Eight hundred and sixty-two – that is currently the number of Satras spread across the two states of Assam and West Bengal. Satras are monasteries set up by Srimanta Sankardev and his most prominent disciple, Madhavdev.
Srimanta Sankardev, a 15th–16th-century Assamese polymath, actor, artist, dancer, musician, playwright, poet, saint-scholar, social-religious reformer and a figure of boundless importance in the cultural and religious history of Assam, India.
He is widely credited with devising new forms of music (Borgeet), theatrical performance (Ankia Naat, Bhaona), dance forms (Sattriya) and literary language (Brajavali). Sankardev started the Ekasarana Dharma, also known as the Neo-Vaishnavite Movement, in Assam, and the process, the assembly of his devotees, known today are called Sankari, who followed him in this journey, eventually were developed into Satras as we know today, and they continue to be important socio-religious establishments in Assam and even in West Bengal to an extent.
Just as Guru Nanak, Kabir, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu inspired the Bhakti Movement in different parts of India, Sankardev did the same in Assam. The first Satra was set up in Bardowa, the birthplace of Sankardev. One of the most prominent Satras in Assam is the Barpeta Satra, founded by Madhavdev in 1583 A.D.
In the ‘Bhajghar’, one of the many rooms, a lamp is constantly burning for more than 500 years that is called ‘Akhay banti’. Newer Satras were set by the disciples of Srimanta Sankardev and Madhavdev by carrying the light from this ‘Akshay Banti’ into the new Satras, and thus, the light from the Barpeta Satra is spread across Assam and West Bengal inside these Satras, including the Majusupa Satra in Dobok, Majusupa, which is the birthplace of Mr Rantu Kalita, whom we are interviewing today for his contributions to build and preserve his community during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
Preservation of smaller communities has become an essential task during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Many members of various communities from different parts of the world have come forward to do the most they can.
One such is the village Dobok in the state of Assam, India, in the district Kamrup (Rural). Known among the neighbouring communities for the Majusupa Satra and the accompanying Kirtanghar, a public ground is being built on top of an old pond, which, year by year, was drying up. Through the initiative of Mr Rantu Kalita and his eagerness to develop his birthplace, the construction of this field will be a big addition to the Satra.
What once was a shared pond belonging to a few families residing in the village, namely Mr Rajendra Nath Kalita, Nareshwar Kalita, Narayan Kalita, Kailash Kalita, Bhabendra Nath Kalita, Niren Kalita – most of who are either uncles or cousins, is being converted to a field for the public.
We get to know from Mr Rantu Kalita that at first, most of the owners, including his father, were against the building of the field. “They were satisfied with the little fish they got once a year and didn’t want to see what laid forward. I don’t blame them; most of them have never even given a second thought to how a little change could help the entire village. It took years to convince them to donate the pond, it sounds silly when spoken out loud, but older people can be really mean, especially when they’re your father and family members. They had to be shown how their individual support was necessary for the benefit of the village.”
Mr Rantu Kalita alone spent years toiling and convincing them to donate the pond to the Satra. When asked what kept him going even after facing difficulty and hate from families who didn’t want to give up a pond, “I tried to keep the bigger picture in front of everyone – a ground for communal celebrations; for the children who were spending more time in front of the television and mobile phones instead of playing and running around… a ground to establish communal harmony. And thus, after years, they finally decided to let me shift the few fishes into our fishery and hence, began the months of trying to gather enough funds for the construction.”
Mr Kalita and his brigade of cousins, namely Mr Hiren Kalita, Mr Mantu Kalita and Mr Mukut Kalita, began the renovation of the field on December 17th, 2019, the 85th birthday of his father, Mr Rajendra Nath Kalita, who was initially among the few of the owners of the pond, who were against the development, but eventually changed their old views and joined hands to help the community. The construction began with the monetary help from the now MLA of Rangia, Mr Bhabesh Kalita, who extended his helping hand towards their small community.
On speaking to Mr Rajendra Nath Kalita, Mr Rantu Kalita’s father, one of the people against the conversion of the pond into the field, about his reason for not initially supporting this decision of his son, “When you’re as old me, sometimes it takes a little time to see the bigger picture, and I failed to see how the establishing of this field could help our community. Like the others, I, too was more interested in the 200 gram worth of fish we could get from the pond once a year instead of seeing how much our Satra needed a field to hold kirtans and naam during the tithis of Sankardev and Madhavdev.”
When asked why and how a communal field would help preserve his village, Mr Rantu Kalita said, “Our Majusupa Satra is recognised among the adjoining villages, but we haven’t been able to hold kirtans and naams to honour our guru Sankardev and Madhavdev because of the size of the land it stands in. With the development of this field, we are hoping to celebrate their lives and teachings in ways which would honour them.”
He spoke about his dream of wanting the future generations to be able to enjoy the freedom he felt with his brothers and cousins, able to enjoy Bihu functions in the old neighbouring field of the Naamghar, which has now become too small because of the increasing number of houses around the field. Asking his brother and partner, Mr Hiren Kalita, on how he expects this field to help his village, “I hope it can help make my son and the kids of the village to leave the electronic gadgets of their parents back at home and instead spend their evenings playing any and every game they can and want on that field” was his answer.
Looking at the ongoing constructions, the effect the field will have on the community can already be seen. While visiting the village during the Bhogali Bihu celebration, little kids could be seen playing made up games, the rules of which they alone were the masters of. Their enthusiasm regarding the trucks full of soil and rocks to fill the pond was contagious, and when asked to a few of them what they are going to once the field is fully renovated, all that could be made out from the gibberish was the how it would be an outlet for their all-time-high energy.
Delayed various times due to the Covid-19 lockdown going on in various parts of the country, the construction of the field is believed to complete by the end of October, Mr Rantu Kalita hoping to achieve his dream on the day the construction first began, the birthday of his father.
He hopes to organise a palnaam in the Satra on the inauguration day during the morning, with a football competition for the kids on the field along with various sports and fun activities, ending the day of celebrations with nagadanaam and dinner for the entire community.
Ending the interview, Mr Kalita urges people to do everything they can to uphold their culture that has been passed from generations and pass it along further to newer generations. “I am doing whatever little I can because I have always had this dream, even as a teenager, to bring the name of our village into importance by building our community stronger and bringing everyone closer. There is a huge difference among a few families that has its roots in casteism and goes back to decades, matters which doesn’t need to be discussed right now. The 21st century is in its full swing; it’s high time that we leave behind the differences the Indian caste system can cause where it belongs – in the 20th century. I hope the other people of our village will do their part in upholding the teachings of Sankardev and Madhavdev. They might have lived in the 15th and 16th century, but their teachings are still applicable to the ongoing generations. As Sankardev used to say, ‘Ek Debo, Ek Sebo, Ek Beene Nai Keo’ (One God, Worship him, There is none other than him).”