Although this highly traditional medium of entertainment faces threats from modern theatre and other forms of entertainment, the story of this specific journey, and the way it has served the population, is truly intriguing.
Unlike the theatre shows that are popular among urban audiences, jatra palas (“pala” means show) are held on stages that are open on all sides, and mostly take place in rural areas. In a pala, there is no use of artificial lighting and hardly any props, with actors depending on their emotive dialogue and body language to tell their stories.
“The performers have to entertain using only their acting. The jatra artist must express emotion through his body, movements, facial expressions and the power of their voices. These actors need to speak with intensity and exaggeration, so the force of his emotion can reach the audience. That is where the challenge lies,” says MA Mojid, joint secretary of Bangladesh Jatra Shilpo Unnayan Parishad, and secretary of Bangladesh Jatra Palakar Parishad.
The beginning of the journey
Jatra initially came into being through religious leaders who travelled to different places to spread their teachings. It is said that the worship of the God Krishna by religious leader Gourango Mahaprabhu in the sixteenth century gave birth to jatra, the art form considered to be popular folk theatre today. The evolution of jatra was also influenced by the beginning of religious processions like dol jatra, roth jatra, and snan jatra. Through dynamic singing and dancing, the enactment of the Leelas (games) of Krishna from the Hindu scriptures was the original face of folk theatre.
“During the rule of Nawab Hussain Shah in the sixteenth century, jatra reached the peak of popularity in the Indian subcontinent,” says MA Mojid.
However, jatra in the Bangla language was first performed much later, at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Bard Mukunda Das popularised jatra by using it as a tool of the Swadeshi Movement, the independence movement aimed at taking power away from the British Empire.
Finally, Shri Brajendra Kumar, who is famously known as the “Pala Samrat” (theatre king), popularised jatra and brought it to a wider audience in the 1960s, which is considered as the golden period of jatra in Bengal, according to Mojid.
Theatre season in Bangladesh
Generally, jatra pala start being performed on the Maha Saptami (seventh day) of Durga Puja, and the season for jatra ends on the last day of the Bengali month Chaitra, which is 13 April. However, a jatra pala is also held on the occasion of Pohela Boishakh nowadays, as part of the celebrations.
“The rules do not weaken the connection between jatra palas and Pohela Boishakh. On the occasion of Pohela Boishakh, different cultural organisations hold fairs at different points of the country, and jatra palas are an attraction there, though they are not officially part of the seasonal shows, and are considered shoukhin [leisurely] not seasonal,” says Mojid.
In 1994, the Institute of Fine Arts (Charukola) at Dhaka University first held a jatra pala on university premises. Since then, every year at least one pala is performed at the Bokul Tola by students and teachers of Charukola.
The threat of modernity
With time, there have been changes to the performances and presentations in jatra. According to MA Mojid, the musical instruments used are more modern now, and electricity is also being used to bring some level of changes in the lighting.
These changes have seeped into jatra to make it more relevant to modern audiences, since the demand for jatra and the regularity of performances has fallen dramatically in the last few decades. However, some of these stylistic changes are considered to have been for the worse, and have threatened the very existence of the folk art.
“In 1975, a campaign started for familiarising farmers with modern technologies and equipments of agriculture. In order to do so, fairs were held on a small scale at the suburbs and small towns where farmers would travel to from villages. Jatra, circus and puppet shows were held in those fairs regularly,” says Mojid.
“However, to attract more audience and expand business, a group of unscrupulous jatra troupe owners started adopting vulgar dances. They hired girls from outside the troupe to perform these naked and obscene dances. Gradually, jatra earned a reputation as a vulgar dance show among the rural population, who started thronging to these shows after evening and used the spot for drinking and gambling,” Mojid adds.
Habib Sarwar, who was worked as a jatra actor and a director for 24 years, retired in 2012 after being fed up with this modern trend, and the repurcussions that came with it. The 62 year old actor and director used to work for New Gonesh Opera, a jatra troupe based in Dhaka.
“Because of such ill practices, the district commissioners and police stopped giving permission to jatra troupes for putting up shows. Naturally, we had to curb our number of performances during a season, as a result of which, we earned very little throughout the year. I used to get paid for three or four months in a year. The juniors are in even more vulnerable economic conditions. Still, as an actor I love jatra and will continue doing so contractually,” he says.