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Jatra and Bengali Culture

Kamaluddin Nilu

Secretary General and Artistic Director

Centre for Asian Theatre (CAT), Dhaka

Today, I will tell you about a form of theatre that is not performed within the four walls but
under the open sky and with no fencing to serve as a wing. The audience gathers around
the stage on all sides and consists of people of all ages - children, youngsters and the old.
They are not of a specific religion, nor of a particular caste or creed. The rich, the poor, the
middle class people - all are the audience of this form of theatre.
With the changes in society, the subject matter of this theatre has changed. Events
described in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata have frequently been used as themes
for the plays, especially in the early days of this theatre. Sometimes the stories were
based on Krishna, sometimes on Shiva and sometimes on the life of Rama.

Though this form of theatre originally was based on religious themes, a great variety of
themes have later been taken up. Human relationships, love and affection have been
depicted in the stories. Also various social and political issues has for a long time entered
the themes in the Jatra plays as a response to problems in the society and for the welfare
of the people. This theatre has, for example, militated against the practice, once prevalent
among the Hindus, of burning the widow on the chita (pyre) with her dead husband and
also against the prejudice that a widow could not get married again. Furthermore, it has
served as a platform of agitation against colonization of the Indian sub-continent and to
create awareness about the political situation. Many plays have focused on the
oppressions of the Zamindars on their subjects and on the sufferings of the distressed and
famine-hit people of Bengal. During World War II, playwrights wrote anti-war plays
depicting the devastating aspects of war. Playwrights have also portrayed the most
notorious characters of the world like Hitler and Mussolini. It is also interesting to note that
this theatre has represented the liberal credo for promoting religious harmony, or rather
"the religion of humanity."
From around 1960 to around 1970, this theatre absorbed new themes as socialist and
communist movements gained influence. During this period it has thus not been
uncommon that the plays focused on the life of Karl Marx, Lenin, Ho Chi Minh or Mao

Today, this theatre typically protests against the prevailing discrimination and oppression
in society, and at the same time it exposes the dark sides of political leaders and the
hypocritical religious bigots.

This form of theatre is performed in a way that does not leave a gap between the
performers and the audience. Although the themes of the plays usually are very complex
and often deal with social conflicts and religious or psychological issues, they are
portrayed in a way that is close to the beliefs or the experiences of the audience. The
audience therefore understands the characters as if they were individuals in real life. The
audience also thinks of every action on the stage as if it were true and as if what happens
on the stage were a part of their life. Hence, the audience becomes deeply involved with
the plot. Music adds to the attraction of this form of theatre. The performance continues
from 8 p.m. until sunrise. In some cases, dances take place between the acts. This is
mainly to give the audience an entertaining break and the time to reflect on the story. The
audience returns to the plot when the performance starts again.

This form of theatre is performed in rural as well as in semi-urban areas. It is performed in

the same area for at least 20 days, in some cases even for several months. These days,
Jatras are regarded as a great festivity by the local people because the audience, be they
urban or rural, are very fond of this kind of theatre.
This festive and magnetic form of theatre is termed Jatra in my area, i.e. the Indian sub-
continent. The term 'theatre' is Western and when used, it gives the impression of
association with the West.

The history of the growth and development of Jatra is as interesting and fascinating as it is
characteristic of the subcontinental cultural phenomenon involving interaction of different
regional styles and genres.

In Bengal, there was a form of singing called carya, which was popular between the ninth
and the twelfth centuries. The carya songs are considered to be the creation of followers of
Mahayana Buddhism. There are references to a Buddhya nataka (a song-based play
about the life of Buddha) and to a few musical instruments. While no definite deductions
can be made from this evidence, there are indications that this kind of musical drama
influenced Git-Govinda (dramatic songs. about Krishna). What is clear is that Git-Govinda
provided the foundation of poetic, musical and dramatic activities in all the three states of
Bihar, Orissa and Bengal.

In the fifteenth century, when the Bhakti movement (a movement among people who
believed that they would get salvation and find their way to God through love for each
other and for mythological/religious heroes) swept Bengal, devotees went singing and
dancing in processions. They sang in temple courtyards, narrating the events in the life of
their patron god, and expressed their devotion through frenzied acting. The collective
singing amidst the clang of gongs and fumes of incense produced a mass hypnosis and
sent singers into an acting trance. This singing with dramatic elements gradually came to
be known as Jatra, which literally means, 'to go in procession'.

Phani Bhushan Biddyabinod, a celebrated actor-director-writer, however, provides another

explanation. He claims that the Jatra concept grew out of the musical enactment of an
episode in Lord Krishna's life: Krishna is leaving his foster parents and the milk-maids in
the woods of Vrindabon to go to Mathura in order to punish his uncle King Kamsa. This
heart-rending separation became the favourite theme of singers and players, and
Krishna's march, or jatra, to Mathura has been celebrated in the palas (plays). Later any
pala about Krishna's life or about any mythological hero was called Jatra.

Popular forms of dramatic singing and expressive acting from the sixteenth through the
eighteenth century were Jhumur (duet songs with a bit of dance and dialogue), Panchali (a
performance by a single actor-singer), Kathakata (one actor singing a religious story),
Keertan (devotional singing), and Kabigan (recitation). All these were the cultural
expressions which would be integrated into the Jatra form and enrich it.
By the close of the eighteenth century, Bengal was completely under the East India
Company, the last ruler of Bengal, Nawab Siraj-ud-Doula, having been defeated in 1757.
The British introduced the concept of private property rights on land and a new system of
government. The changes in the economic and social systems that followed, and the
injustices that were perceived by the people, were increasingly reflected in themes of the
Jatra plays as the political consciousness grew, especially throughout the nineteenth
century. In this way, it came to serve a political function in the agitation against
colonialism. This kind of Jatra plays was apparently very effective, and the hence the
British in 1876 found it necessary to introduce the Dramatic Performance Act. According to
this law, all Jatra companies had to be registered with the local authorities, and plays with
an anti-British content were forbidden. However, many Jatra plays continued to have some
sort of political message.

Throughout the nineteenth century, Jatra became increasingly secular and usually also
more contemporary in character. During this period, the Jatra repertoire swelled with love
themes, erotic stories, historical romance, mythological heroes as well as tales of
legendary robbers, social reformers and champions of truth and justice, thereby diluting its
previously dominating religious colour.
The largely secular character of Jatra has been maintained throughout the twentieth
century. At the same time, the contemporary relevance of the plays has been
strengthened, as witnessed, for example, by the increasing influence of the socialist and
communist movements which grew in importance in this part of the world from around

Traditionally, male actors 'performed all roles. The tradition of having men acting women
characters is common in many forms of Asian theatre. Due to social and religious reasons,
women's participation in the performances was strictly prohibited.

The stage, called ashara, is an open and empty space improvised by a square-shaped
platform, sixteen by sixteen feet in size and two and a half feet high. Two ramps run along
the two sides at a height of about two feet and serve two purposes, as entry and exit and
as a place for the musicians. On one of these, the percussion players sit with drums,
cymbals and bells. On the other side, the other musicians - comprising a clarinet player,
flutist, violinist, trumpet player and a harmonium player - are seated. From one corner of
the stage, there is a nearly sixty feet long gangway which is made of rope and short
bamboo sticks. In addition to providing connection between the green room and the stage,
this gangway is also an extension of the stage and may serve different purposes: it may
suggest a street, a highway, a temple path, the venue of a procession or the assembly
place of an army. Bamboo poles are erected on all four sides of the stage and are used for
lighting purposes and to hold the sheds above the stage. The audience sits on all sides of
the stage, with one side reserved for women.

The props used in Jatra plays are simple, and they are symbolic rather than realistic. One
and the same property might represent different things, depending on how the performers
use it. A chair might thus not only serve as a chair, but also as the steps of a river bank,
stair etc. Similarly, the bamboo poles along the sides of the stage may also represent
trees, etc.

Costume and Make-up

Visual effects are created through costume and make-up. The colour of the costume is
very important though the design of the costume is vague. The performers may be
dressed in a vague kind of period costumes or attire which bears no association with real
life. The make-up is awesome and powerful but not sophisticated and stylized. Earth
colours, chemical colours, white lead, and red paint are mixed with grease. Stripes and
lines on the face are drawn according to the character, the demons being particularly
fearsome with teeth painted at the upper lip. Every performer does his or her make-up. In
some palas, especially the religious ones, masks are used to create a special effect.

The music in Jatra is strongly influenced by Indian classical music. Music has played a
vital role in the shaping of the Jatra form, and despite changes over time the musical
flavour of the palas has been retained. In fact, the tune of the music determines the vocal
expressions of the performers.

Performance and acting style

It is a characteristic feature of the Jatra play (pala) that it starts with a climax. Thus, the
playwright (palakar) wants to catch the pulse of the audience by presenting a big or
dramatic event in the opening and not slowly take the story from a low pitch to a high. A
mythological play (Pouranic Pala) may thus start with the entry of a demon holding a
blood-dripping head and a historical play with the firing of a gun. Neel Kuthi, a soclo-
political play on the oppression of the Indigo planters, opens with the plantation owners
whipping the farm labourers.
In every pala, there is a stock character which is called vivek, meaning "conscience". The
vivek always sings serious songs, and it is always the finest singer in the company who
acts this character. He wears a robe of black, saffron or white. His movements are sharp
and conclusive.

The vivek enters the gangway running on the run, and disappears the same way. He has
the freedom to move around during the entire play and can appear in any scene - in a bed
chamber, in a king's court, in heaven, in hell, in a burning forest, in a street. When a main
character does something wrong, the vivek turns up to warn him through a song. He lives
in the past, present and future. The vivek is thus the shadow of every main character. The
vivek has also a definite dynamic function. Not only does he comment upon actions or
wrongdoings through his songs, but he also externalizes the feelings of the main
characters by raising questions to them as well as to the audience.

Jatra is a powerful form of theatre performed mainly in Bengal but also in Orissa and
Bihar. It has developed from its initial religious form into a mainly secular and
contemporary form. Mukundo Das, the most important playwright of political pala, can be
cited as an illustration of how Jatra was used to advocate against religious
fundamentalism. Some lines from his pala "Society" can be used as an example:

"Look my brother in what way you judge the caste

And creed of Brahmin, Ksatriya, Baishya, Hindu, Muslim,
Death will not spare you.
As long as you are living
You are judging the caste and creed.
But when you will come to the Ferry for sail
All of you will be on the same boat."
Influence of 'Jatra' :
Theatre in Calcutta or 'Bengali Theatre' emerged under the strong influence of European
Drama. The Bengalis had always been known for their refined tastes and cultural
pursuits. Before the onslaught of the Islamic Tribes, classical Sanskrit Theatre – the
proud heritage of the Indians since aeons, had started to deteriorate irretrievably.
Thereafter, umpteen forms of folk entertainment, popular plays etc. evolved and
flourished and were tremendously influenced by European dramatic techniques. 'Jatra'
was an extremely popular form of drama in Bengal and by the late 18th century, the new
style was completely absorbed by the avant-garde dramatists and 'Jatra' exponents.

The 'Jatra' format influenced the theme, style, dialogue and treatment of the Bengali
Theatre which was canopied by the occidental style. Eminent playwrights, critics and
intellectuals have accepted the 'Jatra' as a cultural medium with immense potential.
Gurudev Rabindranath Thakur had once written in the 'Bangadarshan' in 1902, "I like the
jatra of Bengal, as there is an no forbidding separation of the actors from the spectators.
There is an easy bond of mutual trust and dependence." In another place, Sishir Kumar
Bhaduri, the quintessential actor-director and pioneer of Bengali Theatre, exclaimed
pensively 'if our theatre had evolved from the 'Jatra', it would have been a different sort of
theatre, a true national theatre. But our theatre has grown under foreign influences.'

Influence of English Theatres :

The truth, however, is that even a century before Sishir Bhaduri's appearance on the
theatrical scenario, the English education, occidental outlook and mannerisms had
engulfed the educated elite class of the Bengali society. They detested the 'Jatra' as
cheap and parochial and had a high esteem of the British Theatre as the fittest means for
entertainment. The first English play house - 'The Calcutta Theatre' was constructed in
1775. (today's 'Lyons Range').

The following 80 years saw the foundation and shutting down of innumerable English
Theatres. Notable among them was the 'Chowringhee Theatre' (1813 – 39) from which
'Theatre Road' derived its name (today's Shakespeare Sarani). Another remarkable
theatre was the 'Sans Sonci' (1839) which had to be closed down in 1841 and gave away
to the St. Xavier's College of today.

These theatre companies were endowed with acting prodigies, even from British Theatre
viz. James Vining, Emma Bristow, Ms. Contey, Mrs. Deacle, Esther Leach etc. Initially,
these theatres – their audience and even door-keepers were Englishmen and Indians
were not allowed admittance. But from the early 19th century, the pan European theatres
were opened for 'natives' as well and became the haven of the elites and Anglicised
Bengalis. Prince Dwarakanath Thakur became one of the pioneers in founding the
Chowringhee Theatre and in August 1848, Baishno Charan Adhya, a native gentleman
played 'Othello' at the Sans Sonci. However, he was sneered at by the 'Calcutta Stars' as
a real, unpainted, nigger Othello.

The early 19th century shuffled the cultural scenario drastically and the evolving land
owners, opulent merchants and the new middle class, comprising salaried professionals,
small scale traders etc., took charge of the cultural arena of Bengal. They were
tremendously influenced by the English-medium schools, English outlook, beliefs and
institutions and became ardent advocates of English drama and Theatre. The 'Young
Bengal' generation enacted Shakespeare at the David Hare Academy and Oriental
Seminary. So, a new form of Bengali Theatre was in the offing.

First Bengali Plays and Productions :

There is a very interesting fact about the origin of Bengali theatre. A gifted Russian
scholar, Gerasian Debedeff (1749-1818), had staged the first Bengali play and not any
Bengali person. Debedeff adapted freely from 'The Disguise' by M. Jodrelle and 'Amour
Medicin' by Moliere with the help of his Bengali tutor Goloknath Das. This sumptuous
double-dish was served to the audience on 27th November, 1795 and 21st March, 1796,
at 'New Theatres' in Dovimtulla (today's Ezra Street). The auditorium with a capacity of
200 seats, was packed up on both nights. However, these noble efforts were fruitless as
Debedeff left India very soon.

It was Prasanna Kumar Thakur, at long last in 1832, who made a temporary auditorium
at his Narkeldanga residence. A handful of English plays were staged there. Then came
the landmark when Nabin Chandra Basu staged the first Bengali production at his
Shyambazar home theatre in 1835. The play staged there was 'Bidyasundar', based on a
story very popular with the then prevailing Jatras.

Influence of Sanskrit Plays :

Gradually, many makeshift private stages were built. In July, 1858, such a performance,
was watched by an odd 900 people despite the audience restrictions in those days. Most
of the plays staged then, were transliterations, mainly from Sanskrit. The first play staged
after 'Bidyasundara' was the translation of Kalidasa's 'Abhigyanam Shakuntalam' by
Nandakumar Roy. It was played at the house of Ashutosh Deb in Shimulia (Simla) in
1857. Tara Charan Sikdar and Jogendra Chandra Gupta had composed 'Bhadrarjun' and
'Kirtibilas' respectively in 1852. But these plays were never staged. Ramnarayan
Tarkaratna's 'Kulin Kulasarbasya', published in 1854 and enacted in March 1857 on a
temporary stage at Ranjoy Basak's house, was the first play to receive this glory. It was a
satirical play on contemporary social evils like polygamy, untouchability, caste system
etc. unlike the popular mythological plays in those days.

From the point of view of importance, two private theatres are worth mentioning. The
Belgachia Natyashala, built by the refined Rajas of Paikpara was a notable one. It was
inaugurated on 31st July, 1858 staging 'Ratnabali', adopted from a Sanskrit play by
Ramnarayan Tarkaratna. The other remarkable theatre was set up by the Thakurs at
Jorasanko which continued for a few decades. Rabindranath Thakur's early play 'Balmiki
Pratibha' was staged here for the first time on 21st February, 1881.

Jatras - Fiery Dramas Mesmerizing Dialogues

Jatras, the traveling theatre groups of Bengal have impressed the audience with their fiery
and energetic performances. The dialogues and acting are powerful and the make-up
exaggerated for maximum effect. This traditional folk form has held sway over the rural
population for centuries.

In Bengali literature of the middle ages the word yatra meant worship of god. Religious
ceremonies were marked by Natgeet or Yatra. The origin of Yatra dates back to the days of
Bharat Munis. Bharat Natyashastra, which has formed the basis of all drama in India, and
some associate it will the mythico-religious plays introduced in Bengal, by Shri Chaitanya
Mahaprabhu after his return from Mathura. This explains the name yatra pronounced the
jatra repertoire were invariably drawn from the Purans and the epics.

Jatras are traveling theatre groups which perform under the open sky. They are essentially
in the form of an opera with definite characteristics. It was initially written in blank verse and
presented to the rustic folk in the form on interesting stories and parables. Excerpts from the
Ramayana and Mahabharata and other famous religious episodes were recited with bodily
gestures and gradually this form was replaced by dramatic actions and dialogues. One of
the earliest jatras in this new mould was written by Paramananda Adhikari titled Kaliyan
Daman. The man who gave new shape to folk drama was krishan Kumar Goshwami. He
created the Krishna Jatra highlighting the exploits of Lord Krishna. There was not much
variation in the music which was mainly in the kirtan form. The instruments used were
mridangam, manjira, etc. But this form was not such a success for want of prose and
dramatic suspense. By the 20th century Krishan jatra, was on the wane, to be taken over by
Gopal Ure who developed the prose form with dramatic action which came to be known was
Natun Jatra or new jatra.

With the passage of time there has been a continuous evolution in the history of Jatra. To
begin with jatra was an integral part of folk life. The villagers could not visualize life without
the jatra. The zamindars and important persons of the village invited Jatra parties to perform
in their courtyard during festivals and ceremonies. The actors along with the Adhikaris, or
managers came in bullock carts covering long distances, villagers from distant villages came
on foot or carts to enjoy the performances. There was an air of festivity all round and small
shops were set up around the tents of the Jatra parties. The clever ones made some quick
money on these occasions. A jatra performance was a four to five hours experience. The
has now been curtailed. The impact of Jatra was so great that it took several days for the
audience to get over it.

The main attraction of the jatra was its orchestra. The harmonium, the flute the clarinet and
the drum beckoned the young and old as the performance was about to begin. This was a
kind of signature tune. It also set the mood for the main performance. The ladies of the
household along with other female companions watched jatra through thin bamboo curtains.
Greatly influenced by the rich Bengali tradition and literature, Jatra is one of the most
crystallized folk theater in India. Its themes and music have been drawn from folklore to
which an additional dimension of classical themes was added to contribute to its richness
and variety. The dramatic elements fulfilled the cultural needs of society. Writers and
Adhikaris would feel the pulse of the audience and introduce new trends.

Jatra has always been a loud, vigorous art form. The actor still remains what he was many
years ago all fiery and energetic, who has his feet firmly planted on a 16 feet square stage.
He makes a grand entry, holding his audience mesmerized with his powerful dialogues. His
stance gives him the status of a super human which is much appreciated and liked by the
audience. The pala or the written script provided enough action and excited verbal
exchanges to which the actor adds improvised bits which are extempore.

Joori or the double dressed in black pyjamas and long robes mughal style sits on the stage
voicing his opinion and reaction which helps in prolonging the jatra. The audience sits on all
foursides of the stage called Asar a gangway leads to the Saaj Ghar or Green Room and
there is a strip of vacant place for the live orchestra. Later Vivek or conscience was
introduced. He is an extension of a character moralizing and drawing conclusion after a
course of dramatic events as in a Greek chorus. Jatras also make use of comic relief like in
Greek plays. These are farcical in nature sometimes to the point of crudity. The comic relief
has another role to play other than providing light entertainment. It helps the actors to relax
and rest for the next course.

Make-up and costumes are richly sequined and gaudy for religious and h9istoric jatras. The
actors have to patiently sit for hours having their faces painted. The features are
exaggerated so that the audience can distinguish them from a distance. This is left to the
expertise of the make-up man who has no formal training but experience and constant
experimenting make him a skilled artist in his own right. The art of make up can be likened
to the long process in kathalkali.

Female impersonation was another feature of traditional Jatras. Men were fully equipped to
play the female role. Today although women are accepted, they find it difficult to adjust to
the stylized woman of Jatra. Male actors were trained to speak in a falsetto without sounding
harsh. Moreover as the director, producer Surya Dutta of the famous Natta Company has
rightly said, when a man acts as a woman it becomes art.

Music is the very essence of jatra, but it has undergone marked changes. Bharat Chandra
made his greatest contribution to this form by composing Biday Sunder, which is a major
landmark in the world of opera. The songs have a strong classical base. The Ragas used
most are Bhairavi Bhairav, Anana, Bagheshri and Behag according to the dominant mood.
By the middle of the century vulgarity and garishness had crept into the jatra which was not
easily accepted by the intellectual class. And for the first time Jatra underwent a sea change
thematically and musically. In the 20thRoy was the exponent of this new concept. Patriotic
feelings were kindly through his jatras. He also wrote historical plays which were packed
with revolts, war and spy themes in the format of Shakespearean plays. Old heroes of
Bengal were taken as the mainposer yatras on patriotic themes. But after his death this form
of jatra faded into oblivion.

After independence the changing aesthetic scene resulted in the change of techniques.
Themes on guerilla warfare or the lives of Ho Chi Minh and Lenin were performed but the
themes did not enhance the quality of the jatras, rather it detracted a great deal from the
traditional form. However there was a small appreciative audience for this form. In modern
jatras, dialogues have replaced verse and the rich old formal Bengali that had the flavour of
the soil of Bengal is being replaced by sophisticated polished film langage.

It is now time for experiments modern amenities and electricity have brightened up the stage
and the surroundings, though the fun of watching the jatra under the lanterns in the old times
was an experience never to be forgotten. The well lit stage has diminished the enchantment
and illusory, make believe world where the common man, leaving aside his mundane life,
could dwell for a few hours. Today, with microphones, the full throated dialogue delivery is
more controlled and theatrical. Electric gadgets like tape recorders and lighting have
definitely improved the impact of a jatra performance since the entire audience can now see
and hear the music and dialogue and lights cleverly build up the mood and the atmosphere.
One can recall he effects of jatras like Rifle and Jallianwala Bagh written by Utpal Dutta in
the 70s. the crowd would be reduced to hysterics shown the sound of machine guns
reverberated all round the stage. There was a continuous interaction with audience could
make or break an actor.

Jatra today is a big industry in West Bengal with an annual turnover of several crores. The
fee for each show for more than a hundred Jatra companies in Chitpur(Calcutta) varies
between Rs 5000/-and Rs.30,000/- per day. The average audience strength per
performance could be anything from 5000 to 20,000 people depending upon the particular
Jatra and the reputation of the company.

The work of the jatra companies starts immediately after the Rath Yatra. After the various
companies sign contracts and artistes, the rehearsal commences. The companies start
performing from Durga Puja(September) onwards. The performances go on for about six
months until the beginning of April. Nowadays many companies venture out of Bengal and
go to important cities for performances as the money is good and reaching out to a winder
audience means fame. The jatra actors, unlike most other traditional theatre-actor are taken
from all walks of life-who usually have no hereditary background of training. Many a famous
theatre actor from the city stage or films like Mukhopadhaya have been good jatra actors.
Today jatra is a highly professional industry, and can be compared to the Bengal tinsel world
in terms of money and professionalism. Great personalities like Utpal Dutta, Ajitesh
Banerjee, Anil Chatterjee and Tapash Sen are being signed by the Jatra companies.

It would be wrong to say that Jatra has been revived. Jatra was never forgotten, it never lost
its appeal. This traditional folk form has held sway over the entire rural population for many
centuries. Gradually it carved a place for itself in the sophisticated life of the Bngali Babu. In
the hustle and bustle of Calcutta many a jatra company has mushroomed in places where
one can reach through the serpentine lanes. It may not be impressive but it is a treasure
house of some excellent talent who are waiting to be discovered. Jatra has come a long way
from what it was but in essence it would remain the same for most of us and it should be our
endevour to keep it alive.

Songs sung blue


Songs have always been the lifeline of jatras, the folk theatre form that once enjoyed a
monopoly in the suburbs, industrial areas and villages. Jatras are still predominantly
musical but instead of original musical scores and lyrics, they are heavily dependant on
the big screen for performers as well as actors, for that is where the big money is. In spite
of these changes, jatra companies are still based in Chitpur.

A jatra actor prepares for his role. A Telegraph picture

Prabhat Kumar Das of Harikhali at Mahishadal in Midnapore East, whose passion is jatra
and who edits the Bohurupee and Sahitya Parishad journals, is tracing the history of jatra
in the 20th century to be published in book form. The research project is being funded by
the India Foundation For the Arts. Das’s interest in jatra stems from two biographical facts:
his father was the famous jatra actor Mukunda Das (professionally known as Ghosh) and
his father-in-law was the equally well-known female impersonator Kshitish (Rani) Biswas,
who in later life became a competent jatra manager.

Das says earlier jatra was known as geetabhinay or acting through singing. It was Motilal
Roy of Nabadwip Banga Gitabhinay, a contemporary of Girish Chandra Ghosh, who
modernised jatra by putting extra stress on dialogue. Earlier, as in musicals, the
exchanges between characters were also sung. Before Motilal Roy, Madan Master, who is
said to have been a teacher in Chandernagore, had introduced some change in the
presentation of songs. But it was under Motilal’s influence that jatra came closer to theatre.

The year 1872 witnessed the birth of professional Bengali theatre, and the first
performance was held in the house of Madhusudan Sanyal, now known as Ghariwala
Mallikbari in Pathuriaghat of Chitpur. Jatra was also evolving around this time. The role of
“bibek” or conscience was first introduced in Ahibhushan Bhattacharya’s pala (scripts)
Surat Uddhar. Haripada Chattopadhyaya’s Padmini pala was the first jatra based on
history. Earlier, all palas were inspired by tales from Puranas, or holy scriptures.
Around 1910, Mathuranath Saha tried to bridge the gap with theatre by recruiting well-
known playwrights and directors of plays. The acting style, music and costumes —
everything became modern, and jatra was now developing an independent identity much
to the chagrin of jatra lovers.

Around this time, jatra was undergoing a sea change and it moved further away from folk
theatre although the form gained wider popularity. Other jatra companies also began to
recruit from stage. Sisir Kumar Bhaduri joined the professional stage but he was one of the
strongest critics of theatrical jatras. Prabhat Kumar Das says Bhaduri was of the opinion
that if jatra had a greater influence on the local proscenium theatre instead of theatre from
foreign climes, there would have been greater scope for development. After Sarodotsab,
Rabindranath’s plays were markedly influenced by jatras. “Chitrapat noy chittapat” (Not a
painted image. Mental image), the poet used to say, as sets were never used in jatras.

Prabhat Basu of Sisir Bhaduri’s group introduced a modern mode of acting in jatra. Jatra
actors project a larger-than-life image as they are surrounded by viewers, and they have to
throw their voices to be heard from all sides. Now, instead of only being “heard”, jatras
were now meant to be “seen” as well, comments Das. The two Phanibhusan brothers,
both actors, and Bholanath Roy Kabyashastri, a jatra scriptwriter who died young, became
so popular that even theatre groups began to lure them.

In the early 1930s, Brajendra Kumar Dey, who was a masters in economics, opted to
teach in a school. On the advice of Jogesh Chandra Choudhury, who wrote plays for Sisir
Kumar Bhaduri and also acted in them, Brajendra began to write palas. Brajendra filled the
vacuum formed by the death of the famous scriptwriter Bholanath Roy Kabyashastri and
held sway over jatra till the 1970s.

Around this time, a great actor named Panchu Sen appeared on the scene. This was when
Surya Kumar Datta of Natya Company had come to Calcutta from East Bengal. This trio
modernised jatra. Brajendra exploited the potential of jatra as a medium of the education
of the masses and to convey the message of Hindu-Muslim amity. His scripts were based
on fictionalised versions of tales from history and the scriptures. Of his adaptations of the
Mymensinh Geetika, Sonai Dighi is an evergreen. Brajendra’s birth centenary was
celebrated in 2007. This pioneer introduced scripts based on social themes, a new brand
of humour and music. Earlier, some of Mukundadas’s scripts were also based on social
themes but these were forgotten.

After the Partition, Chitpur jatras were badly hit as the zamindari system was abolished
and East Bengal was out of bounds. But the jatra festival at Sovabazar Rajbari in 1961
revived the popularity of the form, which till then was considered declasse. Professional
theatre also tried to give jatra a boost. Rashbehari Sarkar, along with Biswarupa Natya
Unnayan Parshad, organised a jatra festival at Rabindra Kanan. Tapas Sen was called
upon to experiment with lighting, and microphones were introduced on a trial basis. Later
in the 1960s, Swapan Kumar used microphones for the first time in Michael Madhusudan.
Spotlights made their entry in Purnendu Sekhar Bandopadhyaya’s Swami Vivekananda.
Jatra went global in Amar Ghosh’s Hitler with Santigopal in the title role. Sound effects of
battles were in jatra for the first time. Jatras took out full-page adverts in newspapers.
Crowds swelled and became phenomenal.

This was also the heyday of female impersonators. These men added Rani to their names
and underwent gender change. Upen Rani, Nitai Rani, Haripada Rani, Chhabi Rani,
Satadal and Banaphool were the reigning queens. Although Chapal Rani in her Sitala role
is still famous, this tradition came to an end in the 1970s. In the mid-1950s Jyotsna Datta
had joined Satyambar Opera as a sakhi or a chorine and later became a top heroine along
with Bina Dasgupta.

Back in the 1968s, Utpal Dutt joined jatra. Some of his famous productions were Rifle,
Sanyasir Tarabari and Dilli Chalo. He may have favoured tradition but the stress was on
group acting.

Now few of the great jatra performers and directors are around, rues Das, and with big
budgets, the form is closer to cinema. Since sets were not used in jatras viewers had the
freedom to use their imagination. Now, with the introduction of spectacles jatras have
acquired a new dimension. Professional theatre is gone from Hatibagan forever. Jatra has
changed beyond recognition.