Of Sankaradeva's dramas Kali-damana (Subjugation of the serpent Kali), composed at Bardova about 1518, Patni-prasada (Favour to Wives) , written about 1521 at Dhuvahata, Rasakrida or Keli-Gopala (Sport with the milkmaids) (1540), Rukmini-harana (Abduction of Rukmini), Parijata-harana (The theft of the flower Parijata) and Rama-vijaya (The Conquest of Rama), the last composed at Cooch Behar in 1568 at the request of King Naranarayana, are now extant. The first three plays were based on scriptural materials drawn mainly from the Bhagavata. Rukmini-harana and Parijata-harana are adaptations respectively from Harivamsa and Visnu Purana; the story of Rama-vijaya is taken mainly from the Ramayana. The stories of all these plays have a happy ending. The story of each play being pre-determined and presentation being mainly confined to ecclesiastical propaganda rather than artistic representation, the playwright had to work under serious limitations. Sankaradeva was a preacher first and artist afterwards. So he selected the episodes that served his proselytising purpose. Nevertheless, even under these limitations, in some of his plays, particularly in Rukminiharana, Parijata harana and Rama-vijaya, he could break new ground. Even in the small canvas of these plays, the main characters stand out in bold relief.
The growth of Ankiya Nats was influenced by the earlier practice of reciting kavyas and sastras in social and religious congregations. Prior to the composition of the Ankiya nats, Sankaradeva himself had written a set of kavyas which were used in such recitals. He realised the effectiveness of the dramatic medium in propagating his cult-an effectiveness greater than that of merely reciting the story as in the kavyas whose appeal was aural and not visual.
It should also be noted that when he wrote his Ankiya nats, Sankaradeva was a much-travelled man, having led a pilgrim's life for twelve years visiting most of the sacred places of northern and southern India. It may be surmised that he had seen the dramatic entertainments like Ramlila, Raslila, Yatra, Kathaka, Yaksagana, Bhagavatam and Bhavai, popular at the time in other parts of India. On his return home, he immediately seized the opportunity of turning the kavya type of entertainment into the dramatic, and put the stories of the Bhagavata Purana into action by living performances.
During Sankaradeva's time, there were other kinds of popular dance and dramatic entertainments in Assam such a temple dance, eodhani-nac, Putala-nac and Oja-Pali performances. The choral singing of Oja-Pali was extremely popular, and it continues till today as a very common entertainment in one's villages. The Oja-Pali party usually consists of four to five singers, and is divided into two groups, each singing in chorus. The leader is called Oja, and his companions are called Palis. One of the Palis is called Daina Pali, the right-hand or the chief assistant of the Oja. The leader extemporises or unfolds the story," recites the refrain, and the Palis repeat the refrain by playing on cymbals and keeping time with the movements of their feet. In interpreting the verse-narrative, the Oja uses dramatic gestures, expressions, and movements. Occasionally, in the middle of the performance, the Oja pauses and converses with the Daina Pali by way of expounding the story in order to give the entertainment the appearance of a dramatic dialogue. This pre-Vaisnavite Oja-Pali dance-recital might have given to Sankaradeva the basic idea for the production of Ankiya plays. It may, therefore, be reasonably presumed that the recital of kavyas, Oja-Pali choral singing, and spectacular shows of other parts of India, might have jointly contributed to the rise of the fully developed drama in Assamese.
Though the Ankiya plays have largely been developed out of native and indigenous materials, the influence on it of the Sanskrit drama and dramaturgy is also perceptible to a great extent. Sankaradeva himself styled these dramatic compositions nat and natakas after the Sanskrit names. Other tides used by the Vaisnava poets for this type of plays are Yatra, Nrta, and Anka. The shorter plays of Madhavadeva are called Jhumura. The more popular name, however, is Ankiya nat. These plays, however, bear no resemblance to the Anka type of Rupakas in Sanskrit. Ankiya Nat is a generic term in Assamese and means a dramatic composition in a single act depicting the articles of Vaisnava faith.
In technique, too, these Ankiya nats follow to a certain extent the texts on Sanskrit dramatic theory, particularly with reference to use of Sanskrit verses and nandi, the introduction of the role of Sutradhara, and performance of the preliminaries (Purva-ranga). Unlike as in Sanskrit plays, the Sutradhara is an integral part of an Ankiya nat. In Sanskrit dramas, the Sutradhara disappears altogether after the invocation. But it is different with the Assamese plays. Here, the Sutradhara remains all along on the stage. Further, the Sutradhara in an Ankiya drama combines the functions of the producer and a running commentator. He dances with the orchestra, opens the play by reciting the nandi verse, introduces the characters, gives them directions, announces their exits and entrances, fills in lacunae in the action of the play by song, dance and speech, and delivers brief discourses on the ethical and spiritual points of the plot. Further, there are no acts or scenes in an Ankiya play, and changes of scene are either announced by the Sutradhara in his dialogue or by orchestral singing. The Ankiya. nats needed the services of the Sutradhara to perform all these roles to heighten and popularise the effect of the Bhavana or performance, as the audience consisted mainly of unlettered villagers who at every stage of the progress of the play required explanations. The role of the Sutradhara is there fore very important in an Assamese Bhavana, and even today he is necessarily a man of no mean talents. He is an actor, a trained musician, and an accomplished dancer. Wherever possible, the most artistically gifted man of the village is chosen as the Sutradhara to guide and conduct the play. He is trained from childhood in music, dancing and dramatic technique.
The other noteworthy characteristic of an Ankiya nat is its essential lyrical nature. In these plays songs and verses greatly preponderate, and the playwrights largely use them to bring home the message inculcated in the play. Many situations and incidents are suggested by mere descriptive verses uttered by the Sutradhara instead of being represented through action and character. Minor incidents and feelings and sentiments are at places given expression to by songs. The dialogue which is introduced mainly to elaborate the lyrical sentiments in prose is very thin, though extremely musical. In these plays, the writer appears more as a poet and composer than as a dramatist. His play is not a drama in the real sense, but a 'lyrico-dramatic spectacle'.
The songs and verses of the plays bear special characteris tics, and they are called Ankar git and bhatima. In some plays, Bargits, a special type of devotional songs, are also included. Each Ankiya git or dramatic song contains a dhuvd or refrain, and bears a particular raga (melody), tala (time measure) and mana (rhythm).
Similarity of Sanskrit drama with Ankiya Nats
Like the Sanskrit drama most of the Ankiya plays open with preliminaries prescribed in the orthodox Natya-Sastra (dramaturgy), namely, nandi, prarocand and prastavana. In earlier Assamese plays, there are usually two nandi verses with 8 or 12 feet of verse or carana; one of this is of a benedictory nature and the other suggests the subject-matter of the play. Some of the later plays totally discarded the nandi verse in Sanskrit and in its place introduced a benedictory poem in Assamese. In Sanskrit drama, the general stage direction, nandyante sutradhara, brings the Sutradhara after the nandi, which implies that the nandi was not recited by the Sutradhara. But in the Ankiya plays, the ndndi recital is the specific function of the Sutradhara.
The nandi being over, the Sutradhara announces the subject-matter of the play in a Sanskrit verse (prarocand). This is invariably accompanied by a long poem in Assamese called bhatima. After that follows the prastavana. The Sutradhara hears a celestial sound. On this point a discussion arises, and as it progresses the Sutradhara announces the names of the approaching personages. At the end of this discussion the companion (sangi) retires from the stage.
The Sutradhara apart, there appear two other additional characters in an Assamese play, namely the Duta and Bahuva They are, however, outside the category of the dramatic personnel, and they are introduced in actual performances of the play to serve as heralds and to provide comic relief. The Duta and Bahuva appear on the stage to explain the reasons for eventual interruptions in the progress of the play. They also announce the change of scene and the entrance of new characters on the stage. The Bahuva has other duties too; besides filling in gaps in the narration he is to relieve the monotony and amuse the audience as best as he can by his skits and jokes which he himself invents, of course, in rigid conformity with traditional practices. He, however, is never allowed to interfere with the organic part of the play. Just as the play begins with a characteristic benediction, so it ends with a prayer in Assamese called mukti-mangal bhatima, where, the sutradhara begs forgiveness of God for any faults of omission or commission in the management of the drama. Lastly, he emphasises the moral effect of the play, and desires his audience to follow the path of righteousness.
The most striking feature of the staging of an Ankiya Nat is the co-ordination and harmony of the four elements song, rhythmic representation by dance, melody emanating from appropriate instruments, and dialogue. In an Assamese play, Bhavana, all the characters move rhythmically from the beginning to the end, in the form of dancing with appropriate steps, gestures and abhinaya (dramatic) postures. In short, the whole narration of the story progresses through dances, and dancing is considered one of the best arts for awakening feeling. It may be said that the Assamese dramatic performance consists mainly of movements of the limbs, rhythm forming an essential part.
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