Srimanta Shankaradeva was born into the Shiromani (chief) Baro-Bhuyans family, near Bordowa in Nagaon in a village called Ali-pukhuri in 1449 A.D. and he lived upto 1568 A.D. Sankardeva was not merely a religious preacher. He was a great litterateur as well as performing artist. It was he who laid the foundation of Assamese literature, art and culture. He was also a social reformer and the founder of the present Assamese social system. The entire society of Assam continues to be run according to his ideals. The village Naamghar which is established by him as the focal centre of the rural society, continues to be the social, cultural and spiritual centre of the hindu villages.
Srimanta Shankaradeva was born into the Shiromani (chief) Baro-Bhuyans family. The Baro-Bhuyans were independent landlords in Assam, and belonged to the kayastha Hindu caste. His family-members, including parents Kusumvara and Satyasandhya Devi, were saktas. The Saint lost both his father and his mother at a very tender age and was raised by his grandmother Khersuti. He began attending the tol or chatrasaal (school) of the renowned scholar Mahendra Kandali at the age of 12 and soon wrote his first verses:
karatala kamala kamaladala nayana |
bhavadava dahana gahana vana sayana ||
napara napara para satarata gamaya |
sabhaya mabhaya bhaya mamahara satataya ||
kharatara varasara hatadasa vadana |
khagachara nagadhara fanadhara sayana ||
jagadagha mapahara bhavabhaya tarana |
parapada layakara kamalaja nayana ||
The complete poem was written before he was taught the vowels except, of course, the first one, and is often cited as an example of the early flowering of his poetic genius.
Sankaradeva produced a large body of work. Though there were others before him who wrote in the language of the common man – Madhav Kandali who translated the Ramayana into Assamese in the 14th century – his was the first ramayana to be written in a modern Indian language – Harivara Vipra and Hema Saraswati, it was Sankaradeva who opened the floodgates and inspired others like Madhavadeva to carry on where he left off.
His language is lucid, his verses lilting, and he infused bhakti into everything he wrote. His magnum opus is his Kirtana-ghosha, a work so popular that even today it is found in nearly every household in Assam. It contains narrative verses glorifying Krishna meant for community singing. It is a bhakti kayva par excellence, written in a lively and simple language, it has "stories and songs for amusement [for children], it delights the young with true poetic beauty and elderly people find here religious instruction and wisdom".
For most of his works, he used the Assamese language of the period so the lay person could read and understand them. But for dramatic effect in his songs and dramas he used Brajavali, an artificial mixture of Braj language and Assamese.
Other literary works include the rendering of eight books of the Bhagavata Purana including the Adi Dasama (Book X), Harishchandra-upakhyana (his first work), Bhakti-pradip, the Nimi-navasiddha-samvada (conversation between King Nimi and the nine Siddhas), Bhakti-ratnakara (Sanskrit verses, mostly from the Bhagavata, compiled into a book), Anadi-patana (having as its theme the creation of the universe and allied cosmological matters), Gunamala and many plays like Rukmini haran, Patni prasad, Keli gopal, Kurukshetra yatra and Srirama vijaya. There was thus an flowering of great Bhakti literature during his long life of 120 years.
Poetic works (kavya)
- Bhakti Ratnakara (in Sanskrit)
- Bhagavat (Book VI, VIII, I, II, VII, X, XI, XII; IX not available)
- Ramayana (uttarakanda, supplemental to Madhav Kandali's Katha Ramayana)
His translation of the Bhagavata is actually a transcreation, because he translates not just the words but the idiom and the physiognomy too. He has adapted the original text to the local land and people and most importantly for the purpose of bhakti. Portions of the original were left out or elaborated where appropriate. For example, he suppressed the portions that revile the lowers castes of sudra and kaivartas, and extols them elsewhere.
Drama (Ankia Nat)
- Cihna Yatra (lost)
Sankaradeva was the fountainhead of the Ankiya naat, a form of one-act play. In fact, his Cihna Yatra – staged by him when he was only 19 – is regarded as one of the first open-air theatrical performances in the world. Cihna yatra was probably a dance drama and no text of that show is available today. Innovations like the presence of a Sutradhara (narrator) on the stage, use of masks etc., were used later in the plays of Bertolt Brecht and other eminent playwrights.
These cultural traditions still form an integral part of the heritage of the Assamese people.
- Borgeet (composed 240, but only 34 exist now)
- Deva bhatima – panegyrics to God
- Naat bhatima – for use in dramas
- Raja bhatima – panegyrics to kings (to king Nara Narayan)
The Borgeets (literally: great songs) are devotional songs, set to music and sung in various raga styles. These styles are slightly different from either the Hindustani or the Carnatic styles. The songs themselves are written in the 'Brajavali' language.
Sattriya dance, that Sankaradeva first conceived and developed and which was later preserved for centuries by the sattras, is now among the classical dance forms of India.
- Sapta vaikuntha – part of the Cihna yatra production, does not exist today.
- Vrindavani vastra – parts of this work are preserved in London.