Jatra- the unforgotten pride of Bengal
The tall fair man stepping down the stairs from his studio is Dilip Babu, the doyen of Jatra industry of
Bengal. Through a mutual friend, he agreed to meet me at
The housekeeper ushered me to a sofa set at the corner and looked at the big grandfather clock, said, “He would come down in another few minutes for having tea with you.”
I could hear clearly even from this sitting hall, his baritone voice reciting from famous scene of Jatra “Karna-Kunti sambad.”
Age failed to erode the resonating bass of the voice that still could mesmerize thousands of audience surrounding the podium open on all four sides.
Jatra is the popular folk theater form of Bengali theater spread throughout the Bengali speaking areas of
India and similar to Tamasha of Maharashtra.
These drama groups travel from one performing place to another.
The musicians, playing the background music to heighten the overall dramatic effect of the performances, sit on two sides of the stage and perform jointly playing Dholok, pakhwaj, harmonium, tabla, flute, Violin etc.
In most of the Jatras there is a common character Vivek (conscience), who in between the play, comments on the action of actors and their consequences.
We became friends before the tea arrived and who said Dilip babu was full of ego?
Dilip babu said, “I understand, you have some queries on Jatra for your upcoming novel. But let me tell you, my answers shall be on the basis of whatever I overheard and learned through my thirty years involvement in Jatra”
“That shall be great for me. Bookish knowledge is always less than practical knowledge. I want to know what made the Jatra so different from the popular form of Theater.”
“You see, Jatra has its roots in the deep core of rural
villagers while ploughing, fishing, boat rowing etc. keep on singing in
individual typical tune. It could be to inspire and or entertain the teammates.
These popular lyrical performances formed the very basis of Jatra. Unlike the Theater, although this is not dance-drama but dance and songs appear frequently and relevantly but never as a filler in between the play. In fact, most of the important parts of the drama the dialogues are lyrical and go up and down as per the required scale of the tune. Good Jatra artists are mostly born mediocre singers but still take lessons in classical singings besides learning basics of Jatra acting.”
I said “Dilip da, Jatra is now on the wane of popularity. Why So?”
I knew by asking this daring question, I might be thrown out. His eyes glared for a moment but instead of saying "OUT" asked me
“How do you say so?”
“The crowds of Nayeks on Rathjatra day are gradually reducing. In rural areas, the Jatra arrangers even by push selling, expect to get at the best only two thirds responses that too for the most hit Palas (dramas) of the year”
There was a Phone call. He looked at the call number and said, “Excuse me for few minutes. Have one more cup of tea.”
I avoided saying another rather rude point. That time was almost the
season. Even five years back, it would have been difficult for the top Jatra
artist like him to chat with me even at the onsite green room of Jatra. peak of Jatra
In 2001, there were more than 200 companies (now reduced to 58 only) in Chitpore of Kolkata employing about 20,000 people. The “Adhikaries (owner/director) in their “Gaddis” (office) were always busy talking with Nayeks (booking agents) and sorting out an optimized date suitable for both. The opening day of bookings was Rathjatra (Chariot festival of Lord Jagannath in June) and by evening of that day, almost cent percent of the best time slots were booked by the Nayeks arriving from all corners of Bengali speaking areas of
This year although the active Jatra companies are only fifty-eight, even on the Rathjatra day the booking response was nowhere near the figure of even five years back.
Dilip babu returned with a tall glass of brown color liquid. The smell of the liquid was sufficient to guess that he was neither drinking black tea nor cold drink but Rum.
As he offered me one and as soon as I shook my head, he immediately poured from that glass to refill his glass.
He apparently looked disturbed. I overheard just then he was angry with someone on the last phone call for cancellation of a show.
“Yes, what the Nayeks told you for the present status of Jatra?”
I said, “I hear not only from them but also from the villages where I moved for the subsurface ground water exploration. People in general are saying that Jatra is limping before TV serials and just released pirated movies from the internet available at the comfort of home.”
His baritone voice barked, “That is half the truth. Few years back, in the name of modernization most of the new owners of Jatra brought the TV and/or Film actors with Xerox copies of the scripts of serials and films along with light and sound effects. There were few initial successes, but ultimately audience rejected them.
These people neglected the basic format of Jatra. The audience surrounds all four sides open podium at the centre. Acting requires voice throwing synchronized with the body movement such that audience facing the actors from front, sideways and back gets equal opportunity to be connected with the actors. The scripts copied from cinema or TV serial based on another format of acting could not match. The actors from these industries failed to act in the style of Jatra.”
I said, “That’s what I heard. People told me that they came to see Jatra, not a TV serial or film. They can see that at the comfort of the home and why unnecessary pay money for ticket.”
He gulped his remaining rum and said, “Years before, there were sponsors like Tea garden owners, Miners, village chiefs for the Jatra shows and the entry was free. But now people have to pay a lot. So surely they want to see Jatra but not a poor remake of Tv serial or cinema.”
I bravely asked, “What do you think can make Jatra revive.”
He thought for a while and said, “Just get me one Script writer and lyricist like Brojen Dey or Vairav Gangly. This industry has still now veterans like us and young dedicated talents who can still make Jatra back to its Golden days.”
I said “Gate crash crowd of audience…”
Before I could complete he said, “ Not only that, After our performance, the dialogues and the songs would move from lips to lips of common people. That is the success and our pleasure. A Jatra artist does not hanker for money like those migratory birds of TV and Cinema who ruined this industry.”
Leaving his house, at a crowded traffic junction, some one’s car radio was playing the Famous “Sonai Dighi” of Brojen Dey. Even if the signals, turned amber, like me, many of the people at the wheels listening to the Jatra forgot to switch on the engine. Brojen babu can still make the Jatra to come back to it’s golden days. Jatra is yet the unforgotten drama pride of Bengal