The Sattriyā Dance

The highest form of dance in Assam is the Sattriyā style of dance which has a classical base about the rules of singing, rhythms and presentation. Sattriyā dance style has been in vogue for almost five centuries. It is largely the result of the compositions of Sankaradeva who was also a great musician and performing artist.

Sattriyā, or Sattriyā Nritya, is one among eight principal classical Indian dance traditions. Whereas some of the other traditions have been revived in the recent past, Sattriyā has remained a living tradition since its creation by the Saint Srimanta Sankardeva, in 15th century Assam.

Sankaradeva sought to preach the fundamental truths of his religion in simple similies that could be easily understood by the masses. It was to achieve this end that most of his dance-dramas - the Ankiya Nāts - were written and performed.

[See:- Ankiyā Nāt]

Drama and dance are thus inseparably linked and in a complete (total) dramatic presentation, there is a generous sprinkling of dances. In the dramas composed by Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva, all major characters are made to dance. The dance technique used in his dramas soon became a distinctive style - the Sattriyā - capable of holding its own alongside the other classical dance forms of India.

The Sankarite Dance

Sankardeva created Sattriyā Nritya as an accompaniment to the Ankiya Nāt (a form of Assamese one-act plays devised by him), which were usually performed in the sattras, as Assam's monasteries are called. As the tradition developed and grew within the sattras, the dance form came to be called Sattriyā, though the most appropriate nomenclature would definitely be Sankari Nritya (Sankarite Dance).

Creation of Bhakti rasa - The Sole Aim

Dance has been described as a “suggestive interpretation of man in different moods, accompanied by bhava, raga and tala - all directed to create rasa or emotion in the spectators who are rasika-s (connoisseurs).” For Sankaradeva, this rasa was bhakti rasa and the dance was mainly a medium adopted by him to arouse devotion to the Lord in the minds of the people.

The Progress of the Play

The dance-dramas start with a musical prelude known as 'dhemali'. It is akin to the 'Purva Ranga' of the Natya Sastra.
Then it is the turn of the Stage Manager or the Sutradhar to step onto the stage. The entry of the Sutradhar is marked by a dance - the 'Sutradhar Nach'. The Sutradhar is dressed in a white long-sleeved coat with a full, gathered skirt, rather like that of a figure from a Mughal miniature. He also wears a white turban and elaborate ornaments. After completing his dance, the Sutradhara introduces the characters in the play. Thereafter, there is a succession of short dances known collectively as Pravesar Nritya. First, there is the Gosai Pravesar Nritya - announcing the arrival of Krishna - and after this dance, there is the Gopi Pravesar Nach.

The singing of the compositions is done in a raga and the rhythm is provided by a khol or mridanga. Cymbals and pipes are also used. Examples of the talas in use are Ektal, Kharman, Rupak, Visham Tal, etc. The playing of the bols on the drums requires high degree of skill and dexterity.


The origin of the Sattriyā or Sankarite Dance is to be found in the Ankiyā dramas of Sankaradeva. The caritas provide graphic descriptions of how Sankaradeva himself appeared as a bāyan and the Sutradhāra in his first musico-dramatic spectacle, Cihna Yātrā. His other 6 plays and those of Madhavadeva together built up a large reservoir of dance numbers. The Ankiyā Nāt introduced by Sankaradeva was an ingenious combination of music, dance and drama. All the major characters in the plays are made to dance and dance constitutes an indispensable part of certain components of the Ankiyā Nāt like the purvaranga orchestra called gāyan-bāyan.

Madhavadeva, the versatile composer, innovated further and introduced newer forms. He worked out an elegant choreography in respect of certain dance numbers of his plays.

Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva were followed by other versatile playwrights like Rāmacarana Thākur, Daityāri Thākur and Gopāla Ātā who authored several other plays on other themes. Thus dance found for itself a wider avenue within the sacred space of religion.

With the growth and expansion of the Sattra institution, this dance form evolved into a rich and vibrant tradition with a large repertory and other paraphernalia like oral grammar, sinuous texture, intricate footwork and stylization in expressional aspects like facial and hand-gestures. It became a hallowed tradition pursued and preserved within the Sattra circle and hence it was nomenclatured as Sattriyā.

The dance has now came out of the four walls of Sattra taking a new dimension of a distinct performing art-form of secular, aesthetic, and academic interest. But the basic principle of Bhakti must not be ignored. That is why all sentiments expressed in course of depicting different themes tend to merge ultimately in the sentiment of Bhakti.

A Distinct System of Melody and Rhythm

The Sattriyā Dance follows some traditional principles supported by written texts of Indian classical dance. These, besides others, contain the grammar of the performance pattern with mathematical precision in terms of melodic and rhythmic structure. A distinct system of melody and rhythm has given this tradition a separate entity.

Sattriyā dance is embellished within a unique Rāga and Tāla pattern set to a large corpus of compositions of Srimanta Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva.

[See:- Borgit]

Tāla (time beat) is generally maintained by instrumental play of khol (drums) and cymbals. Tālas employed in singing the rāgas include: -

  1. Yati
  2. Bar-yati
  3. Saru-yati
  4. Mān-Yati
  5. Ektāla
  6. Paritāla
  7. Kharmān
  8. Rupaka
  9. Domāni

The tālas mentioned above are in common use. Besides these, there are a few more varieties of tāla prevalent in different Sattras. Researchers of Sankarite music have pointed out as many as 39 varieties of tāla prevalent in the Vaisnavite monasteries of Assam out of which about 24 tālas are in use at present.

The Hand Gestures or hastas

Various hand poses or hastas are used by the dancer, in the Sattriyā dance, to express the objects and emotions. The hastas are classified as samyuta, asamyuta and nritya hastas.

Sage Bharata has described in the Natyasashtra the various poses made by hands, eyes, eye-lashes, nose, lips, cheeks, feet and head. The Srihastamuktāvali, written by Subhānkara Kavi, is a large treatise on hand-poses or hand-gestures and an elaboration of Natyasashtra on the subject. Only a single manuscript copy of this treatise has been found in the Auniati Sattra Library. It contains over 1,000 Sanskrit slokas, each followed by an Assamese rendering in prose. It is stated that this manuscript belonged, originally, to one Sucanda Rāi Ojhā. It may be taken for granted that the Assamese translation of the work, which could not have been of a date later than the eighteenth century A.D., was made for the use of this Ojhā. As a matter of fact an Ojha (adept) must have known some, if not all, of the hand poses numbering 2079 as described in this work.

According to Srihastamuktavali, the hand, for different gestures, is divided into three broad categories, namely: -

  1. Asamyuta Hasta or Single Hand
  2. Samyuta Hasta or Joined Hands
  3. Nritya Hasta or Dancing Hands

Pataka (banner), padmakosha (lotus bud), ardha chandra (half moon), sarpa sirah (snake’s hood) and bhramara (black bee) are some examples of asamyuta hastas where only one hand is used to give the expression. Examples of samyuta hastas are kapota (pigeon), anjali, swastika and marala (swan).


Sattriyā dance recital begins with Vandanā, followed by a sloka or Ghosā paying obeisance to Rama in Rāma-Vandanā and Krishna in Krishna-Vandanā.

Then it moves to Rāmdāni, the suddha nritta part, items like Cāli, Jhumurā, Nādubhangi, Behār etc, set to intricate beats with rhythmic variation. Some time swaras are also depicted here in various patterns with the rhythm maintained by playing khol and cymbal. After the Suddha Nāc (pure dance), the tempo of the performance goes down from fast to slow. Now the lyrical aspect is emphasized in Gitar-nāc. As the name suggests, the dancer interprets the sabdas of the gitas. With the help of Sabda Sanchāri a dancer interpretes some stories.

The Abhinaya item comes after the Gitar-nāc. These items are developed from the theme of dramatic representations of Sankaradeva and the other Saint-Poets, like Pārijāta-Harana, Rukmini-Harana, Keli-Gopāla etc. These items are called Abhinaya Pada or Nātar Nāc. The last component of the Sattriyā repertoire is the Melā Nāc. ‘Melā’ is ‘open’, suggesting the elaboration or the Vistāra of nritta or pure dance. There is the use of vigorous Māti-Ākharās which is the ornamental part of this item.

The repertoire or the secquence of the items ends with the Melā Nāc with a sloka or sometimes with a bhatimā, vigorous dance movements coming down to a slow, soft conclusion in Bhakti and prostrating before the audience.


The dance follows a distinct type of music consisting of rāgas and tālas. The main instruments are Khol and cymbal although in earlier days stringed instruments like Sarengdar were used. There are more than 40 rāgas in Sattriyā music and about 80 more rāgas called Bandhā rāgas that came into use afterwards. Likewise about 42 tālas are present in Sattriyā music.

Training and Technique

To impart training in Sattriyā, some basic exercises called ‘ground exercises’ are there. These are known as ‘Māti-Ākharā’(Māti - ground; Ākharā - exercise) and are also used as a basic dance unit (in nritta part). These are about 73 in number. Most of these are practised to make the body flexible. Some peculiarities associated with the dance-style are also maintained, which the trainee should strictly adhere to.

This dance style follows principles from the treatises like Bharata’s Nātya Sāstra, Nandikeswara’s Abhinayadarpana, Sarangdeva’s Sangita Ratnākara, and Subhankara’s Sri-Hasta-Muktāvali etc. Along with the principles and techniques gleaned from these texts, it has also introduced some nuances of its own.

The Orā

The basic sthāna, initial standing position, of Sattriyā Dance is ‘Orā’. According to researchers, the Orā is derived from the Mandala Sthāna described in the Natya Sastra.

The Orā is of two types: -

  1. Purusha Orā
  2. Prakriti Orā

Little Chance of Debasement

Sattriyā Nritya continued through the centuries to maintain within its forms the classical exactitude and intricate detail that mark ancient art forms. One positive outcome of Sattriyā Nritya’s strict adherence to the principles of the Sattras has been this ability to maintain its pure forms, its distinct style.

As the art of music was cultivated with religious zeal and reverence, it had little chance of being debased by novices. The Sattras of all dimensions maintain a regular band of vocal musicians headed by an adept, known as gāyan and a party of instrumental players headed by a bāyan. These two parties generally combine together in musical performances.

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