Assamese Bhaona to make an English debut in Abu Dhabi

Almost 500 years after saint-reformer Srimanta Sankardeva experimented with the literary language of Brajavali, Assam’s Bhaona has now reached foreign shores in an English avatar. Entertainment played a major role in the neo-Vaishnavite movement that Sankardeva started in Assam. He wrote his prose in Sanskrit but used Assamese and Brajavali to develop Borgeet, a new form of spiritual music, and Bhaona, a mythology-based theatrical performance, and monastic dances that evolved into the classical Sattriya. Linguistic researchers say Sankardeva needed to connect with his Assamese masses, who did not expect the divine characters of his plays to speak in the common man’s language. So he created the Brajavali, a literary language limited to theatrical usage. The need to connect with an audience not conversant with Assamese, not to speak of Brajavali, was the reason why three siblings from Sonitpur district’s Jamugurihat conceived the English Bhaona a couple of years ago. The experiment has taken them to Abu Dhabi where they are set to stage two Bhaonas — Keli Gopala (‘Playful Krishna’) and Ravana Badha (‘Slaying Ravana’) — on November 1. “The Bhaonas would be performed by members of Prajanma Unmesh, a socio-cultural organisation, at the BRS Auditorium in Mohammed Bin Zayed City. Assam’s Department of Culture has supported our initiative to take Bhaona to the world in a language many are familiar with,” Sandhya Gitimallika Baidya told The Hindu . While Ms. Baidya and her sister Girimallika Saikia are the coordinators of the plays, their brother Arup Sakia is the director. He also translated the Bhaonas from Brajavali into English. Conservatives have been critical of the trio for “deviating” from the pure form of Sankardeva and his disciple Madhabdeva’s creations with their “English misadventure”. Mr. Saikia defended the attempt. “Intellectual assets cannot be kept within the narrow confines of a particular language. One has to change with the times and showcase the cultural wealth to the new generation across the globe,” he said. A Bhaona, involving dialogues, songs and dances by performers in costumes and ornaments, usually involves 40-50 people, including those playing heavy drums and cymbals. But the team that landed in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday has 25 members. “Transporting an entire troupe with their costumes and array of musical instruments is unwieldy besides being expensive. We had to keep the troupe to a minimum for managing with a limited budget,” Ms. Baidya said. Many of the actors in the two Bhaonas are schoolchildren. They include Ms. Baidya’s 13-year-old son Daawarnil, one of the lead singers, and 14-year-old Rahat Rahman who plays two characters from the Ramayana — Rama’s brother Laskhmana and Bali, the monkey king of Kishkindha.

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