Traces of Nāṭyaśāstra in Aṅkiā Nāṭa

Posted On: Tuesday, April 11th, 2023
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Author: Seema K S, Bengaluru

Published as a part of Śāstra Raṅga-2023 Internship ; offered by NoopuraBhramari-  IKS Centre.  Article series No – 19


Aṅkiā[1] Nāṭa literally means one-act play; also known by the name Aṅkia Bhāona is a traditional theatre form of Assam. Saint scholar Śrīmanta Śaṅkaradeva is credited with the formation of this theatre form, he also established the Sattra-s[2] (Vaiśnava monasteries) for religious assemblies to popularize this art form. Sattra-s played an important role in preserving and promoting this theatre form by providing a platform for artistic expression, ritualistic dance drama to the presiding deity; right from the fifteenth-sixteenth century to this day.

Structure of Sattra:

In the complex of Sattra is the Nāmghara (prayer hall), Maṇikūṭa (garbha gṛha of the presiding deity) and the Hātis (where the priests and their families live). Nāmghara is the space where the training and the performance of the drama takes place; also known by the name Bhāona ghar (which facilitates artistic expressions). The structure of Nāmghara is canonical from the outside just like a cave as Bharata says, śailaguhākāro dvibhūmirnāṭyamaṇḍapaḥ[3] in the Prekśāgṛhalakṣaṅaṁ of Nāṭyaśāstra.

Underside of the roof of the Nāmghar is painted with scenes from Purāṇa-s and Ithihāsa-s.

Interior of Garmur Sattra, Majuli [4]

Pillars support the roof of the Nāmghara and a temporary greenroom (Nepathya) is prepared in case of any performance planned. The actors enter the performing space through the two curtain outlets of the make-shift Nepathya. The musicians are seated in front of this curtain facing the Manikuta (far end of the Nāmghara). Performance happens between the Manikuta and the ensembled musicians. There is clear demarcation between the music ensemble and the performing space. The architecture of Nāmghara (interchangeable with Sattra) resembles the Vikṛṣṭa (oblong) type of playhouse stated by Viśvakarma in Nāṭyaśāstra.


The musicians enter the performance area with a white curtain held in the front and with lamps held using bamboo stick by two people. On entering the stage, the musicians (vocal, percussion, cymbal, harmonium player and flutist) taking their respective seats is Pratyahāra[5] and Avatarana[6] of Pūrvaraṅga vidhi of Nāṭyaśāstra; the former is arrangement of musical instruments and the latter is musicians taking their respective seats. There are delineations in the positioning of the musicians. In a Sattra, the musicians are seated in the backend-centre of the performance area; in front of the Nepathya screen and the play happens in front of them. This is similar to the position of the drums on the stage mentioned in Nāṭyaśāstra[7]. A pictorial representation of the same is given below:

  • Nepathya is the green room.
  • Entry/exit of the characters happen through the curtain-doors of Nepathya to the stage.
  • Kutapa/musical instruments and musicians are kept between the doors of the greenroom.
  • Raṅgaśīrṣa is the main stage area; performance arena.

Performance in progress [8]

Next section is called Dhemāli[9] where percussion instrument Khol and cymbal players play their respective instruments while walking round the stage (Brahma maṅḍala) and perform a dance sequence which starts off in slow pace and gradually picks up speed. This is a Nṛtta sequence as part of the preliminary of the play; can be considered as Citra Pūrvaraṅga[10] – dance sequence involving energetic, acrobatic movements with hand gestures and foot work.

Dhemali in progress.[11]

With the musicians shouting Jai Jai, Sūtradhāra enters with a white curtain held against him. The Sūtradhāra is cladded in white and is the actor-director of an Aṅkiā Nāṭa performance. This is the first Pātra Praveśa in the performance. He commences with a dance sequence by bowing down to mother earth, continues by uttering ‘Hari Bolo’ as he circumambulates the Brahma maṅḍala. This can be considered as Parivartana[12] (walking around) of Pūrvaraṅga vidhi as he pays obeisance to the Gods in all directions before the commencement of the drama through Nṛtta. He then says, Pratham Ślok and the verses invoking the blessing of Gods is sung and danced for. Nāndī[13](Benediction) is observed here. This is sung in Saṁskṛta. After Nāndī, the Sūtradhāra welcomes and introduces the topic to the audience in the local dialect. The description of the protagonist is given here. Prarocana[14](Laudation) of Bhāratī Vṛtti (Verbal style) can be noted here. This is followed by a song called Bhātima which hints the main characters in the drama (Eg: Rāma/Krṣṇa/Rukmini). The author (mostly Śaṅkaradeva) is mentioned along with the name of the drama (Eg: Rukmiṇi haraṇa, Patnī prasāda, etc). Prasthāvana[15] (Prologue) of Bhāratī Vṛtti is seen here. After this, the Sūtradhāra joins the ensemble; bows down to the stage, keeping the stage open for the actors.


Next enter the main characters of the play, with a special song for their entry Praveśa gīta. The lead actors are again hidden behind the white curtain. The rhythm of the drum changes to make the audience aware of the entry of main characters on stage. This can be equated to the entry of main characters as per Bharata with Dhruvā songs accompanied by a change in the rhythm in the Bhāṇḍavādya (drums).[17]

Āhāryābhianaya of Aṅkiā Nāṭa uses props like bow-arrow for Rāma, sword for Rāvaṇa. Sudarśana cakra for Kṛṣṇa. Flowers are also used for the drama Pārijāta haraṇa. Villains and special characters like Garuḍa, Vāli, Mohini etc use masks (Mukha) made of bamboo, clay and hay. Masks vary from small to life-size and enhances the visual aspects of the drama. Mask-making is very different from what is mentioned in Nāṭyaśāstra; nevertheless, use of weapons (using props) and masks are encouraged in Nāṭyaśāstra.

In the author’s visit to the mask making Sattra in Majuli – Assam, she was fortunate to have met Sri Hem Chandra Goswami[18] and his younger brother. She learnt that the masks developed off-late have movable jaws to facilitate better breathing and dialogue delivery of the actors.

Masks of Pūtanī, Vāli, Sugrīva (worn by the author), Horse-demon Keśa, Mohini, Garuḍa


Stages of mask making


Near mask making Sattra/Samaguri Sattra, Majuli

To sum up, traces of Naṭyaśāstra are seen in this theatre form which was developed during the Neo-Vaisnavism period to promote Viśṇu Bhakti among commoners by Śaṅkaradeva and his successors. Aṅkiā Nāṭa and Sattra-s, have been the sources for the origin of desi dance form Sattriya of Assam. Thus, one can understand and witness even today, the extent of practical application of Naṭyaśāstra by the remote north-east artists belonging to tribal communities of India without having read about any of the śastrā-s!



[1] Same as Aṅka of Saṁkṛta

[2] similar to the Kūtambalaṁ of Kerala

[3] Śloka 80, Chapter 2

[4] https://majuliriverisland.wordpress.com/garmur-satra-majuli-island/

[5] Śloka 17, Chapter 5

[6] Śloka 17, Chapter 5

[7] Śloka 2, Chapter 11

[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fclytPcNTCM

[9] Equivalent to Pūrvaraṅga/ preliminaries of a play

[10] Citra Pūrvaraṅga involves continuous bodily movements (Aṅgahāra-s)


[12] Śloka 23, Chapter 5

[13] Śloka 24, Chapter 5

[14] Śloka 29, Chapter 5

[15] Śloka 135, Chapter 5

[16] https://www.indianetzone.com/18/the_ankiya_nat_assam.htm

[17] Śloka 2-3, chapter 12

[18] Sangeet Natak Academy winner for mask making



  1. Vatsyayan, Kapila. Traditional Indian Theatre : Multiple Streams. NATIONAL BOOK TRUST, INDIA. 2007
  2. YouTube video. https://youtu.be/fclytPcNTCM
  3. YouTube video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0U4vrQYAGfY
  5. Ghosh, Manmohan. Nāṭyaśāstra. Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office Varanasi, 2012.
  6. Personal interview. Sri Hem Chandra Goswami and his younger brother. December 2022.

1 Response to Traces of Nāṭyaśāstra in Aṅkiā Nāṭa

  1. Shreyas Krrish

    Excellent work Seema KS, you are the best

    All the best for all your future endeavours.

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