The Plays of Sankaradeva

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The Plays of Sankaradeva
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Sankaradeva (1449-1568), composed the six plays called the Anhiya Natas in Brajavali language during the 15th-16th century Assam for the propagation of the Vaisnava cult, known as the Eha Sarana Nama Dharma. This book gives a faithful representation of the texts of all the six plays of Sankaradeva, in transliteration along with their English translation for the first time.

Ankiyit Nata is a special genre which includes only the six plays of Satikaradeva and a few of Madhavadeva. These plays were the first written form of vernacular drama in India and the first formal prose in Brajavali language in Assam. The stories in the plays are the bona fide representations from the original Vaisnava scriptures. The sutradhara, is a unique creation of the composer. The slohas, the songs and particularly the bhatimas, are specimen of some most beautiful poetic compositions. A brief analysis of the plays, their characteristics, various components, art of presentation in the form of bhdona are also given in the book. For better understanding the purpose of composition of the plays, the social, political and religious conditions prevalent at that time, a short history of the life of Sankaradeva and his various contributions along with an introductory note on the Vaisnava Movement in Assam are also given.

For all those people engaged in studies on Indology, Language, Religion, Bhakti Cult, Bhakti Literature, Comparative Literature, Lives of Saints or Hagiographies, Culture Studies, Studies of the North-East India and most importantly Drama and other performing art forms like Songs and Dances this book will be a valuable reference.


About the Author

YASHODHARA MEDHI is teaching English literature in the undergraduate classes for over twenty two years at Paschim Guwahati Mahavidyalaya, Guwahati. Having studied Sanskrit till graduation and taking part in the 'Sanskrit Lessons' broadcast through Akashvani, Guwahati Centre, for many years, she also has good knowledge of Assemese as well as working knowledge of Bahasa Indonesia. She spent many years in close proximity with her father, Late Dr. Mukunda Madhava Sharma, an eminent Indologist, Sanskrit scholar and an expert critic in the field of poetry and poetics, which helped her to gain a critical approach to literature.

Her first published work, Janmadinar Upahar, a biographical novel in Assamese, based on the life of Late Dr. Mukunda Madhava Sharma, is widely acclaimed. Also to her credit, there are a couple of papers on various topics in both English and Assamese published in local and national level publications



The Neo-Vaisnavite movement initiated by Sankaradeva was not merely a religious movement, but it was also a cultural movement which had far-reaching impact on literature, song, dance as well as abhinaya and drama. He was the first dramatist of Assam who wrote a few dramas and also took active part in last the performances of those dramas. The Cant Puth is like the ipa, Katha-guru-carita and others inform us that the saint-poet had composed seven dramas, viz., the Kali Damana Yatra, the Patni-culture Prasada, the Keli-Gopala Nataha, the Ruhmini Harana Nata, the Parijata Harana Nataha, the Karhsa-Vadha or Janma- Yatra (which is not found today because of many reasons) and lastly the Sri Rama-Vijaya Nata.

Researchers have undertaken study in various aspects of the saint-poet Sankaradeva and his literary contributions and performing art forms- art-craft-painting and so on.

But nobody had tried to render all the dramas of Sankaradeva into English till now. Dr. Yashodhara Medhi took the challenge bravely and had done the Ph.D. work on the rendering of all the dramas of Sankaradeva in accordance with the advice of her father late Dr. Mukunda Madhava Sharma, Ph.D., D.Litt., Professor and Head,Dept.of Sanskrit, Gauhati University and the former Vice-Chancellor, Dibrugarh University.

Professor Sharma advised her to work for her Ph.D. under the guidance of the present writer of the foreword, i.e., Dr. Nabin Chandra Sarma. Accordingly she started her Ph.D. work on the topic "A Literal English Translation of the Plays of Sankaradeva with a Critical Appraisal". On the basis of that work she has already received the PH.D. Degree in the year 2012.



Sankaradeva (1449-1568), the pioneer Vaisnava saint of Assam was also a social reformer and a great literary genius. This polymath saint translated many important original scriptures in Sanskrit with Vaisnava faith into Assamese and Brajavali language. The six plays by him, which are called `Afikiya Netta' are the first written form of vernacular drama in India and the first formal prose in Brajavali language in Assam. The plays are faithful and bona-fide representations of the stories from authoritative Vedic texts, especially the Ramayana and Bhagavata-Purana (Srimad Bhagavatam) with a sprinkling of local flavors off course.

The performance of these plays is called `19hetond, which continues to be an integral part of the Assamese culture and tradition. The entire science of composing and performing these dramas is a new genre, with unique and original techniques exclusive to these plays. As intended, the plays infuse a deep sense of religious ecstasy in the audience and as such, they were the most effective medium of propagation of the simplistic process of Vaisnava Bhakti cult known as the Eka Sarana Nama Dharma among the common illiterate masses. These plays also played a great part in unifying the diverse ethnic clans and different religious groups of North Eastern India of that time introducing complete equality and democracy in religion. The neitas have greatly influenced the Assamese society and given a distinctive characteristic to the Assamese literature and culture.

Apart from the plays the saint had produced voluminous literary works whiel, shaped the literary backbone of Assamese literature. Because if the modern and pragmatic views and secular outlook of Sankaradeva, the writings of this saint of the 15th century are still very relevant today, in a strife-torn and confused world. Further, it is advised in the Upanisad, dve vidye veditavye para caivapara ca, which means, one should study both para and apara vidya, i.e., learning which teaches the reality and the true spiritual knowledge as well as learning which teaches science-technology and material wisdom that help in leading the life.' It seems, in the present day world, it has become very necessary to study the spiritual aspect of life as taught by our masters while studying for our material achievements side by side, to be able to lead a balanced and meaningful life.

Thus, it is obligatory to make this special genius known to the rest of the world. And the most effective way for that is to translate his literary creations into English.

English is the most widely used language in the world today. As an effect of globalization there has been much activity lately in respect of exchange of knowledge regarding socio-cultural backgrounds of different countries and also there is a growing tendency among the masses to educate through English medium. For these very reasons, original writings in Assamese are to be made available in English and other languages. There are the children of those who had to leave their motherland in search of employment and there are many people who know Assamese yet unfamiliar with Brajavali. Also there are people all over the world who are interested to study exotic literature and culture.

However, it is heartening to note that larger number of people are now realising the relevance of the teachings and philosophies of Sankaradeva in the current world perspective and there is great interest for the works of Sankaradeva from around the world.

But due to lack of translations, much of the world is still deprived of relishing his literary compositions. It has been felt by a concerned section that it is high time we make Sankaradeva's literature available for the world. But, most importantly, translation of his literary works will enrich the Assamese language and literature as it is well known that translation to and from a particular language always enriches that particular language and literature. So, translation of Sankaradeva's works into English will be a great contribution not only to the Assamese literature, but will be of lasting value for all the lovers and researchers of literature of the world.

Much work has already been done in the area of the technical and critical aspects of the literary contributions of Sankaradeva and many of them are in English language. But until and unless the original works are translated into English the rest of the world cannot appreciate this great genius namely Sankaradeva.

In this context we can remember the famous English romantic poet John Keats as he expressed his feelings in "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer":

Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold, And many goodly states and kingdoms seen; Round many western islands have I been Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold. Oft the one wide expanse had I been told That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne; Yet did I never breathe its pure serene Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold.

Sankaradeva's monumental work the Kirtana-Ghosa, which is a valued household possession in every Assamese family worldwide, has already been translated into English. However, it is a matter of great regret that the Ankiya. Natas, which are amongst the most important, original and valued creations of Sankaradeva were yet to be translated and offered to the world readers for evaluation, appreciation and study.

For the past 7-8 years, I have been working on the literary works of Sankaradeva particularly the Arikiyi Natas. During the course of my studies it was found that among his literary creations, the six plays in consideration have an important position because of so many reasons, such as:-

a) They are the first recognized form of written drama in Assam,

b) First formal prose writing, in Brajavali, an artificially created language used for the purpose of preaching Vaistiava Bhakti cult by the saints, poets and preachers of that time particularly in the Eastern part of India.

c)Introduction of innovative ideas leading to a new genre of art form.

Realising the significance of translating the plays of ailkaradeva and being a student of English literature, having had schooling in vernacular medium and also having studied Sanskrit as a subject till graduation, I chose the task of translating the six plays and took up 'A Literal English Translation of the Plays of Sarikaradeva with a Critical Appraisal' as my topic for Ph.D. research and prepared a dissertation on the topic. I have already been awarded the Ph.D. degree by the Gauhati University on the basis of this thesis. It is a matter of great satisfaction for me that the work has been highly appreciated by the experts. Now, for the greater benefits of all the interested people this work needed to be published at the earliest with a little addition and omission on certain topics in places.

Within the scope of the present book, an English translation into prose of the six plays by Sarikaradeva has been given, and it has also been tried to give a brief critical appraisal including the various aspects of the plays along with their sources, characteristics, language and their relation with the common folk. It was felt necessary to provide the original text of the plays also side by side the translations. But as it would not be possible for the Non-Assamese readers to go through the original text in Assamese script, the transliteration of the text with Roman script along with its English translation has also been given.

For understanding the purpose of composition of the plays, the social, political and religious conditions prevalent at that time along with a short history of the life of Sarikaradeva, his various contributions and an introductory note on the Vaisnava Movement in Assam are given. For better assistance to the readers, the scheme of transliteration and pronunciation is given in the beginning and a glossary of mythological names and other words in Brajavali language in the texts is provided at the end.

So for all those people, Assamese or non Assamese, with the knowledge of English, who want to know Saiikaradeva or are engaged in studies on Indology, Religion, Bhakti Cult, Bhakti Literature, Comparative Literature, Lives of Saints or Hagiographies, Culture Studies, Studies of the North-East India and most importantly Drama and other performing art forms like Songs, Dances and tools and accessories related to them such as musical instruments, costumes and masks, etc., this book will be a valuable reference.

It is hoped that more such work like the present one, would go a long way towards making Sankaradeva known and appreciated worldwide.

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