Prominent Sattriya dancer and choreographer Jatin Goswami has contributed greatly to the development and popularisation of Sattriya Nritya. Now 86 years old, he has, since the 1960s, worked consistently towards propagating this nascent classical dance form. In the process, he established several dance academies and cultural organisations such as Pragjyoti Kala Kendra, Alok Shilpi Sangha and Sattriya Academy.
A visiting faculty at Assam Sattriya Music College, Goswami has also authored several books on Sattriya such as Maati Akhora, Nrittya Paribhasik Sabda aru Sangya, Jhumura Nach: Nadu Bhangee Nrittyar Sikshya, and Nrittyar Prathamik Hasta Parichay. He has received several honours, including the Padma Shri in 2008.
The following is an edited version of the text interview.
Nilakshi Goswami: Could you tell us about your initiation into Sattriya Nritya, and also about your gurus?
Jatin Goswami: I was born in a sattra (Vaishnavite monastery of Assam), and being born in such an atmosphere, it was only natural that I started practising Sattriya from an early age. I remember how, in the evenings of the month of Sawan [or Shravan, corresponding with July and August in the Gregorian calender], all the boys in the sattra would gather around after naam-prasanga (the evening prayer), and we would be taught the dance together with the beats of the doba.
I started my training in Sattriya Nritya as a discipline perhaps when I was in the sixth standard. I learnt the dance form from two of the bayans of the sattra, Gopiram Bayan and Babula Bayan. I later received training under Maniram Dutta Muktiyaar and Rasheswar Saikia Barbayan from the Kamalabari Sattra. Rasheswar Saikia Barbayan contributed significantly to introducing me to Sattriya Nritya. Thereafter, I learnt much more from Bishnu Rabha regarding the fundamental aspects of not merely Sattriya Nritya but also other dance forms of India.
NG: How was Sattriya dance received when you started performing it on the proscenium?
JG: When I started performing, Sattriya Nritya was little known to the modern world. It was only after its acceptance as one of the classical dances of India on November 15, 2000, that people started giving this dance form due attention. Later, I got multiple opportunities to present the dance form at the All Assam Music Conference and various other events organised by the Assam Sangeet Natak Academy, among other institutions.
Two of the widely popular and major dance forms during that time were Kathak and Manipuri dance (Jagoi). I took training in Kathak from Guru Ganesh Hiralal in Jaipur for almost one and a half years, and later, in 1961, I stayed in Manipur to learn the Manipuri dance form. Once I returned to Assam, I became aware of the repertoire of the Sattriya culture and tradition in Kamalabari Sattra. Following this, in 1962, under Bishnu Prasad Rabha’s direction, I organised the play Rukminiharan; Sri Rasheswar Saikia Barbayan was invited to teach bhaona for that play.
Well, after this, I never had to look back, and ever since I have kept busy teaching students and performing in various dance festivals and prestigious events across the country. Earlier, there were not many organisations to support this performance art; only after Sattriya Nritya’s acceptance as a classical form, efforts have been made for its proliferation and propagation.
NG: From an art form that was practised by male monks only within the sanctified space of Vaishnavite monasteries, Sattriya Nritya is now widely performed on public platforms by men and women alike. What is your take on this?
JG: Sattriya Nritya was actually performed by bhakats (male monks) in the sattras as part of their daily ritualistic practices or to mark special festivities. However, when the dance form witnessed a shift from sacred spaces to the secular stage, certain changes ensued.
In fact, Rasheswar Saikia Barbayan was the first to teach Sattriya Nritya to women. He taught Putoli Hazarika, who was the first female Sattriya dancer, which triggered his expulsion from Kamalabatri Sattra. Later, Saikia resettled in Xoru Garamur Sattra, where he taught several other women.
Once this dance form moved out of the closed confines of the sattras to be presented before the audience, changes in costumes became inevitable. Especially, after Sattriya Nritya was accepted as a classical dance form of India, it got a new direction both in terms of costumes and code of performance while the distinction between sattrar naach and manchar naach, as a ritualistic practice in sattras and a performative art on stage respectively, was kept in view.
However, a significant predicament that has surfaced in contemporary times is that the younger generation of bhakats are refusing to stay in the sattras, finding better opportunities outside. This is a huge cause of worry because if the number of bhakats in the sattras continue to decline, these ritualistic traditions or Sattriya traditions will face severe crisis.
NG: What changes have come about in the dance since its shift from the sattras to the public stage?
JG: As mentioned earlier, Sattriya Nritya as a manchar naach, or stage performance, now has to be distinguished from sattrar naach, or ritualistic practice of the sattra. The vital change was that drishyanandan (visual appeal) and shrutinandan (aural appeal) became important as the dance form moved to the stage. Much importance had to be placed on the synchronisation of musical instruments that are played during performances as well as the costumes worn by the dancers. While these elements are not given much consideration in ritualistic practice in sattras, things entirely change when we talk about performing Sattriya Nritya on stage.
NG: Could you talk about the changes that Sattriya Nritya has witnessed in terms of costumes?
JG: The changes in terms of costumes were bound to happen. Earlier, male monks would perform the dance bare-chested. But when women started dancing, costumes became elaborate and more embellished.
The distinction between folk and classical is of paramount importance here. In folk dances, costumes are not given as much priority as in classical dance, where specific codes need to be followed. For instance, since male performers in sattras wear muga (golden silk of Assam) dhotis, the ghuris (skirts) worn by the female dancers need to be in the silk fabric as well. Folk and classical dance forms are quite distinct in this aspect.
NG: Could you elaborate on the music used in Sattriya Nritya?
JG: Sattriya dance is performed on the sangeet paddhati (music tradition) created by Mahapurush Sankardeva, the main root of which might be the raga sangeet, which Bishnu Rabha and Jyoti Prasad named Kamrupi sangeet paddhati. According to them, there are three sangeet paddhatis—dakshin Bharatiya or Karnatakiya sangeet paddhati, uttar Bharatiya or Hindustani paddhati, and Assam’s Kamrupi sangeet paddhati.
In Kamrupi sangeet paddhati, the geet (song) used in Sattriya Nritya are those written by Sankardeva and Madhavdeva. The taals (beats) and the ragas are entirely different in terms of structure, notation and composition, and do not match with those of either Hindustani or Kartnatakiya sangeet paddhati. The matra, bol and bani are entirely different from the other two sangeet paddhatis as well. Evidently, Sattriya Nritya has a very rich literature and music of its own.
NG: How significant is the Sattriya tradition as a part of the intangible cultural heritage of Assam?
JG: Sattriya Nritya has had a distinctive tradition of its own for more than 500 years now, which has helped establish our region’s distinct identity. It is because of the dance form that we are now able to put forth the identity of the region with immense pride. Considering this, Sattriya Nritya is indeed a significant cultural heritage of not just Assam but the entire nation.
NG: What do you think is the future of Sattriya Nritya?
JG: A grave concern with the dissemination of Sattriya Nritya is that many dance teachers have now started imparting the dance form to students without realising the significance of the dance in its entirety. Teaching this age-old dance tradition superficially might hamper the dance form in the long run.
However, what gives me immense pleasure is how this dance tradition has been widely accepted by people across the country and even abroad. We have many students now pouring in from even outside the region. My only hope is that people will wholeheartedly try to gain an insight into this dance tradition, understand its significance, and carry this tradition forward.
 Doba is a traditional Assamese drum kept in naamghars (prayer houses), and is usually played with sticks or bare hands.
 Bayan is the title given to khol (a type of percussion instrument) players in sattras. Khol has a hollow body and is played with the palms and fingers. It is the most significant instrument of Vaishnavite music and dance tradition in Assam, and is popular mostly in the eastern parts of India.
 Bhaona is a traditional form of dance drama, generally performed in sattras and naamghars in Assam. Conceived by Srimanta Sankardeva, and infused with religious messages and anecdotes, bhaonas are mostly written and performed in Assamese and Brajavali languages.