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India's 'dancing monks' visit Drexel Saturday on first-ever U.S. tour

Monks from the remote river island of Majuli have made their way to the U.S., thanks to the directors of Philly's Sattriya Dance Company.

The Dancing Monks of Assam rehearse at Headlong studios in Philadelphia.
The Dancing Monks of Assam rehearse at Headlong studios in Philadelphia.Read moreTIM TAI

The Dancing Monks of Assam live on a remote river island in India and devote their lives to celebrating the Hindu god Krishna through the arts. Eight of them visit Philadelphia this week on their first-ever U.S. tour, initiated by a Philadelphia dance company with roots on that same river island.

The monks are now in residence at Drexel University, where they're teaching master classes and screening a documentary, among other activities. They perform for the public Saturday night at Drexel's Mandell Theater.

They're all men, but the two women who are co-artistic directors of Philadelphia's Sattriya Dance Company — Madhusmita Bora and Prerona Bhuyan — will also dance at the show in the 500-year-old Sattriya style of the monks.

Bora and Bhuyan were both born and raised in Assam and grew up surrounded by the traditions of the monastery. Bora now lives in Philadelphia but travels home several times a year to continue her Sattriya dance studies. Bhuyan is still based in Assam but visits the U.S. regularly.

Like other Indian classical dance styles, Sattriya is a form of spiritual devotion with a challenging technique that requires many years to master. Performers represent details of traditional Hindu texts using subtle inflections of the feet, fingers, and face.

Unlike dancers in the better-known Bharatanatyam and Kathak styles, "Sattriya dancers do not stamp their feet or wear ankle bells," Bora said. "Their movement occurs mainly in the torso."

Both female Sattriya dancers and Assam's "dancing monks" wear white silk garments, for the most part. In addition to dancing, the monks play drums. Some sing or play cymbals.

At home at their monastery on the river island of Majuli, in India's Assam state, the monks have the same religious obligations as members of any monastic community.  But they also receive rigorous daily instruction in traditional singing; how to play drums, cymbals, flutes, violins, and conch shells; plus mask-making, yoga, and dance. They often join the monastery as children.

Everyone studies everything, and eventually each monk chooses an area of specialization. Those visiting on the U.S. tour range in age from 18 to 47. Their master classes for Drexel students, faculty, and staff include sessions on yoga, drumming, and theater.

Bora and Bhuyan will provide a brief introduction to Sattriya before  the public performance so viewers unfamiliar with Indian classical art forms can more fully appreciate the event.

The choreography in the dance program "Sattriya: An Odyssey of the Spirit" showcases a variety of Sattriya techniques and storytelling, including some mime. While in town, the monks also danced a program at the Philadelphia Museum of Art based on a textile style known as "Cloth of Vrindavan," an elaborate silk cloth once woven in Assam. It uses the now-extinct lampas technique to tell stories from Krishna's life through stylized images and ancient Assamese text.

"Growing up in Assam," Bora said, "everyone heard about this cloth."  But no one saw it, since the textiles themselves, and records of their whereabouts, had long since disappeared.

Then, in the 1990s, a British textile curator chanced upon several 17th-century examples in London, Paris — and the  Philadelphia Museum of Art. The museum's Dilys Blum, head curator of costumes and textiles, had acquired the cloth in London in 1990 strictly for its aesthetic qualities.

Thanks to support from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage and some other sponsors, the ancient Assamese script on the Philadelphia textile was decoded as part of the dance project. Bhabananda Barbayan, an Indian monk, translated the cloth's images into movement.

The textile itself is on display in Gallery 231, in the Asian Art wing on the museum's second floor.