Dancing Monks of Assam Descend on Drexel’s Campus to Perform Sattriya: An Odyssey of the Spirit

Monks of Majuli ©Vipul Sangoi

Sattriya has historically been a hidden form of dance. Cultivated by Hindu monks as a way to worship the supreme deity,

Krishna, it originated in the monasteries of Assam, India. This spring the public will have the opportunity to experience the ancient ritual for the first time in Philadelphia.

The Westphal College of Media Arts & Design will host a series of master classes, demonstrations, a lecture and a performance on campus from April 23 to April 28. The performance, An Odyssey of the Spirit, will take place on Saturday, April 28 at 7:30p.m., in the Mandell Theater (33rd & Chestnut Streets).

The Philadelphia-based Sattriya Dance Company, along with the Dancing Monks of Assam led by Bhabananda Barbayan, who will travel to the U.S. from monasteries on the river island of Majuli in the Northeast Indian state of Assam, will introduce and perform Sattriya, a form of dance that honors the flute-playing Hindu god Krishna and his incarnations. It narrates the playful, sensuous and fantastical story of Krishna’s life, as recounted in the ancient epics.

“It’s an incredible opportunity to have the Monks with us for a week sharing their art and culture,” said Allen Sabinson, dean of the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design. “The performances, master classes and public lecture will be of great interest to many in our Drexel community and we will benefit from learning about the Monks’ revered traditions and history.”

For centuries, Sattriya remained confined to the monasteries, where celibate monks practiced, nurtured and preserved it as part of their daily rituals. Women had little access to it until the mid-20th century. In 2000, the government of India incorporated the dance into its pantheon of classical arts. It is an unbroken, more than 500-year-old living tradition that includes drama, dance, song and a special form of choreographed yoga. 

The Sattriya Dance Company was launched in 2009 with a mission to tell the story of and promote Sattriya, as well as to raise awareness about Majuli and the sattras through performances, lecture demonstrations and classes.

“Since 2002, I had nurtured a dream of bringing these divine dancing monks from my native land to my adopted home in America,” said Madhusmita Bora. “I am so grateful to Drexel University for this exposure and platform, and to The Pew Center for the Arts & Heritage for their generous support in making my dream a reality.

Three of the monks Bora will share the stage with are her teachers, with whom she has worked for nearly two decades learning, documenting and growing in the craft. Each monk brings with them an incredible story.

Bora mentions Satya, the youngest monk in the company, who came to be rescued and adopted by the monks when he was one and a half years old.

“I have seen him grow up from a little boy to a beautiful performer,” Bora said. “Our art is an offering to the universe and we feel so blessed to share this experience with our audience.”

Schedule for Sattriya master series and performance:

Monday, April 23: Theatre Master Class (5:30-6:50p.m. in Mandell Theater)

Tuesday, April 24: Dance Master Class (6-8p.m. in 418 Main Building)

Thursday, April 26: Yoga Master Class (1:30-2:50p.m. and 3-4:20p.m. in Mandell Theater Green Room)

Thursday, April 26: Panel Discussion and Film Screening (6:30p.m. in the URBN Annex). Free and open to the public.

Friday, April 27: Dance Master Classes (12-12:50p.m. and 1-1:50p.m. in Forman Studio)

Friday, April 27: Drum Circle Master Class (3p.m. in MacAlister 2032)

Saturday, April 28: Performance open to Drexel/Public (7:30p.m. in Mandell Theater). Tickets are $25 for general admission and $10 for students and Drexel faculty and staff.

Must be a Drexel student, faculty or staff member to participate in master classes.

Original support for this project was provided to Madhusmita Bora by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, Philadelphia.

To learn more or to purchase tickets for upcoming performances, click here.