On 12th November 2017, at the Shrimanta Sankardev Kalakshetra in Guwahati, Assam, something unusual had happened: An all women’s troupe performed live Sattriya Oja Pali, usually performed by men, for an hour.
The troupe was led by Sattriya dancer Kashmiri Hazarika Kakati in the presence of Padma Vibhushan Sonal Mansingh, and several other eminent gurus, two Satradhikaars (heads of Satras), and scholars of the dance.
On a warm sunny morning, I met Kashmiri at her flat in Beltola, Guwahati. She lives with her husband and two children. Kashmiri grew up in Lakhimpur and Majuli (both in Assam), and has had an interest in dancing, singing and acting since her childhood.
‘I have been dancing and singing for years but I got busy with my life after my marriage, and dancing sort of took a back seat. We moved to Guwahati and it was after ten years, I got back to doing what I used to love, on a regular basis.’
Kashmiri has performed Sattriya at many places. She is an artiste for Prasar Bharati and performs ‘Solo Sattriya Dance’ at the Doordarshan Kendra in Guwahati. She was invited to perform Sattriya at the auditorium of Indian Embassy in Kuwait. She has performed solo at the Nrithya Bharati, 2015, in Los Angeles, USA, and has been conferred with many awards. ‘I planned to perform “Samppurna Apaal Oja Pali Gowa” because it had never been done by women before.’
To accomplish this task, Kashmiri (Oja) and her troupe of ten women (Palis) trained under the direction of Guru Muhikanta Borah Barbayan Oja from Uttar Kamala Bari (Majuli). Apart from being an expert on Oja Pali, he is the current principal of Kalabhumi Majuli Sattriya Sangeet Mahavidyalaya, Garamur. She also learnt some of the tips of Oja Pali from the ‘Guru of Gurus’, the 94-year-old Guru Gopiram Bora Barbayan, a Sangeet Natak Akademy awardee, who is also the Guru of Guru Muhikanta.
In this form, usually considered a man’s prerogative until Kashmiri and her troupe broke the mould, the Oja narrates themes from mythological stories with songs, gestures and dance. The Palis repeat the song and play ‘khutital’ (cymbals) and mark time with their feet. The chief among the Palis is called ‘Daina-Pali’ or the right hand aide. It is believed that Satras of Assam, especially the ones in Darrang, Barpeta and Majuli, adopted the Oja Pali form to improve Satriya dance and music while worshipping Lord Krishna and Rama.
‘One has to know how to dance, sing and act. It’s not easy at all. I do all forms of Sattriya but this was for the first time I played an Oja.’ Kashmiri told me that Oja is ‘Roja Bidya’ meaning King’s knowledge.
When I asked her, if during the practice sessions, people in Majuli objected to this performance of theirs, she told me that she had taken permission from the Satradhikaar (head of Satra) Janardhan Dev Goswami of the Uttar Kamalabari Satra, who was in fact present during the final performance in Guwahati. ‘After the performance, most people were surprised because they had no idea women could even perform this.’
Meanwhile, the attire of the Oja had to be designed specifically for a woman. ‘I got it stitched from renowned designer Rani Dutta Baruah.’
Kashmiri had to memorize a lot from the Bhagvad Gita. ‘It took me a year to learn. I used to go to Majuli every month—it was hard work—also bringing together ten women who agreed to perform along with me as Palis.’
A ‘visharad’ in Bor Geet, she says, ‘I have always been a dancer and a singer, which gave me the confidence to take on this task. You’re singing, there are spoken words as well; you’re dancing and you really run out of breath, you know!’
According to Kashmiri, a lot of women do not take up this form because it is difficult to perform only on ‘khutital’ (cymbals) without any other instruments and background music. It is a live traditional programme.
Sattriya Oja Pali
Satriya Oja Pali was introduced by the saint-preacher-reformer-artist-composer Sankaradeva (1499-1568) in the 15th century with the idea of spreading Vaishnava faith, and this form of performing arts, has been nurtured and preserved by the Satras, over many years. Sankaradeva developed Satriya Oja Pali by blending different elements of ancient local folk traditions.
The group leader is known as the Oja and the rest of the ensemble, usually consisting of 10 to 20 members are called Palis. It includes performance of narrative poetry through songs, dance, and little bit of acting.
The language used in Oja Pali is archaic Assamese, a blend of Sanskrit and Assamese words which are used in ‘shlokas’.
The performance made a mark considering it was the first time ever.
Padma Vibhushan Sonal Mansingh said, ‘This is true worship and I am sure Shree Krishna was here with us, I was entirely moved. And also it’s unique because for the first time, women have done it, the first time in India, the first time in the world and I think it’s a huge achievement.’
In her speech, Mansingh urged everyone to promote this cultural heritage at the world level. She said Guru Sankaradeva had already established this rich traditional form and it’s the responsibility of the people to carry it forward. ‘It’s not about putting it out there to glorify it but it definitely should be treated with respect.’
This Story Appeared in the December, 2017, Issue of Eclectic Northeast