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Borgeet makes the evening of Assamese classical music/dance

June 24, 2019

Time seemed to have little consideration for the organizers of Pratishruti Foundation in collaboration with Assam Peoples' Welfare Association, mounting an evening dedicated to Music and Dance of Assam at the Sai Shankar Auditorium, Delhi. Not a soul could be seen in the compound when one reached at 6.15pm for a program scheduled to start at 6.30pm. About to turn back feeling one had perhaps come to the wrong place, I saw the poster after walking up to the lobby and entered the auditorium to find about half a dozen people seated with sound and light being tested with singers seated before microphones, with bizarre shifts of light rays from right to left which made one feel unsettled creating a headache. Expecting the pitiful lack of audience to improve, the organizers seemed inclined to wait beyond half an hour. Realizing that more delay would discourage even those present from remaining, the evening finally started.

For an evening devoted to Assamese culture, Sri Krishna Goswami and his party provided the perfect start with Borgeet (also spelt as bargita or borgit), the neo-Vaishnav music of Assam, comprising compositions of Sankaradeva (1449-1568), the founder of the Sattriya tradition and his disciple Madhavadeva. From the Prabandha Gana tradition and Prasangia style practiced in the Sattras, (individual Sattras have their own singing conventions of the same Borgeet) this composition set to raga Aheer, in the totally devotional tone of this music, was sung in perfect sruti by Sri Krishna Goswami accompanied by two female singers. The reposeful singing was like a meditation, accompanied by the melodious flute and the percussion of the kohl. The composition was in a set of talas - each statement of the lyric in a different rhythmic metre of multiples of 3, of 5, of 7 etc. Starting with the Haribol "Ramo more Ramo, Krishna, Sankara Guru..." the slow moving music, totally devoid of virtuosity, derives its power from the emotive throb of bhakti and complete adherence to sruti. The group sang one more composition, this time of Madhavadeva. The raga announcement by the compere was so muffled over the mike that one could not hear it clearly. Altogether, this evening's singing was for me one of the finest experiences of Borgeet singing.

The dance segment which comprised Prateesha Suresh's work, rendered to recorded music, was more mixed in quality. It started with Moire Chal, the dance of the peacock rendered by a group of two male and three female dancers. The recorded music was a plain Megh Malhar. This was followed by a solo presentation, more abhinaya oriented composition based on Madhavadeva's work on the butter stealing Krishna, presented by Prateesha and the finale was a dance drama style portrayal on the story of the Brahmaputra based on the Kalikapurana version. For this critic the entire costuming, which seemed midway between Bharatanatyam and Sattriya, as well as the light dance technique needed more of that hard core Sattriya authenticity and movement vocabulary. Prateesha's training in Bharatanatyam at Kalakshetra and her living in Bombay, would seem to have unconsciously influenced her Sattriya, no matter how long she was initially trained under Raseswar Saikia. Assam's style is no doubt graceful without the hard foot stomping, but that does not mean that the dance becomes so light that it lacks gravitas. In no item did one see the more challenging movements of Sattriya. Actually when the form came outside the Sattras with female dancers taking to the dance, many of the really difficult mati akhadas like the more difficult Paks, Thu Lon, Thiya Lon, Kati Lon, Morai Pani Khowa, Kachai Pani Khowa, Gherowa Chowa became rare in the rendition (though there are some female dancers who do these movements) with the style accommodating the female body.

Prateesha has mobile facial expressions. Another solo item depicting Krishna, the butter stealer, who puts the onus of making away with the churned butter on the gopis, acting as if butter would not melt in his mouth, was invested with mukhabhinaya. But being a much enacted piece, made it difficult to save the item from creating a sense of the already seen. More of histrionics than movement technique, this item had little by way of imaginative movement choreography.

As for the story of the Brahmaputra which of course is very central to Assam, the complicated episode of the birth of the river has two parts. Brahma's seed carried by Amogha, wife of Santanu, results in the child who takes the form of a lake called Brahmakund enclosed by mountains Kailasa, Gandamardhana, Jarudhi and Sambavartaka. The second part concerns Rishi Jamadagni married to the chaste Renuka who gives birth to four sons. While the couple meditates at Renuka lake, Lord Vishnu appears and promises to be born as their fifth son and thus is born Parasurama. Renuka at the nearby river to fetch water, (her chastity giving her the power whereby even the unbaked clay of her pot holds water), happens to see gandharvas bathing in the river, the sight of which kindles desire in her fleetingly, with the pot no longer able to hold water. Jamadagni sees through Renuka's fleeting desire for another male, and incensed, wants her killed and orders the sons to carry out his wish. The first four refuse to commit such an act and are killed. Parasurama, the most obedient agrees, executing his mother with his axe. Jamadagni overjoyed at the obedience, grants the son two boons and promptly Parasurama asks that his brothers and mother be restored to life. The blood stained axe stuck in Parasurama's hand, to be cleaned, had to be washed in a part of the Brahmakund. To allow the contaminated lake water to flow out, Parasurama with plough softened the earth cutting through mountain, and the waters of the Brahmakund flowed to be named as Brahmaputra (son of Brahma, for it is his semen which created the lake) whose reddish tinge in the waters is attributed to the blood washed off Parasurama's axe.

While the myth itself does not lack for high points in action and the very thin audience was quite taken in by it, the music in the Hindustani pattern, and the dance technique which became more of taking up attitudes than dancing, for me, for an evening centre-staging the kohl percussion (pure percussive play with male parts done in typical Sutradhara type of Sattriya solo would have been ideal) needed more of the Sattriya authenticity for the regional flavor to stand out. Prateesha imaginatively tries out various themes. If she could only refurbish her dance technique to give her work more weight, it would be good.

Writing on the dance scene for the last forty years, Leela Venkataraman's incisive comments on performances of all dance forms, participation in dance discussions both in India and abroad, and as a regular contributor to Hindu Friday Review, journals like Sruti and Nartanam, makes her voice respected for its balanced critiquing. She is the author of several books like Indian Classical dance: Tradition in Transition, Classical Dance in India and Indian Classical dance: The Renaissance and Beyond.

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