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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 jatra in Bengali symbolizing lord krishna’s 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 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 20th century, Lord Curzon’s 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. Gandhi’s 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.