Jogen Dutta Bayan was initiated into monkhood at the Uttar Kamalabari Sattra but chose to exit the sattra at the age of 39. He emerged as a renowned artist and guru of Sattriya Nrittya and other art forms of the neo-Vaishnavite tradition in Assam.
This interview provides a glimpse of his lived experience at the sattra as a bhakat (monk), and how that identity continued to shape the course of his life as a teacher of the tradition after his exit from the institution.
Following is an edited transcript of the telephonic interview.
Abismrita Chakravarty: You left home to become a bhakat at the sattra at an early age. Could you tell me about your life as a bhakat at the sattra?
Jogen Dutta: My family offered me to the sattra on my uncle’s request. My uncle (my father’s elder brother), Loknath Borbayan, who was also my guru, was a bhakat at the Uttar Kamalabari Sattra, and it was his wish that one of the sons of the family continue the tradition. I lived at the sattra with him at his boha. I got my training in Sattriya Nrittya and learnt to play the khol from the great gurus there—Paramananda Borbayan, Loknath Borbayan and Seniram Borbayan. I learnt all the art forms, from ankiya plays and bhaona to oja-paliand bayan. The monks train in all art forms. You cannot separate one from the others.
AC: While training in the arts and learning the way of life at the sattra, did you also receive formal education?
JD: Going to school for formal education was really rare for us bhakats back in the day. It is only now that you see all of them enrolled in schools and studying all the way up till graduation. For us, the arts took precedence and we learnt them with a rigour that is not found today. But I was a very sincere student in school too! I used my education to do all the paperwork as the secretary of the Uttar Kamalabari Sattra.
AC: What did you have to do as a secretary of the sattra?
JD: One had to do a lot of work. You had to take care of every aspect of the sattra. Have you seen the roof of the naamghar? That was built during my time, under my supervision. I used to travel to Guwahati often, meet government officials for sattra-related work, which included anything from community programmes, building roads to finances, etc. Part of my job was also to look at performances. Our group travelled across India and abroad for performances. In 1975, I was a part of the contingent that went to Indonesia for a summit with the then president Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed. I was in my prime and had the energy for all that.
AC: You seem to have been very involved with the sattra and its way of life. At what point and why did you decide to leave?
JD: My exit from the sattra is indeed a personal tragedy. When I was still the secretary and taking decisions on the sattra’s community engagement, there were internal factions and there was a feeling that I was taking arbitrary decisions. I was hurt by such allegations. My efforts were always towards doing the best for the sattra and my people, the fellow bhakats, but I felt like it was all in vain and I was getting a bad name. I was hurt and felt very conflicted.
I resigned as the secretary and spoke to the sattradhikar about leaving the life of a bhakat at the sattra, because by that time my uncle and guru, Loknath Borbayan, had passed away, and it was for him that I had come to the sattra in the first place. I no longer had the obligation. I had fulfilled all his commands as his shishya.The sattradhikar and all the elders tried to persuade me but I had already made up my mind. I stayed on for two more years as a complete recluse at the sattra and refrained from all sociocultural engagements. I refused to engage in any paperwork for the sattra committee. When a couple more years later I left the sattra, it was a big mental setback. In hindsight, the issue seems small but the decision completely changed the course of my life.
AC: Did the Sattra let you go easily?
JD: Like I said, it took me two years after making up my mind about leaving to finally leave. I left the sattra with blessings from the sattradhikar. I did not go too far away though; I had already built my house in a village nearby because I wanted to remain close to the sattra.
I did not stop going to the sattra. Even now, I go to there every other day. I can hear all the prayers and music from here. When I left, they gave me a formal letter thanking me, and acknowledging and honouring my contributions.
AC: How did you build your life after leaving the sattra?
JD: Life after sattra was difficult. I was forced to confront many things at once—marriage, the world outside, finding a means of livelihood. My mother and the elders tried to explain that now that I had left the sattra and was in a different world, different norms would apply. The past was in the past.
I was compelled to follow conventions, get married, start a family, but the sattra’s way of life did not leave me. It was a loss that took me years to cope with.
AC: You continued nevertheless to pursue the art forms?
JD: I was already associated with many schools and art institutions in Majuli at that time. Once I left, I found myself more actively engaged with teaching the art forms and collaborating with local artists. I had to find a livelihood. So I worked at schools and taught Sattriya [Nrittya]. Simultaneously, I also opened many music and dance schools. I was working with institutions like Bongshigopal Narya Samiti, Sankardev Kala Parishad and Kamalabari Sangeet Mahavidyalaya.
My identity as a member of the sattra gave me authority [the confidence] to enter these spaces. My trained body gave me access to many networks. I used the knowledge that I assimilated in my body to navigate these waters. I performed with many artist groups, and travelled extensively across the region.
I also started taking part in competitions. At the sattra, there were restrictions on where one could perform—though this is no more a problem these days. I suddenly became free to perform in many different contexts.
I was out of the sattra but I entered the Mising networks, cultural committees and the educational sector because of my association with the sattra. I even trained my children.
AC: Was the experience of teaching the art form at the sattra different from the way it was taught outside?
JD: Although it is the same art form, there is a difference in the methodology as well as in the rigour and intention. Although the grammar is the same, it manifests differently. At the sattra, our art is our language of communication with the Lord. It is deeply integrated in our everyday lives. Even while learning the art forms, we always started with the ritual prasangas, and then moved on to other more elaborate performance pieces and forms.
But outside, the whole relationship changes. It becomes more technical. Outside, one starts by learning about the grammar and the taal—the components—and then the whole. At the sattra, we gained understanding of the parts later through our engagement with the whole. It was a form of oral learning; we did not have any texts or reference materials.
The sattra is like a university. There were different departments, and our guru’s knowledge and style determined the curriculum. There were masters of dance and music, and there were some who were adept at all. We went to different masters to learn their art. Outside, the relationship between the guru and disciple is very different. At the sattra, as bhakats we are ultimately bound by the same kind of devotion and commitment to the art, which goes beyond personal ambition and desire.
AC: Do you feel your relationship with the art form has changed over time?
JD: My relationship with the art form has deepened with time. As a guru outside the sattra, I got access to a variety of students, including women and children from various tribes. Many of my former students have taken up Sattriya [Nrittya] professionally.
The art form has undergone a lot of change over the decades and one keeps adapting. The performance stage and the professional field also impacted the form. There are so many influences, especially with the coming of technology. I do my best to follow my guru’s teaching. He believed in setting the basics right before adorning the dance with other elements.
AC: Tell us about the Sangeet Natak Akademi Puraskar that you were felicitated with.
JD: In 2013, I was given the award by Sangeet Natak Akademi for my contribution as an artist and a teacher to Sattriya [Nrittya]. My entire family accompanied me to Delhi to receive it. President Pranab Mukherjee congratulated me. It was a humbling experience.
AC: What kind of impact do you think awards and certificates have on artists and bhakats at the sattras? What kind of opportunities are out there for bhakats?
JD: Well, to begin with, there are many more opportunities today, especially for upcoming artists, like the young novices who reside and learn in a traditional setting. CCRT [Centre for Cultural Resources and Training] has certificates and scholarships for them, and the bhakats at the sattras have availed them. Our boys from the sattra do very well in these contests because their training is such. Experts on the panel do not want to see embellishments but focus on basics. Even my students have received certificates.
As a professional, certificates become proof of your skill. At the sattra, titles like borbayan and borgayanare conferred by the sattradhikar in collective agreement. Titles are given once a bhakat has proven that he is capable of teaching and taking the art form forward as a guru. To be considered worthy of becoming a guru is the biggest sign of growth and advancement in learning. It is like a PhD; we cannot claim the titles ourselves. It comes as a recognition after years of devotion and practice; it is conferred and bestowed, not claimed.
Sattras nowadays issue certificates while conferring a title, because paperwork and tangible proof is now important for the professional identity of the bhakat. We have to open up doors to new ways of engaging with and preserving our art. The knowledge and art forms that the bhakats represent are the most valuable resources. They guide us back to the original pure form, and remind us of our essence when we wander far away from it.
 Boha is the household unit at the sattra.
 Khol is a hollow drum-like instrument.
 Ankiya naats are one-act plays that also include bhaona, which is a dance-based theatrical performance.
 Oja-pali is an Assamese folk dance form.
 Bayan is the act of playing the percussion instruments that accompany the Sattriya performances.
 Naamghar is the prayer hall of the sattra.
 The sattradhikar is the religious and spiritual head of the sattra.
 Shishya means student in Assamese and various other Indian languages.
 Mising people are an indigenous tribe settled across India’s northeastern states. Free from the ways of the sattra, Jogen Dutta Bayan could engage with the tribal communities who are not associated with the Sattriya culture.
 Prasangas, in the context of the Sattriya tradition, mean prayer services.
 Borbayan is the master of percussion and borgayan is the master of singing.