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Sankardeva and his theatrical innovations: Implications towards a new social


Dr. Saurav Sengupta

Sankardev's aesthetic formulations, his idea of the Naamghar and belief in a casteless
society are all radically subversive of the then fourteenth century social norms. And while
he did not permit woman to enter the Naamghar etc. his allowance of woman in various
other activities relating to the Sattra etc. is profoundly symbolic of his decision to move
away from the norms of Hinduism and its multifarious ascriptive emphasis for an
inclusive social growth. This explains why he could include Brahmins disciples to Sudra
teachers, even people who were untouchables in other parts of India. In Gandhi's vision
of India, caste did have an important place and the predicament of the nation state after
Independence did show that political revolutions alone, detached from social and
religious modulations can only have negative implications. Hiren Gohain, writing in the
Economic and Political Weekly says that Sankardeva got his ideas of social change by
visiting places of pilgrimages. This is true and Sankardev's willingness to learn and bring
his wisdom back to his place of birth is proof of his ability to corelate disparate
geographies-human, social and religious.

While for his theater, he drew from different sources-Sanskrit drama with its various
rasas, he ensured that the predominant tenor of his plays is Shanta rasa, which as the
name signifies stands for the beauty of self-realization and peace. This was a new
innovation in traditional theater, the other being that he allowed the Sutradhar to even act
in his plays, a tradition also found in the Kabuki theater of Japan where a similar
character like the Surtadhar is a side singer. But as usual with him, he drew elements
from indigenous theatrical and semi-theatrial institutions like Ojapali and Dhulia. If
Shakespeare's plays are a proof of his negative capability, which includes the high and
low of life-the vulgar, irritating and small-even the grave diggers as in Hamlet, Sankardev
did not hesitate to include scenes of eating as in Patni prasda or scenes of battle and
wedding as in Rukmini harana. Keli Gopla has the scene of killing. The playwright
incorporated as many as three prohibited elements in his last play Sri Rma vijaya. These
are battle, killing and wedding. Thus Srimanta Sankaradeva developed his own play-
form, independently from the Sanskrit play-form.

It is possible to discover similarities between the theatrical manuevres of Bhaona and

African theater. In African theater, especially with relation to Yoruba myths etc, there is
elaborate use of masks. But, more importantly, the whole village community participates
in the process. In recent times, in Assam also the 'Baresohoriya Bhaona' has been
organised single handedly by the residents of Jamugurihat since its inception. They build
the 'Robha' themselves in traditional style employing hay, straw, bamboo stumps and
wood. The whole structure stands on fourteen pillars, metaphorically symbolizing the
fourteen Parishads(Councils) of Lord Vishnu. All the robhas finally merge to form a giant
'Mandapa' or Shamiana. The spectators sit around the 'mandapa' as like lthe petals of a
lotus. One of the artists associated with the Bhaona, When the drama is set in a naamghar,
there is movement towards the 'manikuta' indicating thereby a continuous pilgrimage
even in a small room. The whole movements are a web connections, producing
'nomadicity' and therefore historically tracing the movemnt of Rama or Krishna. But,
more than the heroes, the spectators also follow the footsteps of the players

The beginning of festivities start with the main role player, who as in Soyinka's Death
and the King's Horseman is told of his moral responsibility towards his community. There
are drumbeats and songs. In African drama, there is ambiguity, when the King's horseman
hesitates between his socially prescribed role and his personal ambition, which in
Sankardeva's drama, the protagonist must similarly confront.

Sankardev's thrust was on cleanliness-both internal and external. A greater social role is a
matter of constantly arriving at a perception of morality. So, in Sankardeva's Bhaona, the
main role player fasts the day before so as to fully prepare himself for his performance.
The use of screens that covers the actors before their entry into the stage may also be
considered as one form of maya. Krisna, enters the stage only after the screen is lifted
meaning that truth prevails only after the screen of ignorance is busted. It must also be
remembered that
Kukkra Srgla Gardahbaro tmrm
Jniy savko pari karib pram ( Mahanta, 1990)

Sankardev declared that the souls of Dog, Srigalas and Asses are variety of God and so,
they should be saluted. But, this was one kind of proselytizing and anticipated Brecht.
According to Dr. Sanjib Kumar Barkakoti: Sankardeva had achieved the purpose of
using drama as a tool for social reform and reconstruction way back in the sixteenth
century, a feat that the latter performed only in the twentieth century. Moreover Srimanta
Sankaradeva used his static plays for a different purpose by keeping the actors in a low
profile and giving them minimum actions. The plays of Maeterlinck have similar
characteristics, because of which Srimanta Sankaradeva can be called a forerunner of
Maeterlinck(Barkakoti Ankiya Play and Bhaona of Sankardeva 6).

With all this sum and substance, it is well assumed that Sankardeva's dramas are infact
religous performances that consciously iterate the importance of the spiritual in life and
by admission the relevance of the spirit or spiritual consciousness. Yet, a study of his
plays also reveals that there are dimenions to his work that are not exactly covered by a
superlative emphasis on the nominally ethical. This then becomes a monotonous critical
manoeuvre. It also prevents the identification of the varying attidutddes that the plays
have, that mark a continuous process of growht, contradiction and elaboration in
Sankardeva. While Sankardeva for example speaks of his own cultur, the mythical
architecture of his plays have meanings only as a process of generation as elaborated by
Levi Strauss:

A) mythic system can only be grasped in a aprocess of of becoming; not as someghing

inert and sgable but in a process of perpetual transformation. This would mean that there
are always several kinds of myths simultantously present in the system, some of them
primary(in respect of the moment at wich the observations is made), some of them
derivative. And while some kinds are present in their entirety at certain points. elshere
they can be detected only in fragmentary form. Where evolution has gone further, the
elements set free by the decomposition of the old myths have already been incorporated
into new combinations.

In the case of Sankardeva, the process seems to be less of old myths being re-combined
continously with new forms a dnmore a continual interchanve of elements not only
between various myths, but between myths and folktales. So, there is a persistent
"inconsistency, fragmentation and merging" as Karin Barber points out in relation to
Krishna's godhead, so that a whole range of references are captured. The story of Krishna
then becomes Sankardeva's strategic investment offering a huge divident in terms of
'sign, symbols and agency, which guides his thinking in various directions simultaneously
but still keeps it within the same conceptual ambit provided by the myth.

While Sankardeva alludes to Krishna or to a particular deity as in Sanskrit drama, he also

ensures that his God is defined in terms of a movement or process of becoming. While
qualities of Krishna are continuously alluded to, he is also differentiated from other great
beings. Sankardeva's moral dictum therefore consists in potential reflections of world
affairs in general and in relation to other world systems. For example in the poem
Haramohana, Shiva the protagonist is infatuated with the magical woman-form of
Mohini, created by Vishnu during the churning of the oceans. But as Ranjit Dev
Goswami points out, the preponderance of details relating to Shiva must be viewed in the
"context of Vajrayana practice of tantricism" (Goswami Reading Sankardeva 9). There is
also a possibility that "a doctrine similar Prajna Paramit of tantric Buddhisim served as a
sub-text in Sankardeva's description of Shiva following the magical woman figure"
(Goswami 8).

Hence his Rama, Krishna and Shivas are culture heroes, who combine both hubris and
creative energy in simultaneous go. For example in the Uttarkanda, Rama is not just God
and his ambiguity towards Sita, kept in bondage by the lascivious Ravana points to the
possibilities of error even in a sublime being. Rama's terror of Sita when she accuses him
of guile is observed by his awestruck subjects:

Ontorgote Ramor milil mohabhoy

Dekhi Samjyor bhoil param bishmoi
They may even be considered as a structure of the conscious that combines the repartee
between the left and the right-visually narrated in Sankardeva by the movement and
dialogues between the Sutradhar and the Dian. But, here also the interlinkages between
Sankardeva's plays and those of Africa are evident when the actors/performers must be
physically agile to act out the gyrations. But, Sankardeva's work also mimes other
performance strategies-especially the Ojapali, wherin, as has been said before, the writer's
marginality works to his advantage. This is also the observation of Ranjit Dev Goswami.
In his lecture on Sankardeva, he writes that the Vaishanavite's familiarity with the "rich
local traditions of this region, awareness of folk harmony, toghether with his command of
Sanskrit learning in general, enabled him to qualify, transmure and re-shape some of the
canonical Indian texts to expound a newly formulated concept of bhakti speaking in
many voices"(Goswami Reading Sankardeva 2).


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