Shankarian theater : technique and transformations.

Shankarian Theater Technique.

Theater techniques are used to instill the message of the play in the mind and intellect of audiences. So theater techniques are judged according to the result showed by the plays. Such results are based on the boldness of expressions as felt and enjoyed by the esteemed audiences.

A wide range of theatrical experimentation has been going on for want of theater technique from the very beginning of modern era. It was surfaced depending on the theatrical experiences of medieval period. Many theater practitioners aiming at different subjects [form, content, character, message etc. ] devised some methods of play presentations according to their wit and experiences. This was done both in inward and outward expressions of plays. Inward expression can be said as technique applied in the script of the play and outward is known as technique applied in presentations.

However all these efforts were made for the greater interest of the audiences not for the development of theater. Because theater will be developed automatically through the required fulfillment of the interest of audiences, it will bring nothing eradicating the interest of audiences. Aiming at the interest of audiences all sorts of theatrical thought and theories were began. In short it will be better to understand that the benefit of audience or beneficiaries is coveted through the theater and its techniques.

Information about Shankarian theater, Assam

Shankarian theater is widely known as Ankia Bhawna of Vrajawali language, practiced in Assam. Its framework was borrowed from the classical Sanskrit drama but its integral parts were made up entirely of indigenous materials such as Oja Pali, Puppet play, Recitative verses etc. Srimanta Shankardeva innovated this Ankia Nat in 1500 AD collecting the said indigenous materials which are available in the state till today. Though the word Ankia is used to mean the plays of Shankardeva but it has no scientific reason. In this context Dr. Maheswar Neog said that – it is not known who is responsible for such application of the word. Presently the said Ankia plays are named as Shankarian play or Shankari Nat.

Shankardevas technique of play writings was later followed by his disciples and a good number of Shankarian plays were accumulated. In the mean time though the accurate time period is not known, a new branch of Shankarian theater grew up in Assamese language with all sorts of Shankarian theaterical characteristics. Now the plays of both languages [Vrajawali and Assamese] were practiced all over Assam.

Techniques of Shankarian theater, Assam

For systematic analysis of Shankarian theater technique the study of scripts and its presentations are done in the following ways ,--

1] Presentational Technique :- A] Stage, set materials and settings. B] Orchestration. C] Other stage decorations. These aspects can be treated as outer technique.

2]Technique Applied in script. :- A] Language and Style of scripting. B] Plot and Mood of expression. C] Actor Spectators relation, which can be said as inner technique.

Presentation techniques of Shankarian theater

A] Stage and Stage materials and settings :- The stage of Shankarian theater is very simple . It is made in an area covering 20 to 40 fits in rectangular shape in the same ground level of the audience. However the size of the stage is dependable on the crowed of the audiences. In the four corners of the rectangle four banana plants were installed excavating the ground to be seen as if fresh banana plants are growing naturally. The boundary is covered with bamboo bar keeping required way for entrance and exit of the players and other concerned persons of the presentation. For making large stage the numbers of banana plants may increase. Audience can view the performance from three sides of the rectangle where the other side of the rectangle is reserved for orchestra party, Actors, Sutradhara and the leader of the orchestra [ Bayan ] .

Mohata, Anria, Agnigarh and Anr kapor are the permanent stage materials of Shankarian theater . The use of these materials and making procedures are,

Mahata - It is a pyrotechnic light made of bananas trunk root [Corm]. To get the lighting effect of Mahata mustered oil and other indigenous ingredients of fireworks were used. The special effect of Mahata is given at the time of the Gayanbayan, chief actors' entry or at the time of dancing .

Anria — Anria is a local torch of burning cloth soaked in mustered oil fitted with bamboo of three to five fits length, which is used as handle.

Agnigarh — Agnigarh is known as fire arch. It's first use is starts through the entrance of Orchestra party [ Gayanbayan ] of Shankarian theater [ Bhawna ]. All performers get entry and exit through the fire arch from the beginning to the end of the show according to their demand in the performance. When the musicians passed through the fire arch [Agnigarh] there are display of fireworks [Mahata] emitting variegated colors of light. The fire arch is consist of two upright bamboo bar joining one another at the top end to form an obtuse angle which looks like an arch. Small torches [ Anrias as depicted
above .] being hung on this over hanging arch. The number of the torches should be Six, nine, twelve, fourteen, or twenty-one , each of these numbers are treated auspicious in the Vaishnava traditions.

Anr Kapor :- Anr kapor is a piece of white cloth four by six ft in length and breath. It is used at the time of immediate entrance to the stage holding by two persons in introducing the Chief actor Sutradhar , Hero and Gayanbayan. When the Sutradhara, Gayanbayan and Hero take their positions and get ready for action the piece of cloth is taken off amidst peals of rejoicing voice of glorifying Krishna culture. It can be said that the Anr kapor of 1500 AD may be the origin of today's modern screen of Proscenium Theater.

Mask and Effigies :- Mask is a striking feature of Shankarian theater. Masks were made of clay, wood, bamboo cloth and painted with lime, Vermilion
[hengul] , Yellow arsenic [haital], Indigo and Lamp black. Shankardeva believed that, people of all strata can be impressed through the proper use of masks.

Another striking feature of Shankarian theater is use of effigies of Animals, Serpent, Birds and other demonical characters. All these effigies were made of bamboo, wood and cloth with proper painting. Effigies and masks create an extra attractive dimension to the performance of Shankarian Theater.

No settings are seen in Shankarian presentations for depiction of any sequence or scene, because there was nothing to express about time and place of the events. If any establishment of place time and atmosphere are required then it is informed by Sutradhara or by the characters themselves in verbal elaborations to the audiences and it is established in the imaginary state of the audiences. Shankarian theater actors play their role in the imaginary sequence and settings of audiences which they built up in the mind of audiences through the said elaborations.

B] Orchestration:- A group of orchestra playing Khols [ Mridang ] and cymbals with equal players in both instruments are seen as permanent property of the Shankarian theater. Drama begins with the said orchestra and it is consist of three phases, which are known as Saru Dhemali , Bor dhemali and Gurughat. Dr. Moheswar Neog elaborated that no written code is known to exist for the conducting of the dhemalies, and the names of these preliminaries not more than three of which are generally performed in each group of sattra [ Vaishnavite monasteries.] also differ from place to place. Some of the preliminaries introduced by Sankara, seem to have died out, others may have been introduced in later times, and some of them seem to have merged into one another. The total numbers of these preliminaries are said to be twelve. The following dhemalies are at least still spoken of - Saru or suta dhemali [ minor preliminary ], bar dhemali [major preliminary], na dhemali [new preliminary], cho dhemali [mask preliminary] nata dhemali [dance preliminary ] , deva dhemali [gods'preliminary ], raga dhemali [preliminary with classical melodies], ghosa dhemali [preliminary with ghosa], garuda-mardana-dhemali, barpetia dhemali [preliminary originating at Barpeta]. In some sattras chahini [originally, an intermediate stroke on musical instruments in between two concerts] or utha [rising up] chahini at the beginning and guru ghat [concert in honor of the religious preceptor] at the end of the preliminaries are also counted with them. The orchestra is commonly known as Gayan Bayan. After performing their performance in the beginning of the presentations they sit aside and cooperate with songs and music with Sutradhara and Bayan up to the end of the performance. It is observed in the Gayan Bayan [Orchestra ] that though this function can be treated as preliminary of the play presentation but it carries a symbolic meaning too. The attention of audiences is drawn through the orchestra along with the symbolic expression that the result of proper attention leads the viewers for attainment of Dharma, Artha, Kama and Muksha . This four phases success is shown through the symbolic expression of Gayan Banyans' choreography. The numeric Assamese four is made through the rhythmic whirl round movement of the orchestra players to express the meaning.
C] Other stage decorations :- A large canopy [white cloth with loose frilled edges and ornamented with circular red cloth representing the sun moon and lotus leaves] hung over the stage [ in the rectangular area ] and decoration with leaves , flowers and festoons is made around the boundary of the stage without being disturbed the perceptiveness of audience. Chandeliers , capable of holding hundred earthen cups of mustered oil , Anriya of burning cloth soaked in mustered oil , Pyrotechnic light such as Mahata are used for lighting and special lighting effect according to the demand of the performance.

Scripts technique of Shankarian theater

A] Language and Style of Scripting :- Songs ,Verses , Dialogues and Dances are used for elaboration of dramatic events. Verses are written in Sanskrit language , dialogues and songs are in Vrajawali – a mixture of Maithili and Assamese language. It is known to all that the drama of Shankardeva is composed of seven elements i,e Gayanbayan, Sutradhara, Sanskrit verses, Vajrawali words , Songs , Mask and Effigies. The Gayan and Bayan add to the glamour and gravity of the performance. The connoisseur appreciates the words of Sutradhara and the dances. Sanskrit verses are composed for the scholarly audience. A section of audience will be attracted by the meaning of songs and melody. The villagers get attracted through the Vajrawali language with deepest feelings of their heart and the ignorant mass people understand the performing fact being satisfied through the mask and effigies. And by this way the Krishna culture will be understood by all classes of people. As a playwright, with deep democratic feelings Shanakardeva tried to popularize his faith on Krishna culture aiming at all classes of people.. All his plays carry the same message of Krishna and the culture showed by Krishna in the name of Krishna except in his play Ram Vijaya , where the character of Krishna was replaced by Ram.
B] Plot and mood of expression :- All plots of Shankaradevas plays are taken from Bhagawata Purana except the plot of Ram Vijaya where the story is depicted from Ramayana. His approach of elaborations regarding the necessity of Krishna culture is seen in every step of his literary activities. Dr. Maheswar Neogs expression on this subject will be suitable here. Dr Neog wrote, - There is no complication in the subject matter by the admission of episodes or sub plot or incidental action. We never lost sight of the hero throughout the play. --- the theory of Sanskrit drama demands of the perfect play arrangement according to the parallels of the five stages of development of action, the five element of the plot, and the five junctures , Shankara does not seem to have closely observed the theoretical niceties , - - Shankara avoid the mention of time ,days and hours as far as practical , and the sequence of events goes on in quick succession. The unity of time place and action are not observed. Even long journeys on earth or between earth and heaven are represented through dances, sometimes accompanied with songs. The Sanskrit dramaturgists prohibit the introduction of certain tropics as harmful to the sentiment or spirit of the hero or offensive to the feelings of the audience. They hold it improper to show on the stage such events as a national calamity, the downfall of king, the siege of a town, a battle, killing or death a marriage or any other religious rites or such as domestic details as eating , bathing, sleeping amorous dalliance. In Shankaras drama these rules do not exist at all.

The stress of expressing the message of the story is seen heavier then the story's amplification. He used all his power of expressions such as Sanskrit verses, Sutradharas activities, songs and dances and intensely measured dialogues of players, to execute the thematic output of his plays within a short period of time as much as possible. So instead of getting attached with the story audience involved with the elaborations of Sutradhara [the narrator], basing on songs, dances and fast moving sequences of his plays.

C] Actor spectators relation :- Story telling effort of Shankarian theater is dominated by the instilling effort of message to the intellect of the audience. However it is clear that the story's depiction does not lose the temper of vivacity because of dance and musical elaborations as well as the narrations of Sutradhara. So audiences get attached with the facts given by the narrator with the help of songs and dances, without being emotionally involved with the story. On the other hand in the quick successions of events, where the scope of emotional attachment with the presenting event is debarred.

Shankardeva created the character Sutradhara [The Narrator and Stage instructor, because all sorts of theatrical activities take place according to his instruction. ] in such a way through which he broke up the partition between actors and spectators . In time of depiction of story through dramatic characters the commentary of Sutradhara on the ongoing event continues. Depending on this characteristic of Shankarian theater, critics emphasize that the dramatic quality of Shankarian theater is lesser then expectation. The reason is that the Sutradhara deserves the lion's share of dialogues comparatively with other actors.

Actor spectator's relationship is required to foster the aims and objectives of play performance and to enjoy the fruits of benevolence of such performances. If the audiences do not have the said relationship and keep themselves in a remote distance then the expected result may not be possible. So the actor spectator's dichotomy must be vanished. Shankardeva tried to establish the actor spectator's relationship in an exceptional way. It was established through proper understanding of his plays thematic output. Actor spectator's dichotomy totally vanished at the end of the performance through evaluation of the presentation depending on Sutradharas elaborations. It was executed through the various narrative descriptions of Sutradhara with the help of dances, songs, verses and acting.

However because of presentational characteristics, emotional involvement of audiences cannot be denied. So Shankardeva stress on narrations through Sutradhara and other performing arts. By this way establishing the actor spectator's relationship Shankarian Theater keeps itself free from emotional attachment of audiences.
Transformations of Shankarian theater has been noticed in the later period with some sorts of newly developed characteristics. Though the accurate times of such transformations are not known but the result of such transformations were well adored by the people of this country. Depending on the Shankarian theater technique many playwrights began their writings in Assamese language taking plot from Ramayana, Mahabharata and other Puranas. The major changes of such plays can be placed as follows :-

1. The performance of Sutradhara from beginning to the end of the show has been curtailed. However Sutradhara remains as important as before.

2. The Sanskrit verses of Sutradhara has been diminished then that of Shankara. In some of such plays it has been abated totally.

3. The dialogue portion [ Actors line ] increased in full figure as in the modern drama.

4. The durations of plays increase to 150 minutes to 180 minutes, where the durations of Shankar's play was very short.

5. Use of songs and dance also diminished in the new trend of the Shankarian theater.

The dramatic performances which are belong to Shankarian technique in Assamese language are known as Bhawna. Critics elaborate that though the Shankarian theater was designed for religious propaganda but it has ceased the said functioning and its utility in giving aesthetic pleasure to people has not decreased.

In the context of Shankarian Theater and its technique and transformations, it can be mentioned that a new trend of modern theater can be germinated from it. Use of Shankarian theater technique is scarcely observed in the modern Assamese theater [Amateur] . But the vast possibility of growing a new trend of theater through proper use of Shankarian theater technique cannot be denied.


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