The Sattriyā Dance: Repertory

Sankaradeva introduced the art of dancing mainly in connection with the dramatic performances, which were for the most part dance and music.

[See:- Ankiyā Nāt]


The dances of Sankaradeva’s school could perhaps be classified into two groups: -

  1. nrtta
  2. nrtya

A Sattriyā dance performance invariably has in its repertory dances from both these groups. The former is an intricate abstract dance consisting of stylized movements and poses having fixed expression and devoid of dramatic content. It includes chāli, jhumurā, nādu-bhangi, natuā, bahā,etc.

The latter i.e nrtya includes other dances of dramatic representations which are suggestive and interpretative with every movement and gesture invested with meaning.

The repertory of Sankarite or Sattriyā dances as practised in the Sattra and elsewhere may also be classified in the following manner:

  1. dances performed in the dramatic representations: -
    • series of dances by the gāyan-bāyan or the purvaranga orchestra
    • the dance of the Sutradhāra
    • the dances of Krishna or Rāma, popularly known as Gosāin-nāc or Gosāin-bhangi
    • the dance of the Gopis or the cowherdesses known as gopi-nāc or gopi-bhangi
    • rāsar-nāc or the dance of Krishna and the Gopis in the enactment of the Rāsa-lilā episode.
    • Entrance (pravesar nāc), exit (prasthānar nāc) dances of other characters in the play.
    • Dances for movement from one place to another (calanar nāc)
    • war dances, yuddhar nāc
    • dance at the close of a drama (kharmānar nāc) in which the dramatis personae dance together to the mukti-mangala or the closing benedictory.
  2. Dances performed outside the dramatic performances: -
    • nādu bhangi
    • jhumurā
    • behār
    • cāli
    • rajāghariyā cāli
    • ojāpāli

Although the first three numbers of this category viz. nādu bhangi, jhumurā and behār, were distinct parts of Madhavadeva’s plays, they came to be performed outside the dramatic context in the Sattra institution.

The Sattra circles distinguish the dances of the Sutradhāra, Krishna or Rama and the Gopis from the other varieties employed in the dramatic representation. These dances known respectively as Sutra-bhangi (Sutradhārar Nāc), Krishna-bhangi (Gosāi-pravesar Nāc) and Gopi-bhangi (Gopi-pravesar Nāc) possess a tone superior to other dance elements.

[Note: - Since the Krishna-bhangi and the Gopi-bhangi dances are performed at the time of the entry (pravesa) of the characters into the stage, they are also referred to as Gosāi-pravesar Nāc and Gopi-pravesar Nāc respectively.]

They also follow an elaborate scheme of movements and gestures and a complicated choreography and occupy each a sufficient amount of time.

Sutra-bhangi or Sutradhārar Nāc

The dramatic performance opens with the Sutradhāra entering the stage under the cover of a curtain. When the curtain or screen is taken off, the Sutradhāra is discovered in his bowing posture with his head, hands up to the elbows, and knees fixed to the ground. The musicians now gently play upon their instruments and the Sutradhāra keeps dancing as he slowly rises to a standing position. The music and dancing increase in tempo and intensity. The performance of the dance is divided in some quarters into two parts, the first and the gentle part being called saru-bhangi (minor postures) and the last and vigorous part, bar-bhangi (major postures). This distinction of major and minor postures is however not made in leading Sattras like Kamalabari. Three times the dancer goes round the oblong space, kept apart for the dramatic performance, with open hands, crossed on each other in horizontal position and moving like leaves in a breeze, thus suggesting sprinkling of flowers, unwinding of a roll of thread (sutra) or simply bowing to God and the assembly. When this actor comes to sing the nāndi-git and the bhatimā he has to act through gestures mainly of the hands.

Krishna-bhangi or Gosāi-pravesar Nāc

Gosāi-pravesar Nāc means the Dance of the Entry (pravesa) of God. As the pravesa-gita is sung, Krishna (or Rama) enters the stage in the company of such retinue as are required by the drama, with dancing movements. This dance is characterized by a pleasant agility. The ‘hands’ (hastas) employed are not too many but Krishna’s characteristic ‘hand’, displaying the playing of His flute, would strike the observer as unique. It is represented by the placing of two Kartarimukha hands (according to the Abhinaya Darpana) in a line facing opposite directions as it is done in the Kathakali style, and not by the placing of two Mrgasirsa hands as in Bharata Natya of Tanjore, or by the placing of Sandamsa hands as in the Manipuri style.

Gopi-bhangi or Gopi-pravesar Nāc

Gopi-bhangi, the dance of the milkmaids of Vraja, of Yasoda and other women characters, is characterized by very subtle circling movements.

Some other forms of Sattra dances are:-

Cāli Nāc

Some Borgits and songs from the dramas representing actions and sentiments of women are presented in a dance form, cāli nāc, the dance resembling ‘cāli’ or the ‘spreading out of tail of a peacock or similar bird’.

The word ‘cāli’ may also be derived from the Natya term for a kind of footwork known as pāda-cārikā or simply cāri. The origin of cāli is thus rather obscure.

These dances are danced in two rhythms, ektāli and paritāl, in that part of the performance known as gā-nāc, while in the other part called rāmdāni, 12 different rhythms are alternatively employed.

Natuwā nāc or cāli nāc is a dance performed by young monks, dressed as women as in Gopi-bhangi, but which can sometimes be separated from the body of a dramatic representation and danced independently on special occasions. In certain leading Sattras of Majuli, as many as 12 different types of natuwā nāc are made out, the difference being only in the difference in rhythms of the rāmdāni.

Natuwā nāc always requires an extraordinary flexibility of the body, and the boy monks who dance this style have to undergo a thorough training of the limbs through difficult physical exercises called ‘māti-ākharā’, ‘ground rehearsals’, which may be compared to similar exercises in the Kathakali (sadhakam) and other schools and the prescription of them in the Natya Sastra.


In some Sattras like Kamalabari, there is a form of dance, Jhumurā, performed by boy monks in dresses. The songs for the performances are taken from Madhavadeva’s jhumurās and a few from Sankaradeva’s nāts and from among the Borgits. But there is no abhinaya, only nrtta-hastas being used. Like cāli nāc, these dances have the two parts:

  1. the preliminary (rāmdāni)
  2. the main (gā-nāc)

Nrtya-bhangi is a dance which also has two parts : rāmdāni and gā-nāc. It is performed to the tune of songs. There is no abhinaya in it.

Rāsa Nritya

There is one peculiarity in the rāsa dances of Assam in that Radha does not play the predominating role among the dancing Gopis and does not share the centre of the dancing circle with Krishna. Some Sattras like Auniati and Dakhinpat have their own plays on the subject written by some Superiors of their own. The origin of this dance is said to be the Rāsa-Kridā of Sankaradeva.

Yuddhar nāc (Fighting dance)

The representations of fights between hero and hero or group and group with such accessories as clubs and bows (a type that produces a knocking sound as the shooting of the arrows is acted) have a strikingly spectacular appeal, being characterized by a number of swift, revolving and to-and-fro movements. Certain characters such as demons and demonesses Narakasura, Mura, Taraka, Marica etc do no dialogue, but only perform such a dance.

Dance of the General Body of Actors (bhāwariyār nāc)

Actors other than the principal ones also perform dances as they enter the stage, bhāwariyā-pravesar nāc and at later stages also. But these dances are of a simple nature and have foot-work alone as the chief feature.

Dances of the Preliminaries (dhemālir nāc)

The dhemālis that precede a dramatic representation, include certain dance movements of a simple nature, complicated in the foot-work only at certain stages like bõr-dhemāli. One interesting feature of these preliminary dances is what is known as āriyā nāc or torch dance, in which men in simple dress dance in front of the orchestra with torches.

In Sattra circles, one also meets with certain other dances or dance-varieties like ‘pātchāh cālām’ or ‘bādshāh salām’ and ‘apsarā-bhangi’ (Auniati Sattra), both being styles of natuwā nāc, and the Ojāpāli style.

In the religious dances, no danseuses are allowed. Bare feet are another characteristic of these dances.

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