Interview with Sattriya Dancer, Anwesa Mahanta

Anwesa Mahanta
Photo by Avinash Pasricha

A dedicated performer of Sattriya Dance, Anwesa Mahanta, is a daughter of Dr Pradip Jyoti Mahanta and Minati Choudhury of Beltola, Guwahati. She received her graduation with Honours in English Literature from the Cotton College, securing 2nd Position in the Gauhati University and passed MA in English from the Gauhati University in 2008 securing First Class. She is being admitted shortly in the Delhi University under its Ph.D. Programme in performing arts.

A bright student in academics Anwesa started learning both Bharatanatyam and Sattriya Dance  since her early childhood under the guidance of Smt Indira PP Bora (a Sangeet Natak Akademi Awardee) and Bayanacharya Ghanakanta Bora, respectively, and showed her mark of excellence in dance since her early years even by securing highest marks in Dance as a subject in her High School Leaving Certificate examinations.

We had an email interview with Anwesa.

Q1. Tell us something about your childhood—how you got attracted to dance?

My childhood has been an exciting experience where I got introduced to a wider world of arts and academics under the guidance of my parents. Belonging to a Sattra, the Vaisnava monastery of Assam I found amidst the cultural environs of music, dance and theatre which are practiced as ritual in the Namghar. The journey into the arts has thus begun unknowingly with an active participation in the rituals by me. Also, I had the opportunity to accompany both my father and my mother during their research on the various aspects of the cultural history of Assam. The trips undoubtedly opened up a new horizon of appreciating the performance traditions and other allied arts of Assam. In due course, a close interaction with the practitioners, exponents, maestros, of the traditions together with scholars and experts of repute both from the state and outside had also left deep imprints in my mind right from my childhood days. These variegated experiences contributed towards a creation of large hole in my mind, and the quest towards that whole are still on.

Q2. What was the main point that made you pick up this form of dance?

The journey with dance is a spiritual quest. And with the celebration of energy engulfed by a spiritual content, dance in association with the unbound rhythms of life and its musical representation, or arts in general, leads you to an ultimate solace – an inexplicable joy. However there is a difference in the medium of expressions. And an attempt is made to select a medium though which we could communicate, transmit and share the joyous experience. Being introduced to this beautiful language of Sattriya, right from my childhood, it has been a spontaneous step to choose this form. The lyrical content, the sahityam, graceful movements and most importantly the content of Bhakti philosophy, imbued deeply in this form, which get represented in each and every aspect of performance, touch the core of my heart and transcend the physical experience of dancing into metaphysical.

Anwesa Mahanta
Photo by Deepak Mudgal

Q3. Tell us about your training—how rigorous was it and how you liked it?

Although my informal lessons in dance began much earlier in my childhood days, the formal lessons began at the age of 6 when my parents brought me to Kalabhumi, a premier institution of Bharatanatyam in the northeast region of India run by noted exponent of Bharatanatyam and Sangeet Natak Akademi Awardee, Indira P.P Bora. Later, at the age of 8, my formal lessons in Sattriya Dance began under the guidance of eminent maestro Bayanacharya Ghanakanta Bora, also a recipient of the Sangeet Natak Akademi Awardee.

Rigorous practice is an inevitable part of learning. Morning yogas along with the Mati Akharas (ground exercise) start off the day and it ends with a full fledged practice of dance compositions. In between the academic sessions together with the usual dance classes and research explorations on new choreographies also continue.

Q4. What is the most important thing for a dancer in terms of creating his/her own niche—style, experiment, physique or creativity?

Sincerity, Dedication, Devotion, Sharp Focus, Hard Work, and most importantly, involvement and total submission to the form go simultaneously with the career of a dancer. Framing up a base on these basic requirements, a dancer needs to develop her perception in the field of dance. These ways of perceptions on the world and its cosmos gradually shape a dancer’s philosophy towards life and its manners.

The gradual understanding and realizations nourish her thinking which shall contribute towards making of a ‘dynamic self’ standing a little apart from the commonality. And the difference which gets represented in her presentations shall undoubtedly create a niche amidst the dance cognoscenti and art lovers in large. Of course, this journey of understanding, realizing and interpreting is never-ending and in the due course the ‘self’ of the dancer gradually evolves.

Q5. Did your family and friends support your decision to pick this dance form?

My journey with dance would have never begun without the blessings of my adhyapak (teacher, mentor), Bayanacharya Ghana kanta Bora and my parents.  As I have mentioned earlier, it is through them I got acquainted with the wider panorama of Indian Arts. My father Prof. Pradip Jyoti Mahanta a scholar of eminence and repute in this field , and currently, Head of Department of Cultural Studies, Tezpur University, together with my mother Ms. Minati Choudhury, who is a noted Assamese litterateur stood with me all the way and supported me in overcoming the challenges in undertaking this voyage. In fact, even in my research explorations both in the field of academics and dance, their guidance have helped in developing my understanding of the subject. Also, there has been a constant support from my kith and kins together with my friends in progression towards this field. My sincere thanks and gratitude to them for all kinds of support offered to me.

Anwesa Mahanta
Photo by Avinash Pasricha

Q6. Tell us about the response of audience and how it helps you gain confidence and desire to learn more and more?

Audience is an indispensable part when we speak about performance. In fact, without audience the whole process of rasanubhava remains incomplete. And with each presentation and gradual interactions it makes us learn new things. It contributes to that wider understanding and realization of thoughts and ideas which inspire in evaluating or re-thinking one’s own perceptions- that remain as conscientious guidance of a dancer. So with each presentation there is a new realization and a new understanding. Moreover, audience are bhaktas to me and it is in the due course of interaction between the devotee-dancer and the devotee-audience that offers rasa swadan or enhances my understanding of rasa-aesthetics.

Q7. Tell us about your practice schedule and how you pick up a theme for a particular show.

As I have mentioned earlier, my day starts off with the yoga and the ground exercises (mati akharas). And gradually the time gets distributed between academic sessions and dance practice. Regular practice is must for every dancer and the principle is applied in my
case also.

Context is always important for the performer in which he’/she will present or share the idea of a particular form. So, with the guidelines of my teacher and team support of musicians, presentations are being prepared accordingly. For example, if the presentation is for school children themes are selected, to which children will be able to understand and relate to it. Childhood deeds of Lord Krishna are one of such illustrations. Themes related to complexities of human situations and experiences through the portrayals of various mythological characters taken from Sankaradeva ( fountainhead of the Neo-Vaisnava Movement in Assam and Sattriya tradition of music, dance and theatre ) and his principal disciple Madhavadeva’s compositions or Bhagavat Purana are chosen along with the nritta or pure dance movements, when the presentations are prepared for senior art lovers. Thus through each presentation a glimpse of the repertoire of Sattriya Dance incorporating both pure dance and abhinaya numbers is provided.

Anwesa Mahanta
Photo by Avinash Pasricha

Q8. Tell us about your collaboration with various artists. How it has helped you increase your own repertoire?

In the course of understanding, researching and interpreting dance, I had an opportunity to meet several dancers.  These are moments of inspiration. When there are opportunities to meet the doyens of Indian Dance and other senior maestros, I feel blessed and encouraged to move on with a new vigour. Each interaction with the dancers comes up with new understanding which further helps in re-framing or rethinking your thoughts. And with the Pragjyoti Nrityosav which we (KALPA, A Society for Promotion of Art, Literature, Culture and Social Harmony) organize annually, there has been a confluence of such artistic streams that has contributed in wider understanding of my subject. The festival with participation of dancers from abroad and also from different parts of India has indeed been an interactive ground which has resulted in opening up new dimensions of research exploration.

Collaborative work with the dancers belonging to various styles have been planned which will help in making a comparative study between the various traditions. Also, with the young dance exponents representing the rich heritage of Indian Dance, in Pragjyoti Nrityotsav, we have attempted to reach out to children with an arrangement of interfaces between the artist-dancers and the students. Several queries related to the relevance of these ancient traditions in the age of globalizations have been dwelled upon.

Q9. What impact this dance form has on you as a person and how it helps you bring closer to a totally different culture?

It is very difficult to state in factual terms how and in what way the dance form has influenced. It has been teaching me to experience and interpret various expressions of life which in other terms is attempted to be represented in the works. Dance has always helped in perceiving things in terms of its realistic and idealistic values. It has inspired me to see interpret things beyond their physical existence. During the course of the journey, it has opened up an encyclopedia which shows ways of comprehending concepts of aesthetics and its paraphernalia in the field of humanities.

So with such understanding my foray to the world of observing, learning and analyzing arts continues. And of course with ground knowledge of a rich tradition of Sattriya, it has always helped me to be a reader of a new culture. In fact it has strengthened my position as reader who could feel the cross-cultural and inter -cultural dimensions in a particular socio-cultural milieu. And each time I step on to these readings and re-readings, I feel the long distance ahead which needs to be traversed.

Q10. Any message for young dancers who want to pursue it professionally?

I would just like to convey my best wishes to all my colleagues and also to the dance students and wish them a great journey ahead.

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