Bengal’s Jatra: Conscience comes calling!

Picture this: Bodolpur is a village with an agrarian population of about 15,000 in the rural belly of West Bengal. A patch of land, set amid a lush green off-set, is the centre of attraction for the villagers with a giant tarpaulin canopy erected smack in the centre of the ground. Posters on bamboo staffs show a middle-aged woman emoting a rebel.

A man with a hand-mike atop a cycle-van relentlessly hollers out the name of the Jatra to be staged that evening. Children of all sizes and shapes chase the van repeating the announcer and break into a jig as a song is being played out on the loud speaker. Its festive time!

People come out in hordes to buy their slice of the show and steep themselves in a play soaked with social and political messages. For this is their source of entertainment. This is their source of knowledge. This is their salvation point.

This is Jatra in West Bengal. Jatras, the traveling theatre groups of Bengal have impressed the audience with their fiery and energetic performances for ages now. Dialogues loaded with rural dialect, powerful acting and exaggerated make-up create a magical impact. This traditional folk form has held sway over the rural population for centuries. It’s no different today.

Now Picture this: It sure is not the urban passion, but contrary to what most of the people think Jatra’s holy grail is the heart of the city.

Our city’s Jatra para on Rabindra Sarani, in Kolkata, is an amusing collage of sights, sounds, attitudes and habitats. The cramped opera offices lining the streets, the hectic activities around the booking tables, flashy dream girls staring down from gigantic hoardings, loud titles and diverse social themes—they are all a riot of colours.

The medium’s exaggerated style never suited the subtle tastes of the culturally refined Kolkatans, but jatra still wins hands down as the medium of the masses. Hence, the flurry of activities here in this two kilometer stretch of the city.

Rabindra Sarani, Sovabazar and parts of Beadon street make up for the nest of Jatras in Bengal. Though mostly the theatrics are played out of the rural belly the rehearsals and conditioning happen in the back alleys of the city in dingy rooms, quaintly lit with low power lamps and an air filled with the moistened smell of the city.

Recently, artistes from mainstream cinema and theatre are foraying into this traditional folk theatre. While seasoned actors like Shatabdi Roy, Tapas Pal, Chiranjeeb and even the likes of Chinmoy Roy, Supriya devi are seen entertaining the rural belly of Bengal, some of the operas bargain in Bollywood stars like Shakti Kapoor, Raza Murad, Deepika and Anil Grover for special nights.

Star Opera spokesperson Badal Pal has gone on record saying, “Jatra has always drawn cinema artistes not just from the Bangla film industry but also from Mumbai. People like Raza Murad, Tollywood actress Moon Moon Sen and Bangladeshi actress Rozina have acted in palas.”

So how does Jatra operate? Well the offices in Kolkata form the showcases. The agents come here every mid-week and collect banners, posters, tickets, booking manuals and commission forms. The Secretary is usually the man in charge, who maintains a ledger of all bookings and shows. He also acts as a publicity officer deciding on paper inserts and ordering huge cutouts of the faces that form the banner of the pala or play

Once the agents leave, it is up to them to talk to local clubs to fix up venues for the pala to take place. The agent’s job is to haggle with the organizers to get the best deals and consecutive nights in one district. That means profit for the Opera company and higher commission rates for him.

Each opera company has its productions running for at least 80 to 100 shows in a year with each production selling for an average of Rs 25,000 to Rs 35,000 per show. The “hit” factor is determined by the number of bookings that the opera houses grab and of course on the sale of tickets for the shows.
And unmistakably the popularity of jatra, despite the onslaught from television, video halls and rural cinema shanties, is on the rise. “We had to adapt our productions to suit modern taste. But the industry has survived the onslaughts of cinema and television,” says Ratan Mistri, an agent who travels to get the bookings done.
Even 20 years ago, only 15 companies constituted the jatra industry, with each running around 250 palas (shows) annually. “At present, we have around 50 companies in our industry, with each running around 80 to 100 shows annually,” he says adding, “This means more business for us also. Moreover, some of the companies have multiple banners to launch productions and have gone into tie-ups with private sponsors.”
The Ratha Yatra flags off the new jatra season each year with the companies officially launching their productions. This year the season opened to a social play reflecting the condition of the state.
This biggest social play is on the theme of Maa Maati Maanush, a term coined by the jatras three decades back and brought to fashion by Trinamool Supremo Mamata Banerjee.

The theme has been replicated in different forms and rhymes by several Operas, including Bengal’s top two– Bhairab Opera and Shilpilok Opera— and all these amidst giant cutouts of Mamata Banerjee, that stand out weaved amid lamp posts and beeline of shops.

The industry, which has a yearly turnover of about Rs 15 crore, seems to have joined hands with Mamata Banerjee in her call for sweeping reforms in rural Bengal.

Ma Matir Lorai (Struggle for Mother and Land) — a jatra produced by popular group Silpilok Opera — is based on the Singur agitation and its chief protagonist shares many characteristics with Mamata Banerjee.

“The main character, Mallika, is a village girl who fights against land acquisition. Her father is killed by the administration as he decides not to give away the land and she takes up his cause to stop forcible land acquisition. The script writer also refers to incidents like Tapasi Malik’s murder,” says Kali Ghosh, proprietor of the Opera.

“Jatra has always been the conscience of rural Bengal. When the communist movement was taking shape, Jatras in rural Bengal took the cause of the poor. My Opera did as many as four plays. Now over the last three decades a lot has changed,” Ghosh added.

During the communist movement, his Opera among other Jatras produced plays like “Nissabdha Abhijaan” (Silent Odyssey). However, the biggest of them all Natta Company, rechristened as Bhairab Opera, produced plays like “Rokte Dhowa Dhan” (Blood Bathed Paddy) and Padodhonni (Footsteps of Change) signaling change in rural Bengal some 30 years back.

These plays were penned and directed by Bhairab Gangopadhyay, a legend in his own right in the world of Jatra.

He also wrote a play in 1975 titled “Ma Maati Manush”. Mamata Banerjee is said to have coined her slogan from this play and Bhairab Gangopadhyay’s son Meghdeep Bandhopadhyay has rewritten the script to suit the modern times.

“My father Bhairab Gangopadhyay had written the script for the jatra that was performed 600 times. It was also aired on Doordarshan and Vividh Bharti. The script was about the time when the Left Front came to power, defeating the Congress. Times are changing and I think this is the perfect time to rework the script,” says Meghdeep Gangopadhyay.

The state government on its part has set up the Phanibhushan Bidyabinod Jatra Mancha in Baagbazar making it the first permanent auditorium for staging jatras.
But like everything Jatra is also changing with more pyrotechniques, orchestra, and modern stage decoration coming in. But at the end of it all, jatra is about the conscience of rural Bengal, dramatically caller Bibek, rising out of the heart of the city.

Let’s move on to a rehearsal room in north Kolkata–the lights in the room dim. An usher popularly called Bibek (Conscience) talks about a political turmoil in Bengal. A woman runs into the centre of the room shouting a soliloquy…”Pariborton chai, pariborton asche…” (We want change…change is coming).

So is there change in the air for jatras also? The answer, my friend is blowing in the wind!!

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