Bhaona – Origin, Tradition and Aesthetics

Indian Intangible cultural heritage is woven by multiple threads like religion, race, rituals and practices on a diversified geographical loom where Assam being an integral part has contributed immensely to accentuate the creation of unique visual narratives in Indian Cultural Diaspora. Amongst the many intangible cultures, performing arts have been a cornerstone from ancient times. This sector includes theatres, drama, dance, opera, musicals, circus art, recitation, mime shows, puppetry, magic shows, etc.

The drawings and paintings showcasing dance, drama, music on cave walls by early men denotes that this tradition was prevalent since a very long time. The enactment of hunting expeditions performed by early men can be considered the most ancient form of drama performance. In India the discovery of Sitabena and Jogimara caves in Sarguya, Chattisgarh are considered world’s oldest theaters which were used for drama and dance performance. Seals date to Indus Valley Civilization also show the prevalence of drama, where a man playing a drum and another person disguised as a tiger is shown. Gradually from the Vedic times this tradition started mushrooming and gave birth to the classical theater. Bharatamuni wrote book on aesthetics of drama called Natyashastra. The epics Ramayana and Mahabharata became the main source of inspiration for the development of classical theatre. Bhasa, Asvaghoisa, Kalidasa, Shudraka, Vishakhadutta and Bhavabhuti were amongst the great dramatist of antiquity.

Rama and Lakshmana takes down a demoness in the play Rama -Vijaya enacted in the Kamalabari Satra, Majuli
Rama and Lakshmana takes down a demoness in the play Rama -Vijaya enacted in the Kamalabari Satra, Majuli

The practice of drama in the northeastern part of India too developed slowly and gradually since there were religious, social and political connections with the rest of India since time immemorial.  But in Assam the tradition of drama performance found impetus during the time of Srimanta Shankardeva (1449-1568), the bhakti saint of Assam. During his time drama came to be known as Bhaona or Ānkia Nāt.

Origin of Bhaona or Ankia Nat.

Prior to the time of Srimanta Shankardeva, there was prevalence of various forms of folk arts with dramatic elements which are still in practice in few parts of Assam. The most distinctive and ancient form of folk drama is Ōjapāli. It is not known as to when and where this art form was first started, but its reference in classical Assamese literature is seen. Ōjapāli usually consists of five to six people with the master or Oja and other assistants called pali. The masters recite the scriptures by engaging himnslef in various body movements while his assistants repeat the verses and provide musical accompaniments with cymbals and their feet. The Oja moves around the stage in rhythmic style and there is exchange of dialogues in humorous manner between him and the chief of the assistants (pali) called the dainapali. Thus, because of the use of such dramatic gestures makes this art form semi dramatic art form. This art form is divided into two broad categories; epic based Ojapali and non-epic based Ojapali.

ground plan of a naamghar showing the bhaona stage, auditorium and greenroom
ground plan of a naamghar showing the bhaona                         stage, auditorium and greenroom

Another unique folk drama of Assam is Dhuliā Bhāonā, it is a major traditional performance in North Kamrup area. This particular dance drama tradition uses endless improvisations which has two stages, in the first stage the dhulias(drummers) beat the drums and sings and dances by clapping and by playing cymbals. In the second stage they present a dramatic scene based on mythological episodes. Dhuliā Bhāonā is of three types; i) Sabha Gowa Bhaona, ii) Biya gowa bhaona,iii) Puja gowa bhaona which is divided in accordance to the place, occasion and theme of the performance.

There are other folk drama performances like Khuliā Bhāonā, which is somewhat similar to Dhuliā Bhāona, but instead of the dhol they use khols.  Kushan gan is again another type of folk drama. It is performed in Goalpara region of Assam and is practiced in open theatres; they take the themes mainly form Ramayana and Mahabharata.

These above mentioned folk drama styles of Assam are practiced only in a very few places of Assam today. The most predominant drama style of Assam is considered to be the Ānkia Nāt or the Bhaona, which was introduced by the great Bhakti Saint of Assam, Srimanta Shankardeva is Ānkia Nāt the most genius creation of the great Guru. The base of the Ānkia Nāt is no doubt an amalgamation of the format of puppetry, ojapali and other folk traditional dance drama routine.

In the 15th century, the social condition of India was deteriorated by different types of distortions and chaos. The neo-Vaishnava movement initiated by Sankardeva created a socio-cultural Renaissance in Assam in the later part of the 15th century. The most important place of initiating the Neo-Vaisnava Movement is seen in two unique institutions—Satra and Namghar, which are associated with social, religious and cultural life of the Assamese people. The Namghar is a miniature replica of a satra whereas a satra, literally meaning as ‘holy area’ is a network of decentralised monasteries, which is headed by a Guru (teacher) designated as Satradhikar. Sankardeva’s literary and artistic contribution is called as the living tradition of Assam. His most important work is the Kirtan Ghosa. Sankardeva being the founder of Bhāonā, wrote many plays, his first play was titled Cihnaytra, which is one of the first open air theatrical performance.

Sankardeva had always given emphasized in installing the message of bhakti into the hearts of his disciples. He centered his energy to evoke devotion in the heart and mind of his audience. The main motto in an Ānkia Nāt is to glorify the hero, Krishna or Rama. The characters are always simplified and there is no room for a tragic end in these Sanskrit acts. It should be noted that all the plays of Sankardeva are taken from the Bhagavata and the Puarana, except the Ram Vijoy, where the story’ is based on the Ramayana and has some features resembling to the Mahanataka. Gradually the popularity of the plays of Sankardeva and Madhavdeva soon spread far and wide, and it made its entry into the royal palaces also. During that time Assam was under the rule of the Ahom kings and the Koch kings who took special interest in these Bhāonā,. Usually these Rajaghoria bhaona was celebrated in a colorful way on some special occasions.

Rama, Lakshmana and Sita dance their way back to Ayodhya after defeating Ravana. Two gayana-vayana oechestra band are seen in the background
Rama, Lakshmana and Sita dance their way back to Ayodhya after defeating Ravana. Two  gayana-vayana oechestra band are seen in the background

In reference to the theatres or the stage, during the time of Shankardeva there was no permanent stage, the drama was held in the open. Also, the satras, the namghars served the purpose of stage. Now a day the temporary rabhas, prepared by using bamboos and a canopy covering on top called the chandratapa of ornamental cloth like a pandal is prepared. The ground is divided into two parts by a passage. In the very front of the stage there is a thapana where the holy bhagavat gita is placed. The other end the dohar (orchestra) along with the gayan bayan (musicians) is seated. Behind them is a curtain called the yavanika of the Sanskrit plays. Around the main stage a special place is given to distinguished guests like the Mahanatas and Gossains (Vaishnavite priets). The public is seated outside the stage area. The Bhāonā, were mainly performed at night which continued till dawn. Therefore, during those days when there was no electricity there was use of lanterns which were lit in several areas to keep the stage lit. Few people were appointed for the task of keeping the lanterns lit by pouting mustard oil into them throughout the night at various intervals.

Aesthetics of Ānkia Nāt

The use o f Sanskrit sloka is another important feature of Sankardeva’s Ānkia Nāt. In the plays of Sankardeva and Madhavdeva we find mainly the use of two languages: Sanskrit and Assamese Brajavali.

Rasa too played an important role in Shankardevas plays cause without sentiments and feelings an act cannot touch peoples heart. Kalira Medhi in his Ankawali, says that “Sankardeva rouses principally the terrible (bhayanaka) and pathetic (karuna) sentiments in his Kali Daman, the erotic (sringara) in the Keli Gopal, the marvellous (adbhuta) in the Patni Prasad, the erotic and heroic (vira) in the Rukmini Horan and Ram Vijoy and the heroic and odious (vibhatsa) sentiments in the Parijata Harana…”

Shankardeva incorporated and laid down his own format and style of presentation of plays. One of such distinctive style was the introduction of Dhemali on stage. These were small acts presented on stage to give a more dramatic entertainment to the audience. Mahehswar Neog in his book “Shankardeva and his times: Early History of Vaishnavite faith and Movement in Assam” mentions the types of Dhemali that was seen in the plays of Shankardeva and his disciple and another important Vaishnavite guru Madhavdev. The types are:

  1.   Saru or Chota Dhemali (minor priliminary)
  2.   Bar Dhemali (major priliminary)
  3.   Na Dhemali (new priliminary)
  4.   Cho dhemali (mask priliminary)
  5.  Nata dhemali (dancer’s priliminary)
  6.  Deva dhemali (the Gods priliminary)
  7.  Raga Dhemali (classical melodies)
  8.  Ghosa dhemali (priliminaries with Ghosa verses)
  9.  Garuda mardana dhemali (preliminary with the beating of the bird, Garuda)
  10. Barpetia dhemali (preliminary originated in barpeta satra)
  11. Cahini or utha cahini (intermediary stroke of instruments between two concerts)
  12. Guru ghat (preliminary in honour of religious preceptor)

During Sankardeva’s time an actor was called a nartaka or natuwa(dancer). Now-a-days a common word bhavaria (actor) is also used. The principal character of a Bhaona is the sutradhar, one who introduces and connects the public with the characters of the play. Shankardeva has presented the character of sutradhar as the director of the play. The sutradhar includes the following roles:

  • Nandi- which related to the singing of the praises for the deity or the protagonist of the play.
  • Announcer: announces the title and synopsis of the play
  • Introduces the main characters of the play
  • Explains about the scenes of the play that will be enacted serially.
  • He also indicates the time when a character will appear on stage to deliver the dialogue
  • He also explains the scenes which cannot be performed on stage for the better understanding of the audience
  • He leads the entire group including the artists and the musicians to sing the Muktimangal (a bhatima), at the end of the play.

In Ānkia Nāt one can find music, dance and songs. All the characters when introduced into the set come dancing on the beat of khols and cymbals. The plays are progressed through the lyrical deliveries and songs. These songs are adorned not only with m,usical notes but contain rhymes, figure of speech, pleasant descriptions and thought provoking perceptions. Besides songs unique features of Assamese Ānkia Nāt is the use of rhetoric prose which was introduced by Shankardeva. The sutradhar and other actors deliver their dialogues in harmonic rhetoric prose form.

The gayanas and vayanas playing the cymbals and khols
The gayanas and vayanas playing the cymbals and khols

Use of effigies and masks were quite common during Sankardeva’s time. The universe of the mask associated with the Satra institutions is the world of imagination. Like the effigy of the serpent demon Kaliya in the Kaliya Daman and the man in this role entered into it and spoke from within. Besides, elephants, Hanumanta, Garuda and Jambubanta were also made with the help of bamboos and clothes. Masks in the Satra are till date included in the ceremonies and festivals which have social and religious significance, and also are used in the plays of dance and drama. The materials such as bamboo, cow dung, potters mud (black clay), cane, wood, cotton cloth, natural dyes and natural gum from trees are used to create the masks. Based on the usability, the masks are classified into three subcategories:

  • MukhMukha, covers the face or head.
  • BorMukha, covers the entire body or sometimes upper body and are not at all flexible, there is no moveable parts.
  • LutukoriMukha, covers the full body with flexible body parts representing hands, beaks, eyes, jaws, wings, etc.

The satras where the art of mask making is still parctised since the time of Shankardeva, are Khatpar Satra and Natun Samaguri Satra holds the credit of carrying the four hundred years old traditions of making masks and has earned the credentials in both the national as well as in the international backgrounds by dint of mask making and mask.

There are mainly two types o f musical instruments used in bhaona performance – the midang (drum) and the tal (cymbal). Midang (in Sanskrit Mrdang) is a membrophonic instrument. Another membrophonic instrument used in bhaona performance is called khol. The tal or cymbal is a idiophonic instrument made of brass metal. Two pieces o f round brass metal plates are held in two hands to produce sound. There are different types of tal used in different occasions of Assam. These are hartal, bhortal, ramtal, khutital, mandira etc.

The Sutradhara reciting the play
The Sutradhara reciting the play

During Sankardeva’s time the actors wore various designs of costumes to represent various characters. The male characters wore crown, cap, matted hair, false beard and whiskers suitable to their age and position. Female characters were played by males thus they wore false hair. These characters also wore all kinds of Assamese ornaments appropriate to their age and sex, including tinkling bells and anklets. The sutradhara wore a peculiar type of white garment – a long flowing gown reaching down the heels, a bodice covering the bust and a high turban or crown on the head. This is also applicable to the chief ministers, though they used a cap in place of turban or crown. Female characters usually put on white coloured gown called mekhela with ornamental coloured bodice. Sages wore tight waist clothes and scarves of pale red coloured (gerua) ascetics rags and Siva a tiger skin.

The plays of Sankradeva, Madhavdeva and their followers, popularly known as bhāonā or ankiya nāt, continues to be performed and enjoyed with enthusiasm as the major source of entertainment till date. It is a community task performed by the people with great enthusiasm. The devotional and spiritual aspect with the blending of socio-cultural life of the Assamese people creates an extraordinary cultural heritage without any arduous effort. This neo-Vaishnavite movement in the northeast helped create a sound culture contributing towards the Indian cultural heritage.


  • Neog,Maheswar(1965). Sankardeva and His Times:Early History of the Vaishnava Faith and Movement in Assam. Gauhati University
  • Neog,Maheswar. Bhaona The Ritual Play of Assam. Sangeet Natak Academy
  • Neog,Maheswar(1998).The contribution of the Sankardeva Movement to the Culture and Civilisation of India, Forum for Sankardeva Studies, Guwahati.
  • Sarma, S. (2001). The Sattra Institution of Assam. Glimpses of the Vaisnava Heritage of Assam. 43, 41-50.
  • Image courtesy and copyright : Bhaona The Ritual Play of Assam, Maheswar Neog