(Folk Theater Of India By Balwant Gargi - Continued)


Though the Jatra form is equally popular in Orissa and the eastern parts of Bihar (two bordering states), it originated in Bengal - the land of paddy fields, boatmen, saint-poets, Western industrialization, and social and political upheavals.  The mighty Ganges, shooting from the Himalayas, sweeps down the plains and nurtures Bengal until it lazes into the bay.  The monsoons burst and the rivers swell and the dark oily heat steams.  The climate, soil, and people have a moist richness.

The men are swarthy; the women are known for their luxurious black hair and shining black eyes.  Their songs, dances, and poetry have the gentle rhythm of swaying fields.  The towns and cities have developed a middle class with an intellectual edge which is characterized by the strong impulse of their tradition, language, and folk culture.

In the fifteenth century, when the Bhakti movement swept Bengal, devotees went singing and dancing in procession.  They sang in temple courtyards, narrating the events of their patron God's life, and expressed their devotion with frenzied acting.  The collective singing amidst the clang of gongs and fumes of incense produced a mass hypnosis and sent these singers into an acting trance.  This singing with dramatic elements gradually came to be known as "Jatra", which means "to go in a procession."

No record has been found of the earliest Jatra performance.  Pundits differ on the etymology and interpretation of the word.  Some quote ancient scriptures to link Jatra with the Natyasastra (the two-thousand-year-old holy book of dramaturgy ascribed to Bharata Muni) or to some dim distant event.  They spend more time debating the age and date of Jatra than trying to understand the aesthetics of this spectacle which dominates Bengal's rural areas and city squares, electrifying the spectators with an almost insane theatrical pleasure.

Of many controversial interpretations, one by Phani Bhushan Bidyabinod, the celebrated sixty-eight-year-old actor-director-writer, claims that the Jatra concept grew out of the musical enactment of an episode in Lord Krishna's life:  Krishna is leaving his foster parents and milkmaids in the woods of Vrindaban to start for Mathura in order to punish his uncle King Kamsa.  His march or jatra to Mathura has been celebrated in the palas (plays), and this heart-rending separation became the favorite theme of singers and players.  Later any pala about Krishna's life or about any other mythological hero was called Jatra.

The Vaishnava saint Chaitanya Deb (1485-1533), who preached the equality of man and the fraternity of the higher and lower castes, went into religious ecstasy as he sang and danced in the streets with his followers.  His disciple, Chandra Sekhar, describes in his master's biography how one day Chaitanya Deb decided to perform Rukmini Haran ("The abduction of the Charming Rukmini") from Krishna's life story, and asked his follower Sadashiva Buddhimanta Khan to make arguments, paying particular attention to the make-up and costumes of the different characters.  Special emphasis was laid on bangles, blouses, silken saris, ornaments.  Chaitanya played Rukmini, Krishna's wife.  His transformation was so complete "that nobody could make out that she is Master himself!" (The play was performed in Chandra Sekhar's house.  The performance, which lasted throughout the night, is described in detail in Chaitanya Bhagavata by Brindabanadasa Thakur.  This is the first historically known instance of a performance of Bengali Jatra.) Chaitanya Deb added to the existing Jatra the elements of make-up and costume.

Popular forms of dramatic singing and expressive acting from the sixteenth through the eighteenth century were: Jhumur (duet songs with a bit of dance and dialogue), Panchali (a performance by a single actor-singer), Kathakata (one actor singing a religious story), Keertan (devotional singing), and Kabigan (recitation).  These were tributaries that flowed into the Jatra form and enriched it.

In the eighteenth century Jatra has a sweeping popularity.  Famous pala writers on the Krishna theme included Paramanand Sen, a contemporary of Bharat Chandra (the late eighteenth-century poet who composed the famous Bidya Sundar poetic romance); the two brothers Sreedan Das and Subol Das; the singer-actor Badan Adhikari; the Sisuram Adhikari, a Brahmin by caste, who brought structural perfection to the Jatra.  The masses were hungry for this intensely emotional musical form.  Those who did not believe in the Krishna cult were fed on Rama, Shiva Jatra, and Chandi Jatra.  Historical romances and love stories were added to the repertoire.  The most famous was Bidya Sundar, the story of Princess Bidya and Prince Sundar, which started a new trend in the Jatra.  Many people wrote Bidya Sundar palas. These included passionate scenes of abduction, murder and horror.

By the close of the eighteenth century Bengal was completely under the East India Company.  The last ruler of Bengal, Nawab Siraj-ud-Daula, was defeated in 1757.  The British introduced permanent land settlements and a new system of government.  The rising gentry was prosperous.  Riches flowed, and with the new wealth came the desire for entertainment.  The gentry of Bengal invited the Jatra troupes for such festive occasions as the Ratha Puja and Durga Puja celebrations.(Photo : The guru beseeches Debi, the wife of his disciple Ruidas in Petiter Bhagawan.)

In the nineteenth century the Jatra repertoire swelled with love themes, erotic stories, mythological heroes, historical romances, tales of legendary robbers, saints, social reformers and champions of truth and justice, diluting its religious color.  The Jatra became secular and more contemporary in character.  As political consciousness grew, Jatra writers gave political coloring to their palas.  Mythological stories, fights between Good and Evil, symbolized the Indian masses and the British.  The Devil was dressed in the tight trousers and black jacket of the nineteenth century, and the Noble Prince wore the Indian dhoti.

Until the beginning of the twentieth century, the written text of a Jatra was in song and verse.  In actual production, the Adhikari (Stage Manager) introduced prose bits.  The actors spoke improvised dialogue.  Scenes of humor and the life of the lower strata were in spicy prose.  Still music and song dominated.  There were easily fifty to sixty songs in a Jatra, which started in the afternoon and lasted till sunrise.  Among the famous nineteenth-century Jatrawalas was Brajamohan Roy, who formed his Jatra troupe in 1872 and died four years later at the age of forty-five, leaving behind a number of successful plays, including 'Ramabhishek ("King Rama's Coronation").  Another famous Jatrawala of the period was the playwright-actor Motilal Roy, who introduced new energy into the acting style during the last quarter of the nineteenth century.  Roy (a contemporary of Girish Ghosh, the founder of the professional Bengali stage) toured Bengal with his Jatra troupe, carrying forward the tradition.

Jatra underwent changes in every period - thematically and musically - but it retained its special flavor.  With the advent of films and the growth of a powerful realistic acting tradition in the professional theater, Jatra suffered a setback.  More and more prose was being used in the palasThe form fell into disrepute because of excessive use of murder, horror, and erotic elements.  The vulgarity of the comic scenes was condemned by the middle class, the leaders of the Bengali intellectual revolution.  Realistic portrayals of life in films with songs and dances fed the music-hungry audiences and partially replaced their lust for Jatra.

But Jatra never died in the rural areas.  Even in Calcutta where it was suppressed, it cropped up in night in various squares and alleys.  There is hardly a Bengali who in his childhood has not sat for hours watching the colorful Jatra. (Photo : The guru on his knees beside Debi)

Today a Jatra pala, lasting four hours, consists of action-packed dialogue with only six to eight songs.  Still it retains its musical character.  People wait for the songs, which in their popularity compete with those from films.  Among the people the form retains its name, "jatragan," which means "musical jatra."  When a Bengali goes to see a performance he says that he is going to "listen to" a Jatra.  The actor who delivers monumental prose speeches says that he is going to "sing a Jatra".  

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