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Sankardeva and his theatrical innovations: Implications towards a new social consciousness

Sankardev's aesthetic formulations, his idea of the Naamghar and belief in a casteless society are
all radically subversive of the then fourteenth century social norms. And while he did not permit
woman to enter the Naamghar etc. his allowance of woman in various other activities relating to
the Sattra etc. is profoundly symbolic of his decision to move away from the norms of Hinduism
and its multifarious ascriptive emphasis for an inclusive social growth. This explains why he could
include Brahmins disciples to Sudra teachers, even people who were untouchables in other parts of
India. In Gandhi's vision of India, caste did have an important place and the predicament of the
nation state after Independence did show that political revolutions alone, detached from social and
religious modulations can only have negative implications. Hiren Gohain, writing in the Economic
and Political Weekly says that Sankardeva got his ideas of social change by visiting places of
pilgrimages. This is true and Sankardev's willingness to learn and bring his wisdom back to his
place of birth is proof of his ability to corelate disparate geographies-human, social and religious.

While for his theater, he drew from different sources-Sanskrit drama with its various rasas, he
ensured that the predominant tenor of his plays is Shanta rasa, which as the name signifies stands
for the beauty of self-realization and peace. This was a new innovation in traditional theater, the
other being that he allowed the Sutradhar to even act in his plays, a tradition also found in the
Kabuki theater of Japan where a similar character like the Surtadhar is a side singer. But as usual
with him, he drew elements from indigenous theatrical and semi-theatrial institutions like Ojapali
and Dhulia. If Shakespeare's plays are a proof of his negative capability, which includes the high
and low of life-the vulgar, irritating and small-even the grave diggers as in Hamlet, Sankardev did
not hesitate to include scenes of eating as in Patni prasda or scenes of battle and wedding as in
Rukmini harana. Keli Gopla has the scene of killing. The playwright incorporated as many as
three prohibited elements in his last play Sri Rma vijaya. These are battle, killing and
wedding. Thus Srimanta Sankaradeva developed his own play-form, independently from the
Sanskrit play-form.

It is possible to discover similarities between the theatrical manuevres of Bhaona and African
theater. In African theater, especially with relation to Yoruba myths etc, there is elaborate use of
masks. But, more importantly, the whole village community participates in the process. In recent
times, in Assam also the 'Baresohoriya Bhaona' has been organised single handedly by the
residents of Jamugurihat since its inception. They build the 'Robha' themselves in traditional style
employing hay, straw, bamboo stumps and wood. The whole structure stands on fourteen pillars,
metaphorically symbolizing the fourteen Parishads(Councils) of Lord Vishnu. All the robhas
finally merge to form a giant 'Mandapa' or Shamiana. The spectators sit around the 'mandapa' as
like lthe petals of a lotus. One of the artists associated with the Bhaona, When the drama is set in a
naamghar, there is movement towards the 'manikuta' indicating thereby a continuous pilgrimage
even in a small room. The whole movements are a web connections, producing 'nomadicity' and
therefore historically tracing the movemnt of Rama or Krishna. But, more than the heroes, the
spectators also follow the footsteps of the players

The beginning of festivities start with the main role player, who as in Soyinka's Death and the
King's Horseman is told of his moral responsibility towards his community. There are drumbeats
and songs. In African drama, there is ambiguity, when the King's horseman hesitates between his
socially prescribed role and his personal ambition, which in Sankardeva's drama, the protagonist
must similarly confront.

Sankardev's thrust was on cleanliness-both internal and external. A greater social role is a matter of
constantly arriving at a perception of morality. So, in Sankardeva's Bhaona, the main role player
fasts the day before so as to fully prepare himself for his performance. The use of screens that
covers the actors before their entry into the stage may also be considered as one form of maya.
Krisna, enters the stage only after the screen is lifted meaning that truth prevails only after the
screen of ignorance is busted. It must also be remembered that

Kukkra Srgla Gardahbaro tmrm

Jniy savko pari karib pram ( Mahanta, 1990)

Sankardev declared that the souls of Dog, Srigalas and Asses are variety of God and so, they
should be saluted. But, this was one kind of proselytizing and anticipated Brecht. According to Dr.
Sanjib Kumar Barkakoti: Sankardeva had achieved the purpose of using drama as a tool for
social reform and reconstruction way back in the sixteenth century, a feat that the latter performed
only in the twentieth century. Moreover Srimanta Sankaradeva used his static plays for a different
purpose by keeping the actors in a low profile and giving them minimum actions. The plays of
Maeterlinck have similar characteristics, because of which Srimanta Sankaradeva can be called a
forerunner of Maeterlinck(Barkakoti Ankiya Play and Bhaona of Sankardeva 6).

With all this sum and substance, it is well assumed that Sankardeva's dramas are infact religous
performances that consciously iterate the importance of the spiritual in life and by admission the
relevance of the spirit or spiritual consciousness. Yet, a study of his plays also reveals that there are
dimenions to his work that are not exactly covered by a superlative emphasis on the nominally
ethical. This then becomes a monotonous critical manoeuvre. It also prevents the identification of
the varying attidutddes that the plays have, that mark a continuous process of growht,
contradiction and elaboration in Sankardeva. While Sankardeva for example speaks of his own
cultur, the mythical architecture of his plays have meanings only as a process of generation as
elaborated by Levi Strauss:

A) mythic system can only be grasped in a aprocess of of becoming; not as someghing inert and
sgable but in a process of perpetual transformation. This would mean that there are always several
kinds of myths simultantously present in the system, some of them primary(in respect of the
moment at wich the observations is made), some of them derivative. And while some kinds are
present in their entirety at certain points. elshere they can be detected only in fragmentary form.
Where evolution has gone further, the elements set free by the decomposition of the old myths
have already been incorporated into new combinations.

In the case of Sankardeva, the process seems to be less of old myths being re-combined
continously with new forms a dnmore a continual interchanve of elements not only between
various myths, but between myths and folktales. So, there is a persistent "inconsistency,
fragmentation and merging" as Karin Barber points out in relation to Krishna's godhead, so that a
whole range of references are captured. The story of Krishna then becomes Sankardeva's strategic
investment offering a huge divident in terms of 'sign, symbols and agency, which guides his
thinking in various directions simultaneously but still keeps it within the same conceptual ambit
provided by the myth.

While Sankardeva alludes to Krishna or to a particular deity as in Sanskrit drama, he also ensures
that his God is defined in terms of a movement or process of becoming. While qualities of Krishna
are continuously alluded to, he is also differentiated from other great beings. Sankardeva's moral
dictum therefore consists in potential reflections of world affairs in general and in relation to other
world systems. For example in the poem Haramohana, Shiva the protagonist is infatuated with the
magical woman-form of Mohini, created by Vishnu during the churning of the oceans. But as
Ranjit Dev Goswami points out, the preponderance of details relating to Shiva must be viewed in
the "context of Vajrayana practice of tantricism" (Goswami Reading Sankardeva 9). There is also
a possibility that "a doctrine similar Prajna Paramit of tantric Buddhisim served as a sub-text in
Sankardeva's description of Shiva following the magical woman figure" (Goswami 8).

Hence his Rama, Krishna and Shivas are culture heroes, who combine both hubris and creative
energy in simultaneous go. For example in the Uttarkanda, Rama is not just God and his ambiguity
towards Sita, kept in bondage by the lascivious Ravana points to the possibilities of error even in a
sublime being. Rama's terror of Sita when she accuses him of guile is observed by his awestruck

Ontorgote Ramor milil mohabhoy

Dekhi Samjyor bhoil param bishmoi

They may even be considered as a structure of the conscious that combines the repartee between
the left and the right-visually narrated in Sankardeva by the movement and dialogues between the
Sutradhar and the Dian. But, here also the interlinkages between Sankardeva's plays and those of
Africa are evident when the actors/performers must be physically agile to act out the gyrations.
But, Sankardeva's work also mimes other performance strategies-especially the Ojapali, wherin, as
has been said before, the writer's marginality works to his advantage. This is also the observation
of Ranjit Dev Goswami. In his lecture on Sankardeva, he writes that the Vaishanavite's familiarity
with the "rich local traditions of this region, awareness of folk harmony, toghether with his
command of Sanskrit learning in general, enabled him to qualify, transmure and re-shape some of
the canonical Indian texts to expound a newly formulated concept of bhakti speaking in many
voices"(Goswami Reading Sankardeva 2).


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