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 jatra in Bengali symbolizing lord krishnas
journey from Vrindavan to Mathura. For hundreds of years the most
popular themes in 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
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
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 20th century, Lord Curzons
partition of Bengal (protest) led to the Swadeshi movement. A
patriotic strain entered the themes. D.L.Roy 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 main protagonists of the jatras. Gandhis
non-cooperation movement influenced Mukunda Das the actor, writer
director, singer to composer 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.