Semi-dramatic asset of folk culture and its uses in shankarian theater.

Shankardeva collected various assets of folk culture for innovation of his theater.In this article the sources of main assets of his theater is described.

Deepak Bhuyan.
The semi-dramatic folk functions of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam have been practiced from time immemorial. These were spontaneous expressions of persons having aesthetic and educative enthusiasm for broadening and brightening the beauty of self and society. In the upgrading socio-cultural circumferences the folk culture (theater, dances, and songs along with socio-ritualistic activities) started its journey in the human society, from which the small states of North East India could not abated. As a theater worker of North East India I would place some examples of semi dramatic folk functions of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh through which the use of semi dramatic asset of our folk functions in Shankarian theater can be understood in detail.
The folk theater of Arunachal Pradesh has its tremendous influence on Shankarian theater. The impact of semi dramatic folk functions of Assam on Shankarian theater has been briefed by the scholars of this field. But the impact of folk theater of Arunachal Pradesh on Shankarian theater has not yet been mentioned in the broad field of its study. Through the study of semi dramatic asset of folk culture and its uses in Shankarian Theater, it will be clear to us all that how the asset of our folk heritage can be used for betterment of our life and nation and make our cultural tower of a dignified height.
The lack of elaboration of theatrical art of North East India in international platform is noticed by all. So the effort of making a history on theatrical art of North East India is a demand of time and tradition of the region. However this is not a place for discussion of the same subject, therefore my effort will concentrates on elaboration of the influence of folk semi dramatic functions of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam on Shankarian Theater. Arunachal Pradesh is a home land of various tribes and sub tribes. The practice of theatrical performances centering on religion has been continued in Arunachal Pradesh since time immemorial. In this context the following tribes can be mentioned as the pioneer of the concerned culture.
1.The Monpas. 2. The Gallongs. 3. The Membas. 4. The Sherdukpens. and 5. The Khampas.
These tribes are rich with their traditional theatrical cultures which are said semi dramatic functions of folk culture because these functions are not fully equipped with the required characteristics of today`s theater. Though these are lack of total theatrical characteristics but the theater of modern world has been developed from such semi dramatic folk culture which can be said the birth beds of modern genres of theater.
The glittered dramatic technique of folk semi dramatic functions of Arunachal and Assam has bold expressions in the Shankarian theater. Shankardeva innovated his theater through accumulating and pasteurizing the various assets of semi dramatic folk culture of North East India. The dramatic art of Bardo pantomime of Arunachal Pradesh, practiced by Memba tribes, is one of the most remarkable asset used by Shankardeva in his plays. The utmost important subject which is not yet been widely known that it is Arunachal Pradesh where the use of mask in theatrical performances are noticed for the first time in the easternmost part of India. The culture of mask making and its uses in their semi dramatic functions was an ancient practice of the concerned tribes of Arunachal Pradesh. When the Arunachali practiced the semi dramatic functions with their beautiful masks, at that period what the people of Assam deserved as their own is not clear from the sources of our history. Even the use of mask in theatrical tradition is observed from the epoch of Shankardeva which was introduced by the saint himself. We do not have any function of using mask in theatrical or in any religious functions in the pre Shankarian period of Assam. It should be mentioned hear that the existence of present Assam was not in today`s shape and size in the period of Shankardeva. It was mainly divided into two major parts ruled by Konch and Ahom kings, where the relationship among the hill tribes with the plain`s people was adorable. We get information of disturbances done by hill tribes but in spite of such incidents the relationship among hill tribes with the plain tribes and other people was quite peaceful and cooperative in socio –religious aspects. To establish the truth of the said subject the name of Naruttam, the devotee of Shankardeva belongs to Nocte tribes of Arunachal Pradesh can be placed. The cultural assimilation and exchange among the hill tribes and the plain`s population of Assam has a strong heritage and the unity in diversity in NE region is continued till today.
It is evident, that Shankardeva adapted the technique of using mask to empower his theater from the folk base of Arunachal Pradesh. Most of the scholars have been analyzing Shankarian theater looking to the mid Indian culture due to his pilgrimage to shrines of those places with an apprehension that he could have learned about the theater from the places he visited. But the rich tradition of folk culture of our present Eastern region has not been included for the said studies. The history of using mask in theatrical performance in pre Shankarian period of Assam has no records. So it must be acknowledged that the art of using mask in theater was the sole asset of the people of Arunachal Pradesh which the great saint Shankardeva used for his drama. We have the history of Assamese mask making from the late sixties of 1500 AD. But the history of mask making and their uses in ritualistic functions of hill tribes of NE India has been observed since ancient time and its uses in theatrical performances are also seen equally in case of the concerned tribes of Arunachal Pradesh.
An important subject should be noted here that the Dhulia Bhaona of Guwalpara, Assam is generally mentioned as a source of Shankarian theater which is extremely erroneous. Dhulia Bhaona, the name itself is sufficient to express its inner truth that it is a product of Shankarian theater instead of being an ingredient. The concept of Bhaona was unimaginable till the advent of Shankarian culture. The word Bhaona was used by the biographers of Shankardeva and Madhavdeva after their demise. So the Dhulia Bhaona is determined to be a performance based on Shankarian theatrical culture created in the later part of the 16th century. The presentational style of Dhulia Bhaona is same with the Shankarian theater and the salutation to the Guru (Master) Shankardeva is another proof that Dhulia Bhaona is a unique creation having base on Shankarian Theater.
Another remarkable comment given on Shakarian theater that the thought and theory of Shankarian theater is related with puppetry because puppetry has an antique history. We do not want to make any contradiction with the comments given by our scholars regarding the possibilities of adapting thoughts and theories of puppetry by Shankardeva in innovation of his theater. But we cannot remain idle without being investigated the facts and figures given by the concerned scholars. If we search the history of puppetry in Assam then we get a huge blank space from the ancient time to the medieval Assam, where the presence of puppetry could not be traced out. The history of puppetry practices may be ancient in other parts of India as well as world and it may be a glorified chapter of our cultural tradition too, but it does not mean that it has an impact on Shankarian theater. Because the puppetry of Shankardeva`s period was not in such a rich state to be followed or to be encouraged with for implementation of its technique to form a new theater. We have no historical data of puppetry practices from 8th century to the 15th century of Assam ( North East India.) Then on what base we acknowledge that Shankardeva followed puppetry in innovation of his theater? In some scattered elaborations the practice of puppetry in the form of dance is found. These were known as Putala Nach ( Puppet or Doll`s Dance) which were not fully bloomed as puppetry. However according to the elaborations given by our scholars and researchers it can be presumed that the practice of Putala Nach ( Doll`s dance) was prevailed in pre Shankarian period which was not in full bloomed position to be recognized equally with the puppetry of other places of India. The puppetry of Assam was known as Putala Nach and later as Putala Bhaona. The use of the word Bhaona shows that it is also a sub function springing out of Shankarian Theater. The similarities of theory and practice of Dhulia Bhaona and Putala Bhaona cannot be denied. It is also an equally important subject that the Putala Bhaona follows the characteristics of Dhulia Bhaona in the form of puppetry.
In the context of Putala Bhaona or Putala Nach (Puppetry of Assam) the following elaborations can be stated for perfection. Puttala Nach of Assam can be divided into three categories depending on the subject and style of presentation. The first category of Assamese puppetry is seen in the Kamrup and Mongaldoi district of Assam where the entire style and subject of Dhulia Bhaona is followed in the form of puppetry. Second category is seen in Majuli, the great river island, where the Shankarian plays are presented in the form of puppetry and the third category is comparatively new innovation to the field of Assamese puppetry where the influence of modern plays of professional mobile theater is observed. The later is seen in the Kalaigoan of Darrang district. Having observed the said scenario it can be summarized that the Putala Nach which was said to be prevailed in pre Shankarian period was not self sufficient to be counted as rich folk asset of Assam. But it has got the form of self sufficiency through the adoption and acquisition of Shakarian theatrical art. Therefore the influence of puppet theater on Shankarian theater is a skeptical subject and may be a misleading comment. Many scholars are describing that the person who plays the puppets through the strings of his hands (Suta dhori means Sutradhara), may be the source of creation of the great character Sutradhara of Shankardeva`s plays. But we do not have any clue to support the comment on the elaborations made above. The fact of diverting the string man of puppetry to Sutradhara of Shankarian theater may be a poor apprehension without having any field study of the subject. Because the name of the string man of Assamese puppetry was Bajikar (magician) and later he was introduced as Sutradhara basing on Shankarian theatrical culture.
The major semi dramatic asset of Assamese folk culture which was taken by Shankardeva for creation of his new theater is the Oja Pali function of Assam. It can be said that this one is the main function through which the saint got inspiration for innovation of his theater. Oja-Pali is an ancient folk function of Assam where the Oja is the leader and Palis are treated as assistant. This art form has many similarities with the Shankarian theater. In this context the semi dramatic folk functions of Arunachal Pradesh also can be mentioned. For comparison of both folk functions with Shankarian Theater, the technical (comprising) factors of these functions are to be revealed. We get the following aspects of Oja-Pali depending on the said base.
1. Oja-Pali is performed with narrative songs and dramatic interludes to depict the stories of the epics Ramayana, Mahabharata and the story of Manasa, the serpent Goddess of Padma Purana. Oja means the leading artist who is proficient of singing, dancing and acting with an attractive personality on the other hand the Pali means subordinate artist experienced on singing, dancing, acting and cymbal playing.
2. The two forms of Oja-Pali is known as Vyasa and Sukananni. The first form depicts the stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata and the other form Sukananni, depicts the story of Beula Lakhinder of Padma Purana.
3. Dance and gestures of hands and fingers are the most attractive features of these functions where the only musical instrument khuti tal ( pairs of small size cymbals which are almost equal to the size of a palm, made of bell metal) is played by the Palis (assistants). The Daina Pali , who stands to the right side of the Oja during performance , is treated as the chief assistant of the function. The numbers of Palis are generally four but it can be increased to six or eight if required.
4. The stories are depicted through three art forms - song, dance and dialogue (drama).
5. Oja, as a chief of the troupe sings songs with various gesticulations of hands and fingers with rhythmic movements. The Chief assistant Daina Pali, cooperates the Oja in his elaborating efforts and the other assistants (Pali) give an uniqueness to the total depiction of the story through their vocal and musical participations. The vary scenario resembles with the Sutradhara (Oja), Gayan (Daina Pali) and Bayan (Other assistants) of Shankarian Theater. The creation of Sutradhara from the character Oja is almost obvious to all. Like the Oja the possibilities of divergence of Daina pali and other Palis to the Gayan and Bayan of Shankarian theater is of course a pragmatic fact.
6. The performer of Oja-Pali function wear white Ghagra ( a kind of lower garments hanging from waist to the ankle), Mirjal Chola ( a kind of long shirt or cloak covered to the knee) , Kamarbandha (Waist belt of cotton cloth), Chador( a kind of scurf), Muglai Pag ( the turban looks like the turban of Mughal emperor) and ornaments like Unnti (ear ring), Kanthahar (Necklace) and Kharu(Bangle).The costumes of Sutradhara and Gayan Bayan of Shankarian theater are almost similar to the costumes of Oja-Pali. So it can be said that Oja-Pali is the remrkable source of Shankarian theater costumes.
7. Oja with the help of Daina Pali creates quasi-dramatic situation to enrich the environment of the elaborated fact and to facilitate the fact to be understood by all. The same characteristics are seen in case of Sutradhara and Gayan Bayan to reach the same goal of storytelling and diverting people to the path of righteousness.
Having analyzed the characteristics of Oja-Pali art form of Assam and studying the Bardo pantomime of Arunachal Pradesh everyone will be of the same opinion that Shankardeva used the artistic assets of these ancient art forms in his theater. On the other hand it is also quite clear to all that the idea of using mask in Shankarian theater was taken from the folk culture of Arunachal Pradesh. The similarities of Bardo Pantomime of Memba tribes with the Shankarian theater in case of using masks show us how a unique theatrical presentation can be made from the tribal and popular art form of ancient period.
Memba is the third largest tribal community among the six Buddhist tribes of Arunachal Pradesh. Though the Membas are Buddhist and Lord Buddha is treated as their supreme deity but they believe some other Gods and Goddesses too. Lakhrpo, Choijegepu, Lhasangpha Jajin, Denakpo, Chenji, Chen and Lu are the names of their additional deities. This tribal community performs Bardo pantomime in the courtyard of Buddhist monasteries where the additional deities and common men are seen as characters of the performance. The resemblance of the show with the practices of Shankarian theater in the courtyard of Namghar (Vaishnavite monasteries) can be understood easily. The aims and objectives of the function is also quite similar to the newly devised theater of Shankardeva. The costumes of Bardo pantomime and the masks of this ancient theatrical function has an impact on Shankarian theater. So the adaption of these mighty aspects of folk theatrical functions by Shankardeva for his newly devised theater is a clear subject which can be gauged easily and so the relevancy of the subject should be acknowledged without being hesitated.


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