by Len Lear and Grant Moser
Germantown resident Madhusmita (“Maddie”) Bora, 36, insists she is “a wanderlust, a mother, daughter, writer, dancer, teacher and wife. When I am not playing those roles, I am busy chasing dreams.” Her primary dream is to preserve an endangered species, not one with four legs but one that does move very quickly on two legs.
Bora, who performed at the Diwali Festival last weekend at the Unitarian Society of Germantown, is on a mission to save the ancient art form of Sattriya. In 15th century Assam, a state in northeastern India, there lived a social and religious reformer Srimonto Sankardev, who challenged the ruling priest class of Brahmins by advocating for an equal and just society and against the caste system; preaching the adoption of monotheism through worship of Vishnu alone; and translating the sacred Hindu scriptures into the common language.
To promote his teachings, he developed one-act plays that told stories based mostly on Vishnu. The dance form of Sattriya accompanied these plays and evolved into its own separate art form, still telling the same stories. Bora has visited the island of Majuli in northeastern India several times, which is located in the Brahmaputra River in Assam, and a visitor needs to take a ferry to get there. Each time Bora reluctantly boards it.
The first time she rode on it, she remembers, the 75-person capacity boat had 375 people on board and was riding very low in the water. Three steps led down to an overcrowded cabin with the windows boarded over. She spent the entire trip standing on one leg. Above deck were squeezed two cars and a bunch of goats, cows and other animals. There were no life jackets, and the river was deep.
While the trips are dangerous, Bora’s end goal is always worth the risk to her because Sattriya is under attack from geographical, social and political changes. Sattriya is Madhusmita Bora’s heritage. Born and raised in Assam, she grew up to the rhythms of this incredible art form practiced routinely at her village prayer house. Growing up in Madhabgaon, an Indian village named after Sattriya creator Sankardev’s foremost disciple, she grew up watching her uncles, aunts and neighbors perform in the local festivals and made her debut as a dancer before she turned 4.
Her father’s political leanings made the family assassination targets, and she eventually had to leave her hometown and the state. But Sattriya tugged at her heartstrings wherever she went. Describing her early connections to this tradition, Madhusmita has written, “At an age when young girls are fascinated with dolls and make-up, I began flirting with the rhythms of the drum and cymbals. I was in the vortex of cultural and artistic stimulation. I grew up watching my uncles, aunts and neighbors perform in the local festivals.”
For centuries, Sattriya remained off-limits to women despite the dance having a defined feminine aspect to it. Madhusmita’s project is to tell the story of Majuli, Sattriya and the monasteries and to build awareness in Philadelphia, dance, Indian and International communities about the dance and the threats it faces. Other goals are to inspire more women to embrace the dance and to sustain the traditional forms of this art. In recent years, Sattriya has faced dilution because of advocates who are changing the art form in order to make it more palatable for a modern audience.
Madhusmita Bora has trained under Guru Ram Krishna Talukdar, one of the foremost exponents of Sattriya in India and leading Kathak Guru Janaki Patrik of New York. Madhusmita has performed widely at venues in India and the U.S.A. in platforms such as the Holi festival of colors at the Barpeta Satra and Doulgobinda Temple, India; the Assamese Convention of North America in Washington D.C.; The Dance Festival of India in Virginia; the ISKCON temple in Mt. Airy; and the Library of Performing Arts at Lincoln Center in New York City. Her dedication to propagate the art form has been widely recognized by the Indian media. She and her sister-in-law, Prerona Bhuyan, are co-directors of Sattriya Dance Company, a venture with a mission to promote Sattriya on the world stage.
But some of Bora’s most memorable performances were at area schools. “Kids always pose the best questions and see things that grown-ups don’t,” she said. “Someone once said, ‘Hey, that looks a lot like hip-hop, the steps.’ Can you imagine that 600 years ago they were dancing like that? It really grew into an acrobatic, exciting form of dance. You have to do headstands and backbends and all sorts of difficult moves. There are 72 exercises you do to make your body more flexible; they are the grammar of Sattriya.”
Maddie is much more than a talented dancer. She came to the U.S. in 1999, when she joined Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism as a master’s student. She began her professional writing career as a political journalist, covering the 2000 Presidential race and the statehouse for a newspaper in Iowa. As a newsroom reporter, Maddie has covered real estate – residential and commercial – retail, technology, crime and immigration.
She has worked for publications such as St. Petersburg Times, Philadelphia Inquirer and Indianapolis Star, and she has been an adjunct professor at Lincoln University’s English department, where she has taught composition and world literature.