Ankiyā Nāt - The Dramas of Sankaradeva
Ankiyā Nāt is a form of religious theatre created by Śankaradeva. Ankiyā means 'act' or 'episode' and Nāt means 'drama'. Thus, Ankiyā Nāt means a 'one-act drama' composed in a particular form. Sankaradeva created Ankiyā Nāt and wrote many popular plays as a means of spreading and maintaining the tenets of Vaisnavism among his people. Like the Ramlila and Raslila of the various north Indian states, the Bhagavata Mela of Tamil Nadu, Krishnattam of Kerala and the Prahlada Natakam of Orissa, the Ankiyā Nāt too is Vaisnavite in content and character. It is one of the oldest of its kind.
A Sacrosanct Medium
This medium is held to be so sacrosanct that the composition of at least one Ankiya Nat became a criterion for assuming the office of the Satradhikar (religious head of a Satra). Over the centuries, this cultural masterpiece of Sankaradeva has been preserved and carefully nurtured by the Satras. The Ankiya Nat of today still retains the pristine purity of the Medieval times.“ In this it is unlike the Jatra of Bengal which has survived and grown primarily because it was willing to give up the traditional Vaisnava content.”
The Performance of the Play
Performances of the Ankiya Nat usually take place within the confines of the prayer halls or Namghar. The Namghar, which doubles up as a theatre-hall, is a roofed structure open at the side. The acting area is a long narrow corridor marked off by ropes running down the center the length of the building. Usually, audiences sit on the ground or stand at the back facing each other while the players make their way up and down the narrow acting corridor. At times, scenes are played behind one side of the audience, literally enfolding them in the dramatic action.
At the one end of the prayer-hall is the Manikut which houses the sacred throne , Guru Āsana, in which the sacred text (usually, the Bhagavata Purana) is placed, symbolizing the presence of Lord Krishna and of the Guru, his words, his teachings. Entrances are made at the (open) end opposite the Guru Asana and the players progress down the passageway in a slow ritual dance toward the sacred text to begin most performances.
A performance event usually begins around 9 pm and continues, sometimes, until sunrise. Usually, companies consist of around 15 amateur actors, either made up of the bhakats and other lay devotees or artists who take particular pride in portraying the stories of Rama and Krishna. Earlier, the Ankiya Nats were men-only productions and women did not participate in the performances. But, in the productions of today, there are no such restrictions
The Inimitable Sutradhar
Shimmering white costumes are worn by the large orchestra of musicians which provide a hypnotic musical background during the overture and throughout a show. Leading characters wear colorful costumes and crowns to symbolize their particular station in life.
Perhaps the most striking character is that of the Sutradhar or the stage manager who is dressed in a white long-sleeved coat with a full, gathered skirt, rather like that of a figure from a Mughal miniature. He also wears a white turban and elaborate ornaments.
Drums, dances, music and masks
Performances begin with an elaborate ritual of drumming, songs and dances commencing at the archway of lights (agni-gad) constructed on the acting area, opposite the sacred room. Special songs are sung in praise of Krishna. At last, the Sutradhara makes a spectacular entrance from behind a curtain at the archway accompanied by fireworks (sometimes) and dancing. A stately dance ensues during which he offers his humble respects to Krishna before the Manikut. Then he recites a verse from the play to be staged or enacted and concludes with a song. A red curtain is held up and Krishna makes his entrance by dancing majestically towards the Manikut. Only then does the actual drama begin.
Throughout the action which follows, the stage manager stands near the actors. He inserts the necessary directions to the musicians and comments to the audience when need be to interpret the action of the play.
Then there are the giant effigies made of bamboo and covered with papier-mache painted to represent demons and animals. In some productions, the figures are at least 15 feet high and must be manipulated by several actors at once. Masks of birds, snakes, monkeys and bears are worn whenever a particular play demands the presence of such fanciful characters.
Scenes of conflict between the forces of good and evil highlight an evening of Ankiya Nat. Brief songs and dances close the performance in the wee hours of the morning.
The description given above pertains to the performance of the dramas within the confines of the Namghar. The Ankiya Nats of modern times are, however, enacted on stage in the theater halls and other public places as well. Although the same (elaborate) rituals are followed, certain (minor) changes sometimes have to be incorporated in the stage-version of the plays in order to adjust to the different ambience. But, of course, the content is left untouched.
In this context, it is quite interesting to note that in the medieval times, many plays were, in fact, open-air performances. Sankaradeva's first theatrical performance, the legendary Cihna Yatra, is believed to be a stage performance, not an indoor one.
Uniqueness of Ankiya Nat
The Ankiya plays have some characteristics which are not found in other plays of India, especially the Sanskrit plays. The presence of the character of the Sutradhar, for instance. Moreover, the entire play is enacted from beginning to end, without any intervening break between the scenes, the Sutradhar filling in the potential gaps with his own brand of dialogue.
Scenes which connect well with the simple rural folk like that of eating, killing, etc which certainly do not find a place (deprecated) in the more 'sophisticated' Sanskrit plays, appear time and again. The drama or Nat contains many songs and dances as well. Thus, the Ankiya Nat or one - act play represents the 'hybridisation of media' for which Sankaradeva's Neo Vaisnavite Movement is so famous.
The strength of the Ankiya Nat is its close links to the religious beliefs of the Assamese people, particularly the devotees of Krishna. It has sustained itself for centuries because it is prominent among the religious minded Hindus of the state. It does not seem to have changed drastically over time, even though the state (itself) has undergone many dramatic changes in its economic and social organization in recent times.