The exotic river island Majuli struggles to find space in the ‘cultural landscape’ category of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) World Heritage list. Located on the lap of the mighty Brahmaputra river, the island faces threats from flood, erosion and modern influences. The Thumb Print has come up with a series on the river island which is a treasure trove of cultural heritage which has a universal appeal.
In the first of its series, Consulting Editor Monideepa Choudhury narrates an inspiring tale of Sattriya dancer Madhusmita Bora’s endeavour to take Sattriya dance (a classical dance form which traces its origins in the river island) to as far as the USA. Based in Philadelphia, Bora not only promotes and practices this dance form but also teaches Sattriya dance to American students.
Location: North America
Mission: Tell the Sattriya and Majuli Stories
There are many things that bring Madhusmita Bora to Majuli all the way from North America; primarily though it is Sattriya (a classical dance form). Her once-a-year pilgrimage to the river island is, as she says, a “personal journey”. She immerses in the spirituality, the peacefulness and the simplicity of the people and tries to carry those back with her to her adopted home in the United States, half a world away. She has, as she professes, no explanation for this: only that Majuli makes her “very happy and at peace”.
Her trip to Majuli is always full of adventure. The ride on a leaky, overcrowded boat with no life jackets is the only way to get to Majuli. “Once I shared the ride with these little goats, nearly 400 people, two cars, dozens of bikes and lots of vegetables,” she smiles. Whether it is the joy of finding the place and people who have sustained Sattriya or the joy of finding something else via dance — she does not yet know. The people are nice and warm, the environment is idyllic, and she wishes it will never change.
Madhusmita who arrived in America in 1999 for a Masters program in Journalism at Northwestern University has worked in newsrooms across the Mid West and East Coast covering national politics to immigration, retail and technology. In 2008, however, she resigned from a position of technology columnist and reporter at the St. Petersburg Times in Florida to raise her son, focus on Sattriya and document it.
In 2009, along with her dance partner and sister-in-law Prerona Bhuyan, she launched The Sattriya Dance Company — to tell the Sattriya story and raise awareness about the river island of Majuli and its Vaishnavite monasteries. The Company has come a long way since then, taking Sattriya, recognized in 2000 as a classical dance, to classrooms, libraries, festivals, old age homes, college cafes and any place in the United States that offers a platform. Its performances are multi-faceted. Besides dance, there are talks on bhakti (devotion), sattras (monasteries) and Srimanta Sankardeva’s philosophy and how he created this amazing art form nearly 600 years ago. The Company enlightens audiences on what the dance form was designed for: for spreading a new social order. It shares masks made by the bhokots (disciples) and also presents a slideshow with photos from the island and the Uttar Kamalabari Sattra. It has gathered into its fold American students who are mesmerized by the “peace and tranquillity” of the dance form and forged great partnerships with Philadelphia-based organizations such as Leeway Foundation and the Philadelphia Folklore Project.
The Company’s passion for Sattriya has prompted showcases in places such as Washington D.C., New York City, Indianapolis and the Delaware Valley region. As Madhusmita, who is also an adjunct professor at Lincoln University, says, “Our audiences are often intrigued by the fact that Sattriya is a living dance and that monks still continue to use this art form as part of their rituals in the sattras .”
And although she believes that the Diaspora has a duty in passing this rich heritage to its younger generation, she is dispirited when she realizes that Bharatnatyam and Bollywood are still the more coveted art forms. Barring one American-born Indian dancer, all her students today are American. The monks of the sattras in Majuli have been her inspiration along with her American Kathak Guru Janaki Patrik, an American who visited India in the 1960s to learn Kathak from Pt. Birju Maharaj. For the last five decades Janaki has been a tireless crusader for Kathak and Madhusmita hopes that her students too would develop a similar passion for Sattriya.
Thus, before she begins classes she lights incense, recites a naam ghoxa (chant) and practices deep meditation. “And I see that they are able to perform with zeal and devotion.” The Diaspora according to her is still young and America is a melting pot: And in that pot, it has to decide what its own heritage could mean. “We all can and should contribute toward raising awareness in preserving Majuli and its treasures. Not because we have a duty to do it, but because we find pleasure and happiness doing it. It’s also a question of preserving our heritage and passing it along to the future generations,” she adds.
She recalls how once after a lecture performance by the Company at a middle school at Lower Merion, suburb of Philadelphia, a bundle of letters from 10-year-old children arrived in her mailbox. Each child had tried to find out more about the dance and its nuances, commenting on subtle aspects of the dance which was impossible without careful observation. It was extremely heart-warming for Madhusmita and a testimony to how Sattriya has such tremendous universal appeal. According to her many are amazed to find contemporary and jazz steps in this ancient art form and more similarities with Balinese and Thai dance than many traditional Indian dances.
“Sattriyais a spiritual dance with a message of peace and universal brotherhood. At its core is devotion. And all humans are capable of experiencing this. Americans have watched stunning dance forms and dancers. But when they watch Sattriya, they always say what attracts them to it is the bhakti (devotion). They don’t use the word devotion, but say things such as “expression of peace, tranquility”, says Madhusmita, whose Sattriya journey began when she was four years old, as little Krishna (a Hindu deity) at the annual raas festivities in Madhabgaon, her ancestral village. She dabbled in the dance for a bit, but Sattriya eluded her for the better part of her early life as she trained in Kathak and became a member of the Kathak Dance Ensemble in New York.
It was in 2008 that she again began to focus on Sattriya, concentrating all her attention in learning, teaching and spreading the word about the dance form. And now even though she continues to be a freelance writer, it is the dance form that was for a long time inaccessible to women because it was confined to the walls of the sattras, which is her identity and passion.
As is saving Majuli.
What the island holds, she thinks, is much more tenuous than Majuli itself and that could disappear much before because the problems facing the island are not as much related to erosion, but problems and changes happening outside it and their effects on it and its values.
And as far as Majuli missing the World Heritage status a few times, she has mixed feelings. She says, “There is a reason why monasteries are always ensconced in remote places. Because they hold timeless treasures that need to be protected. I have been to different sattras and have looked at many historical and priceless artefacts. But what I think the sattras hold are some invaluable and intangible things .They cannot be locked in a trunk and protected. They have to be sustained. And that is the heritage that we have to protect. And they cannot be protected by any status, but by our own efforts. We will have to strike the right distance. We cannot hug it too closely and smother it. We cannot let ignore its existence and let it wither away.”