lyrical as an art form,” says Suresh.
Sattriya was developed in the 15th century by Srimanta Sankardev, who was influenced by the then prevalent devadasi tradition, the Natya Shastra, and Odissi. In the repertoire, he included all three pillars of classical dance nritta (dance), nritya (expressive dance, solo), and natya (dramatics). It was performed only by male monks in monasteries during rituals or festivals, and didn’t travel outside Assam for a long time. “A dance form gets popular when it travels out of its state of origin. For a very long time, Indians have been unaware about this art form,” says Suresh, who adds that Bharatanatyam remains popular because that is the first form that came out of its region of origin and found support. “There are dance forms that haven’t moved out of the state because there’s no funding or platform,” says Suresh.
About two decades ago, Sangeet Natak Akademi (SNA) recognised Sattriya as the eighth classical art form. The others include Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Odissi, Mohiniyattam, Kathakali, Kuchipudi and Manipuri. The late scholar Maheswar Neog, who wrote books on Sattriya, with Suresh’s guru and Sattriya exponent Roseswar Saikia Barbayan and other dancers worked on “a fluid structure” and promoted it. Women, who were earlier prohibited to perform the dance, were included in the learning. But Suresh believes that if there is no platform, there is no dance. She approached the SNA at various stages for funding and concerts but has been disappointed. Apart from help from Bhupen Hazarika, she hasn’t managed to get much. Her ballet proposal file was misplaced by the Akademi. However, they did set up a Sattriya academy in Assam, she says.
Growing up in Guwahati, Suresh began learning Sattriya with her older sister. Then Suresh chose Bharatanatyam because of its proper structure and moved to Kalakshetra in Chennai. She graduated in the ’90s and was performing Bharatanatyam, when her guru called and told her to get back to Sattriya. “My guru said that ‘Sattriya needs you’. I went back and began working on it,” says Suresh, who did a series of lecture-demonstrations and performed Sattriya and Bharatanatyam together till 2004. In Delhi, those like Sonal Mansingh, Swapna Sundari, Kapila Vatsyayan attended these lectures, and people began talking about it.
“Sattriya needs time,” she says. Children in Assam are now learning the form. “There is hope; we will see more Sattriya in the future,” says Suresh.