Ankiya Nāta: The Strategy of Sankaradeva's Plays

The ingenuity of the plot-construction and the culmination of the action in a celebration can be said to be the distinguishing marks of the Ankiyā Nāt. Sankaradeva's plays address an audience ready to witness a lilā, an enactment of God Himself to vindicate His divinity and to establish His absolute authority over the world. His plays are a re-enactment of a mythical history.

Kāli Damana Yātrā

In this play, Krishna performs two miracles, the taming of the monstrous snake Kāliya and the controlling of a mighty forest fire. Sankaradeva extends the action of the play beyond the surrender of Kāliya, and adds the episode of the forest-fire to provide the spectacle of the savior twice.

There are several important movements in the play. The first movement arises out of an immediate cause. Here the audience 'see' the shepherds assembling near the lake and dance. Then they drink water, without knowing that it is poisoned, and lose consciousness. This initiates the dramatic movement. Krishna enters the stage. He laments seeing His friends lying unconscious, then He resuscitates them and assures them of future safety. The lament signifies God's proximity to man, the resuscitation signifies His role as a healer, and His promise for the future a divine responsibility, a divine dispensation.

The next movement involves Krishna's dive into the lake. He swims defiantly inviting the monster serpent in a combat which results in 'defeat' for Krishna. The next movement consists of lamentations of the Gopas and Gopis. Then comes the climax-Krishna charges the thousand-hooded reptile and vanquishes it decisively and rides on its hood and starts a kautuk dance. This particular episode is narrated by the Sutradhāra. In all probability, this sequence used to be mimed by the narrator culminating in an exhilarating dance.

The Divinity of Krishna

The divine drama should have ended with this dance, or at least at that point of time when Krishna allows the vanquished to go to a distant land. The play, however, continues. The people of Vraja who had assembled on the bank of the river, now in a mood to celebrate the great victory, decides to spend the night there. A fire breaks out at the dead of night in the forest engulfing the whole area, and threatens the life of the villagers. In both the cases, there is a suddenness with which the danger appears: the death of the shepherds in the beginning of the play and the unpredictable forest-fire at the end. The rescue operation in the second case, unlike the first one which was Herculean in nature, is more swift and prompt and also totally supernatural as if to match the severity and enormity of the danger. Krishna “devours” the fire:

Krishna: āhe gopa gopi sava, hāmu vidyamān thākite kona cintā thika? Nirbhaye raha.
Sutra: ohi boli Isvara ceshtā dekhāi tatkāle se pracanda bahnika mukhe kayala. Durghor bahni yoise jal pavitra tatkāl nirvana gela. Tāhe pekhi gopa gopi sava jaya jaya Krishna boli jokāra pārala.

The divinity of the hero is now established beyond doubt. The narrator proclaims the glory of Krishna and His supernatural power, in Sanskrit verse as well as in Assamese prose:

Shrikrishnasyādbhutam karma drishtvā sarvehavismitāh Anyonyamiti pratyucurna naronandanah

Āhe bhāi sava, dekho dekho ohi Nanda-nandana mānusha nohe. Pracanda bahnika mukhe tatkāle pān kayala. Ohi ki manushyaka kāma? Āha! Jānala jānala ye purusha sanātana Nārāyana. Se bhumika bhār harana nimitte avatāra haye thika.
[Assamese Prose]

“The enactment, to use a cinematic term, gets freezed for a moment, time becomes still and the present intervenes into the mythical time.” Then the action restarts, time returns to the past and then Krishna and all the milkmen and women with their cows start their journey towards Vraja.

“[Thus] in Kāli Damana, one notices that the hero demonstrates his power and valour twice. The common element in both cases is the threat to human (and animal) lives and God's protection of man. In the first case, the danger is eliminated with heroism, in the second there is a complete annihilation of the forces of evil involving a miracle. But both the cases have the basic similarity of function.”

This dual feature which may be termed as recurrence or reduplication or parallelism has been employed by Sankaradeva almost with a predictable regularity in his Ankiyā Nāts which gives a fullness to his plays.


In the play Rukmini-Harana, Krishna is presented as a chivalrous hero involved in a harana. The abduction more or less completes with the hero's victory over the kings including Sisupāla. The victory is also celebrated with the meeting between the hero and the heroine, Rukmini. But there is a second combat, not against the other aspirants of Rukmini's hand-a regular element in romantic poems on chivalry-but between Krishna and the power challenging His divine authority. When Krishna is about to slay Rukmi, the person who challenged him, Rukmini comes to his rescue, “You are the Lord. That sinner is ignorant of Your Glory”:

Rukmini: Toho parama Isvara. Ohi pāpi tohāka mahimā nāhi jānala.

Krishna listens to the prayers of Rukmini the devotee. He spares the life of Rukmi but punishes him according to the existing penal codes. (The Sutradhāra narrates elaborating the details of the punishment that involves tonsuring of the head, shaving of the beard and the eye-brows, besmearing the face with black shoot, etc.) The narrator assumes the role of the official herald asking people to watch the punishment of the rebel against God:

Sutra: Āhe loka dekho dekho, yo Harika droha karaya. Hariguna nāma loite nindā karaya, sohi pāpika ohi avasthā dekhaha. Jāni Hari Bhakatika nindā choda. Hari bola Hari bola.

Once the divine mission of subjugation of the sinner is complete, the chivalrous hero re-appears. The play concludes with the marriage of Krishna and Rukmini in the presence of men and gods.

Rāma Vijaya

Similarly, there is a reduplication or re-enactment of the marriage celebration in Rāma Vijaya. After Rāma's triumph against the kings who came for Sitā's Swayamvara. Janaka arranges the marriage between Rāma and his daughter. Dasaratha comes to attend the ceremony. So do the gods. The marriage-hall in Mithilā that had turned into a battle-field, returns to its original state of joy and happiness. But Parasurāma enters and the hero has to take arms again. The play, however, concludes not with a victory march in the streets of Mithilā but in Ayodhyā, the home of Rāma, where the newly wed couple is welcomed by the queen mother and the other women in the palace. “Rāmaka aicana vivāha mahotsava sampurna bhela,” says the narrator-thus is completed the grand ceremony of Rāma's marriage. And he invites the audience to the festivity that followed.

The feature of reduplication is to be noticed in the Pārijāta-Harana nāt as well, although with slight deviations. Krishna fights twice in the play, once against Narakāsura, who has become a threat to the gods and Indra, and once more against Indra, the ungrateful king of the devas who defies Him. The play develops round two episodes, similar to one another, of jealousy, one between the two co-wives, Rukmini and Satyabhāmā, the other between two proud queens, Satyabhāmā and Sachi. The cause in both the cases is the desire to possess the celestial flower-pārijāta.


Patni-Prasāda, believed to be the first play of Sankaradeva, has also this feature of reduplication and parallelism. Incidentally, this is a unique play if only because of its employment of boy actors, a feature not to be seen in other Indian theatres. The play is conspicuous by the recurrence of the worship of Krishna, first by the women and then by the men; the former is an act of spontaneous devotion, the latter an act of surrender.

Keli Gopāla

The play Keli Gopāla also employs reduplication or recurrence as a device to establish the complete authority of the divine hero. The play has other interesting features too. This is the only play in medieval India that celebrates nature in all its beauty and charm. Although the river and the forest provide the location for Kāliya Damana and Patni Prasāda, the geography hardly contributes to the intensification of emotions displayed by the participants in these plays. In this play, on the other hand, nature occupies the key position. The season is autumn, the time a full moon night, the place a wood beside a river and the participants the cow-maids of Vraja. The initial words saracchasānka dyutih komala in Sanskrit and sarat sasi nisi in Assamese both referring to the Autumn night strike the key-note of the play. But despite the idyllic surroundings and erotic associations, this play too follows the general pattern of heroic exploits in the plays of Sankaradeva.

The appearance of the Yaksha, Sankhachuda, introduced as an adversary of Krishna, is an interesting innovation in the plot. The interruption of the dalliance of the Gopis, by the Yaksha, is brief as he is driven out by Krishna promptly. He comes back for the second time, and for the second time, he is thrown out by Krishna. But he comes again; this time he seizes one of the maidens and drags her away. The role of Krishna now turns to that of the Savior. He kills the Yaksha. The plot, however, does not end with the death of the wicked and the re-establishment of the order. It continues till the completion of the game, the lilā, the celebration of the autumn night.

Maximization of the Dramatic Effect

Thus in the six Ankiyā Nāts of Sankaradeva is revealed a specific strategy of construction that ensures the maximization of the dramatic effect within the available space and poetics of the religious drama. It differs from the construction of the Sanskrit drama, not only by the continuous presence of the narrator throughout the play, but also in its employment of several media, song, dance and language (Sanskrit, Vrajāwali) in varying degrees.

It is the play with the divine hero, either Krishna or Rāma, with predictable victory over the forces of disorder. It has representation of the evil, in the form of tyrants, beasts or even natural power, but also of the restoration of the moral order by the complete elimination of the villain resulting in a celebration, the most important feature of the medieval theatre.

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