Sattriya Dance - The international language of gesture

From Voices, 3:10 pm on 13 November 2014

The crocodile's jaws
Dr Menaka Bora demonstrates the crocodile's jaws

“I’ve always been fascinated in dance, music and gestures and contemporary sounds and how we can represent them ... Oxford University have nominated me to do a unique cross-cultural work on gestures again. I love Wellington and was inspired to show it through gestures; the sea, the waves, the hills, the sky ... so I did this for school kids in the schools in Wellington.”

– Dr Menaka Bora, Sattriya Dance Troupe, Assam, India

Indian music, food and dance lit up Wellington recently when a renowned dance troupe from northeast India helped celebrate the annual Diwali Festival of Lights.

Lynda Chanwai-Earle meets award winning international Sattriya performer Dr Menaka Bora to learn more about one of India's eight classical dance forms.

Gallery: Sattriya Dance

Sattriya Dance Troupe help celebrate Diwali Festival of Lights.

Indian music, food and dance lit up Wellington at Diwali recently when a renowned dance troupe from northeast India helped celebrate the annual Diwali Festival of Lights. Diwali or Deepavali symbolises the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil.

Diwali is an ancient Hindu festival celebrated around the globe.

Lighting small oil-filled lamps (diyas) or candles symbolizes the inner light within people. Families and the community gathered with fireworks, the sharing of sweets and to worship the goddess of love, wealth and prosperity; Lakshmi. It’s an opportunity for the 15,000 or so Wellington residents of Indian heritage to share their culture with the wider public.

The internationally renowned Sattriya Dance Theatre from Assam took the main stage at the TSB Arena in Wellington alongside local performers at the annual Diwali Mela festival.

Sattriya is one of India’s eight classical dance forms. The Sattriya dance form was originally created in the 15th century for performance in monasteries in Assam. Previously only men could perform but now it is widely practiced amongst men and women throughout India.

The Sattriya Dance Theatre was led by Dr Menaka Bora, an award-winning dancer, choreographer and ethno-musicologist  who has performed around the globe. Dr Bora is currently an artist-in-residence at Oxford University. Sponsored by the Asia New Zealand Foundation to perform during the weekend celebrations of Diwali, the Sattriya Group also performed at two Wellington region schools; Waterloo and Amesbury School – part of the Foundation’s network of schools. Dr Bora’s dance troupe comprises of her mother, another renowned dancer and two monks (in pristine white and gold) who play accompanying drums and cymbals.

The troupe perform Sattriya

The troupe perform Sattriya. RNZ.

Meeting Dr Bora backstage between items, I was struck by her elegant, peacock blue costume, trimmed with real gold thread and precious stones and embroidered by an ethnic group of weavers distinctly Assamese. Dr Bora’s eyes are striking too, accentuated with eyeliner.

“I started learning as little as two because my mother was of my main teachers, she’s a professional Indian classical dancer, an exponent of three styles in India. I used to watch my mother and her students and lots of artists used to come to our house and learn ... that is how I remember learning these traditional classical forms.”

Dr Bora tells me that her eyes, hands and feet are her tools of expression, and she demonstrates by showing me Wellington’s harbour, the sea, the sky and the breeze with deceptively simple gestures that cut across any language or cultural barriers. Next she shows me how to evoke a crocodile with just two arms and precise gestures from her classical Sattriya training again. I’m transported by this elegant and universal language, a language that could be performed in complete silence.

Asia New Zealand Foundation – Diwali, Wellington