jatra1A JATRA actor can be recognized by the way he stands – a tilted tower. He does not held himself back but throws his weight forward. Passionate, charged with energy, he explodes into fiery dialogue. He moves like a tornado in the small arena. In spite of continuous action, he has a firm grip on the ground.

A two-and-a-half-foot raised platform sixteen feet square is the stage, the asar. The orchestra is seated on two ramps, each six inches lower than the platform and running parallel on opposite sides. On one side are the percussion players with drums, cymbals, and bells. The other side holds the flutist, violinists, clarinetist, harmonium player, and two trumpeters. Huge bulbs, fastened to four poles pitched at the four corners of the asar, illuminate the stage and the sweat-soaked faces of the spectators. The women sit on one side, as in temple gatherings; the men squat on the other three sides. The boys huddle near the rim of the stage. Strings of lights run diagonally across the canopied arena. Here and there are neon tubes throw bluish gleams.

The only property on the stage is a chair. This can represent a throne, a bench, a log of wood, a prisoner’s seat, a tower. Women going to bathe in a river put their clothes on it, and it becomes the steps of thejatra2 ghat. Other properties are brought in and removed by the actors themselves. If dramatic necessity requires, a stagehand seated among the musicians saunters up the asar, pick up the properties, and disappears.

A gangway, bordered by short bamboo strips and thin ropes, runs from one corner of the stage to the dressing room, sixty feet away, which is embellished with a silk curtain bearing the name of the company in red and gold script. Through this gangway the actor enters and exits. At important moments it becomes a part of the acting area. If the heroine separates from her lover, she walks haltingly down the gangway speaking her last lines. If a comedian-servant is spurned by his master, he makes his unwilling exit through the gangway, making the audience roar at every step as he whines and gibbers. The gangway can serve as street, or temple path, or highway. Marriage parties, funeral processions, and armies march down it. Standing on this gangway the Vivek, a stage character representing the Conscience, sings out the inner Conscience, sings out the inner conflict of a character and warns him of impending doom. Theatrically he gives the play another dimension by being on a different spatial level. His words assume a foreboding note, as if voiced in a dream – a whisper that has a terrifying clarity.

The gangway is in some respects reminiscent of the hanamichi (flower path) of the Kabuki theatre of Japan, a four foot-wide polished wood path, flanked by small lights, that runs from the stage proper through the spectators to the back of the auditorium. Important entries and exits are made through it. It is an extension of the rectangular stage and at times serves as another acting area. At climatic moments the actor stands on it and strikes a pose – a mie – which in film terms would be a close-up. The Jatra gangway in some ways serves the same function.

Sometimes while the actor is on the gangway, visually and psychologically present, his exit is overlapped by the entry of another actor who immediately becomes engaged in action on the stage. The overlapping gives the Jatra performance continuity. The actors do not have to disappear completely in the wings as in Western representational theatre.


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.

jatra3In 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 jatra4suffered a setback. More and more prose was being used in the palas. The 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”.
The main play is preceded by preliminaries.

The musicians sitting on opposite sides of the asar start with a classical evening melody – shyam kalyan, Bihag, or poorbi. This orchestral piece, longer than the one that follows, is the “first concert.” After a few minutes the musicians start the “second concert,” a light, tripping melody which warns the actors and the audience that the play is about to begin. A quick musical flourish ends the concert, and a group of boys dressed like girls streams in from the gangway and begins to dance. If the actors are still busy making up, the group dance is followed by a solo dance. (Photo : The actor playing the Demon in Bhuler Mashool has painted teeth on his upper lip)

jatra5After this comes an episode from the life of Krishna, or Shiva or the Goddess Durga. A popular pattern is following. a demon worshipping Shiva sits in yogic meditation. Shiva is pleased and grants a boon. The power-drunk Demon gets up to destroy the world, including Shiva himself. Many gods come one by one to defeat the Demon, but he is unconquerable. Ultimately the goddess Durga appears and kills the Demon. The fight ends in a tableau. Durga, with her ten hands, her gory tongue sticking out, stands triumphant astride her tiger. The other gods freeze into a silent action picture.

This piece includes acrobatics, sword fighting, wrestling, and feats of jumping and tumbling. It serves as a ritual of the triumph of Good over Evil and blesses the players and the spectators.

In earlier times the stage was at ground level. Slowly it developed into a two-and-a half-foot-high raised platform so that the squatting masses could see the arena and the foot movements. The actors speak rapidly. There is seldom need for prompting, but a prompter sits on the ground on one edge of the arena and in between the long dialogues he whispers a word here and there. He is a safety net. In his large hand-written manuscript songs are generally inscribed in Indian red, the names of the dramatic characters in bold vermilion, and the text in blue ink.The play always starts with a climax. At the time when the audience may be bored by the long preliminaries, the boys scrambling for a good seat, and women gossiping, it takes a powerful stroke to alert them.

A Puranic play might start with the entry of a demon holding a dripping head. The historical Samrat Zahandarshah (“The Emperor Zahandarshah”) opens with a firing of a gun. Bargi Elo Deshe (“The Maratha Invasion of Bengal”) begins with the invaders looting the people. Neel Kothi (“The Oppression of Indigo Planters”) opens with the plantation owners whipping the farm laborers. Banglar Bodhu (“The Bride of Bengal”) starts with two groups quarreling over a disputed land. The Jatra playwright knows that the people must be dazzled, struck, shocked by a big event in the opening and not slowly taken from a low pitch to a high. The climatic beginning silences the murmuring crowd.


jatra6The Jatra actor has a sense of composition and speech delivery. He is superbly aware of the four-sided audience and is sturdily graceful from all angels. There is speed, action, flamboyance.

Sharp turns in mood, abrupt flares and sudden drops in pathos are underlined by the orchestra. Drums clatter and thump and rumble. The trumpeters blow, and the flute player weaves a tapestry of notes suiting the occasion. Background music, which the Bengali films introduced in the thirties, has long been a specialty of Jatra. The singing is always done by the actor and not by the musicians. In this the Jatra differs from most folk theaters where the Swami or the Ranga or the Bhagavatha or the Ramayani sing the lines for the actor and sometimes repeat the song for him. This is perhaps because in Yakshagana, Veedhi-natakam, and Tamasha the actors are required to do a great deal of dancing, which is at times so vigorous that they are out of breath and must be represented by the singing chorus. They may also be engaged in abhinaya (expressive miming) which requires the singer to tell the story and comment. In Jatra today, the function of the chorus or singing voices has been suspended.

Every actor does his own make-up. In the dressing room – a thatched enclosure three times larger than the stage – the actors sit cross-legged in rows with their make-up boxes. Glittering garments, silken saris, laced tunics, and wigs of many shapes and colors hang on the clothes line. The figure of the patron god or goddess, generally Krishna or Durga, is present, lighted by a small earthen lamp fed by ghee.

The actors use white lead, amber grease, and lamp soot to give an oily sheen to the face. Demons, brutal generals and villains have intricate designs. Black stripes, crisscross lines, red streaks, and white knobs transform the actor into a fiendish character. His exterior is so awesome that it seems to be unreal. This gruesome unreality makes the spectator constantly consciousness of the presence of a theatrical reality.

The use of make-up is ingenious. In the Navaranjan Opera Company the actor playing the Demon in the preliminaries of Bhuler Mashool (“Punishment for an error”) snarls and gnashes his teeth during a sword fight. His upper lip is painted with white teeth, and as he purses his lip and squints his eyes in pain, the painted lip looks like a set of teeth bared in a groan. The Cobbler Saint in the Natta Company’s Petiter Bhagwan (“God of the Fallen”) is played by the young actor Swapan Kumar Mukherjee. His spiked beard is a painted pattern of ink-black streaks. This austere nonrealistic make-up achieves power, boldness and concentration.

The actors come from all classes – farmers, laborers, fishermen, clerks, peddlers, middle-class businessmen. In this respect, Jatra is unlike the folk theater of Tamasha, Bhavai, Therukoothu, and Raslila, in which the profession of actor is hereditary and confined to special castes.

Traditionally, all roles have been played by male actors. Some play young heroes, some vicious villains, some comic fools, some the Vivek (Conscience), and some specialize in female roles. Recently some women have also joined the Jatra companies.

The tradition of having men play the parts of women is common in the Asian theater and commands respect. The onnagata of Japan have evolved over three centuries a stage woman that is impossible for the best jatra7Japanese actress to replace. In the Peking Opera, Dr Mei-lan Fang set the style of the graceful Chinese woman. Thirty years ago Peking women went to see Mei-lan Fang to copy his female grace. In India the leading male player of female roles during the twenties was Bal Gandharv, now eighty year old, who has been honored throughout Maharashtra for his services to the Marathi stage. Jayashankar Sundari of the Gujarati stage was also highly praised as a female type. Padmeshri Sthanam Narasimharao of Andhra was envied by women for his female charm and sex appeal. Talking about his memorable role of Moghul Emperor Aurangazeb’s daughter, who disguised myself as a prince, the natural thing for me would have been to be completely the young prince – easier for me since I am a man. But no. I had to be three persons at the same time. While playing the part of the handsome prince I retained the lyrical suppleness of princess to show that in reality this was the princess in disguise. I had to be myself, the prince, and the princess.”

The tradition resulted from the feudal social order in which women were kept in a lower place. In Japan and China, up to the time of World War II, women were considered inferior to men. Manu, the ancient supreme lawgiver of the Hindus, emphasized that a woman was never equal of man. After the Muslims conquered India in the thirteenth century the position of women deteriorated further. For centuries women have been cloistered and not allowed to appear on the stage, while the men who played female roles developed a highly stylized interpretation of women. Today, although women are accepted in the theater, they find it difficult to adjust their own femaleness to the stylized “woman” of Jatra, and men are still the best “women” in Jatra. (Photo : Sunil Roy (Satadal Rani) playing the bewitching heroine in Bhuler Mashool)

Because of revolutionary social changes in the theater and films, the common man demands a woman actress to play the female roles; the urban middle class is completely taken over by the image of the glamorous actress. The Jatra male “actress” must fight a hard battle, depending solely upon his mastery if the art if acting, Many Jatra troupes now admit dancers, courtesans, and film extras, but none of these has become a star actress. It is difficult for a woman’s voice to reach a crowd of five thousand spectators, whereas the male “actress” is trained to speak in falsetto without sounding harsh. In some Jatra companies there are mixed casts: of seven “female” players, three may be men and four women. The leading lady, however, is always played by a male.

The director-producer Surya Dutta of the Natta Company, a shriveled old man of eight-four, has spent sixty-six years in the Jatra. Discussing the aesthetics of acting, he said: “It is no art if a woman plays a woman. When we represent a lame or cross-eyed man onto the stage. Theatrical enjoyment lies in the fact that an able-bodied man is limping and squinting. The natural thing is not the natural thing on the stage. When a man acts as a woman it is art!”

Hari Gopal Das, thirty-two, is the best emotional “actress.” In the role of Debi, wife of the cobbler saint Ruidas in Petiter Bhagwan, he plays a victimized woman with voluptuous charm. He has twenty years of experience behind his feminine grace and wifely pathos. After watching the show I went into beards and thick make-up. Hari Gopal Das was introduced to me. He still looked the bewitching wife. He held out his hand and I shook it, but when I wanted to embrace him, in appreciation of his art, I became embarrassed because he looked so stunningly feminine.

Most actors add the suffix Rani (graceful lady) to their name to distinguish themselves as female artist. Subal Mahanta, a farmer of Midnapur who was a star “actress” twenty years ago, was known by his feminine name Subal Rani. Shyamapade Chakravarty style himself Chhabi Rani, and Sunil Roy, who plays an amorous princess or a coquettish wife, is famous as Satadal Rani. These actors do not grow their hair long or walk down the street with an affected gait. Most of them are married and lead a completely normal family life. When one sees them off the stage, it is difficult to believe in their transformation. (Photo : The cobbler saint Ruidas meets his long-absent wife Debi, played by actor Hari Gopal Das)

jatra8The most highly paid Jatra actor today is Phani Bhushan Motilal, popularly known as Chhota Phani (younger Phani). He earns 3,300 rupees ($695) per month. He started his career at twelve as a chorus dancer, appeared in the role of a singer-dancer, played female heroines, and later specialized in heroic roles. Today, at sixty-two, he still plays the young hero. His most famous roles are Siraj-Ud-Daula, the patriotic and last ruler of Bengal who was defeated by the British in 1757; Viswa (Bhishma), the epic hero of the Mahabharata who took a vow to remain celibate throughout his life; and Bharata, the half-brother of Rama who did not accept the throne when his mother had Rama banished for fourteen years. Because Chhota Phani specializes in one type of role – the young, noble hero – many critics do not consider him a great actor, but within his narrow range he has tremendous power. I would prefer seeing a traditional Jatra actor always playing the heroic youth or the old father or the bewitching queen just as I enjoy seeing the Kathakali master Krishna Nayar playing Keechaka, and Raman Kutty playing Hanuman – roles that require specialization and years of discipline. Chhota Phani – a thin, bald sallow-skinned fellow – takes on height and weight the moment he enters the asar. His voice, his stance, his movements have a stunning appeal. His popularity is tremendous. If he is scheduled and does not appear in the show, even the peace-loving Bengalis may grow violent and resort to brickbatting, or may set the canopied arena on fire. The audience did in fact burn an auditorium in Kakadip Village in 1963 when Phani did not turn up.

Starting life as an orphan, Chhota Phani strode to success. He is known for his money-extracting habits (sometimes he is reported to have charged taxi fare after traveling by bus) and is a terror to the proprietors. He is 100 percent professional. He takes his breakfast at eleven in the morning, sleeps till seven, and wakes up only two hours before the show. Oblivious to what is happening in the world, he is concerned with his role, his pay and his audience. Out of spite the proprietors of Jatra troupes call him “the snake” (Phani means “snake). (The name Phani Bhushan means “one who wears the snake as an adornment,” that is Shiva.)

Phani is a popular in the Jatra world. Apart from the two leading Phanis, Bara and Chhota (Big and Small), there are at least ten more Phanis, all reasonably famous. The one in the Natta Company is Phani Bhattacharya, who plays the Queen Mother in Petitier Bhagawan.

Bara Phani Bhushan Bidyabinod, a versatile actor, is at home in many roles. He can play with equal grace the young king, the old saint, the vicious landlord, the sly servant, or the noble father, and because of his versatility some people consider him the greatest Jatra actor.

Some famous Bengali actors started as amateur Jatra players. Among them are Ahindra Chowdhury; the late Chhabi Biswas; the late Teenakauri Mukherjee; Jauhar Ganguli; the late Phani Roy, who alternated between the films and the Jatra; and the stage and film actor Nitish Mukherjee. An actor who has once known the challenge, the openness, the vitality of the Jatra will always long to repeat the experience.


While folk and classical music have distinct personalities, they come together in the folk theater. There is hardly a good folk actor-singer who does not know the classical ragas. The prayer song, the mood song, the song of separation are invariably set in classical melodies. (Photo : An actress playing the princess in a Jatra Troupe)
jatra9The singing of Jatra had become more and more complex by the middle of the nineteenth century, when Bidya Sundar palas had degenerated into mere erotic singing and dancing, Madan Master a pro0fessional at Hoogly College), introduced the juri system. Juri means “the double.” Madan Master realized that some good actors were not being used only because they could not sing. To give a chance to purely dramatic actors he introduced the system of “singing on behalf.” He had four singers sit at the four corners of the stage to sing on behalf of the characters, as their doubles. This system he may have borrowed from the contemporary tradition of dance dramas and Raslilas in which the Bhagavatha or the swami sang the lines of the character. In the modern Western theatre, Bertolt Brecht has used this device of singing on behalf of the character in his Epic Theater.

The actor in the Jatra sang the first line of the song and tossed it over to one of the squatting singers, who immediately stood up. The line was then taken up by the singer on the right or diagonally opposite. One after the other the four singers rose in turn as the song progressed. They spun out the melody and added frills and graces, concerned not so much with the words as with subtle elaboration. They released the players and spectators from the burden of literary words and thinned the melody to a fine musical web. Expert classical masters, the Juri singers added interpretative quality tot he song.

This suspended the action of the play. The characters on the asar sat down, smoked, chewed pan, and checked their make-up while the four singers continued the melody, passing it from one to the other and carrying forward the musical action like basketball players. Thus the two functions of singing and acting were separated, and the audience could enjoy both in one frame. The Juri singers were also called mukhtyars, a legal term of Persian origin meaning attorneys or persons who act on behalf of others. The singers were costumed like attorneys, in narrow clinging pajamas, long black tunics, and big round turbans.

Madan Master also introduced the Dohar system. Doha means “the refrain” and the Dohars were people who sang the refrain. Side by side with the Juri classicists, a set of singers simply rendered the refrain, thus helping to bring the etherealized melody down to earth and reinforcing it. The refrain gave the Jatra singing a new strength. The Dohar system was inspired by the Keertan (congregational singing) in which the principal singers sing with musical flourishes and the refrain is taken up by the religious gathering, who beat cymbals and wooden clappers and goad the tempo to a delirious climax.

The musical instruments accompanying the old Jatra were the pakhawaj and dholak (types of drums), the behala (violin) (some orientalists trace the word “violin” to an Indian origin. During the Vedic era, the stringed instrument pinga was played with a conical bow. Later the name was changed to bahuleen, which meant an instrument played by resting it against the bahu (arm), and from this came behala (the Bengali word for violin). Another name of the pinga was ravanstra, as the epic demon king Ravan played a prototype of the pinga by resting it on his arm (“The Indian Origin of the Violin,” by Dr V Raghavan, Journal of the Music Academy, Madras XIX [1948], 65-70). cymbal and flutes. As a result of Western influence, which seeped into the folk theater through the British Raj, clarinet and trumpet were also incorporated. Today these are essential in a Jatra performance.

Nineteenth-century journals often commented upon the musical quality of Jatra performances. Samachar Darpan (July 13, 1822), reporting about a new Jatra Nala Damayanti (“The Love Story of King Nala and Princess Damayanti “), wrote: “The musical score in various ragas and classical melodies was accompanied with dance and dialogue and created atmosphere.”

A large repertoire of classical and semi classical melodies goes into the Jatra. The favourite modes are Bageshri, arana, bhairav and bhairavi. In plays of historical grandeur or with mythological themes, the classical ragas always evoke the period.

Minor characters – servants, gardeners, attendants, robbers, monks – mostly use folk tunes (Bhatiali and Keertan melodies) to depict their work-a-day existence. The first concert at the opening of the play is always set in a classical ragini. The second concert is light. The orchestral music follows the mood and character.


The Juri system continued till the first decade of the present century. By the second decade people were tired of the Juri because it continued for hours, spinning fine melodic gossamers that suspended the theatrical enjoyment. It had become a sort of an exercise in classical singing out of proportion to the drama. The public would boo and hiss if the singers over did their long musical performance. Slowly it went into disrepute.

In 1911 Mathur Shah, a shrewd businessman and owner of a company, asked his musical director, Bhootnath Das, if he could devise a means of discarding the Juri system without injuring the song element. jatra10Bhottnath introduced the Vivek system in the play Padmini (“The Self-Immolation of Queen Padmini”) by Haripada Chatterjee, which the company was rehearsing at that time. (Photo : The famous singer Teenkauri Bhattacharya as loyal Muslim servant (The Vivek) in Bhuler Mashool.)

The Vivek is a character who can appear in any scene – in a bed chamber, in a king’s court, in heaven, in hell, in a burning ghat, in a forest, in a street. He enjoys unrestricted freedom. Vivek means “conscience.” When a character does something wrong, the Vivek turns up to warn in song. If a king is doing an injustice, the Vivek suddenly appears to check him. Dressed like a madman – his eyes glazed, his head and feet bare, his beard tangled – he wears a robe of black, saffron, or white. His movements are sharp and conclusive. He enters the gangway on the run and disappears in the same way.

The Vivek has a definite dramatic function. He comments on the action by his song, externalizes the feeling of the character, plays his double, and puts questions to him. He is everybody’s shadow, a running commentary on actions and events. He lives in the past, present and future. The role is always played by a highly paid singer.

The Vivek was popularized by Ahi Bhushan Bhattacharya, a playwright-actor. In his mythological drama, Surath Uddhar (“The Rescue of King Surath,” 1915), the first line of every song was “Look into your won self and proceed along. This is a proper time!” This line came to represent the period.

The early Vivek had freedom and mobility. Its philosophical transparency was clouded by playwright Brojindra Kumar Dey, who turned it into a concrete character in Swarna Lanka (“Golden Ceylon,” 1925). In Swarna Lanka the Vivek is represented by Bibishana, brother of King Ravana, who advises him to return Sita to Rama and thus avoid war. He is the voice of justice. He sings the conflict in his own mind, philosophizes and comments, but he does not really impersonate the Conscience.

The playwright can impart the Vivek’s qualities only to a noble character who preaches the doctrine of Life. This character could be the brother of a villain, a truthful old servant, a beggar, a monk, a guru. In Banglar Bodhu, by Nanda Gopal Roy Chowdhury, the mad beggar is the Vivek. In Bargi Elo Deshe, the poet Ganga Ram voices the truth. In Bhuler Mashool, a popular hit of the Navaranjan Opera Company, the role is entrusted to the Muslim servant of a Hindu landlord. It is played by the famous tragic basso Teenkauri Bhattacharya, whose eyes glow as he sings and evokes the mood.

The development of the Vivek from the abstract to the concrete narrows down the function of the character. He can sing out his own mind, but not the minds of other characters. He does not evoke the other side of the human being with the theatrical reality of the abstract Vivek.


The jatra has regained popularity during the last five years. There is growing restlessness and felling of boredom with the city professional theater. Except for Utpal Dutt’s Little Theater Group, which performs permanently in Minerva Theater, and Sombhu Mitra’s Bohuruupee Company, which plays fitfully though artistically, the commercial stage is in decay. The realistic tradition has been played out. The Jatra professionals represent a robust acting tradition in Bengal.

jatra11In Calcutta there are twenty-one Jatra troupes, ten permanently professional and eleven Thekawali (actors engaged temporarily on contract). Each offers about three plays a year. They open their season in September and perform nightly until the monsoon breaks in June. All the troupes are then disbanded, and the actors are free to join any company. The manager – the only person on permanent staff – spends the rest of his time clearing the accounts and “abducting” good actors with tempting offers for the coming season. The actors are shuffled like cards and redistributed. Each signs a legal agreement for nine months and is given a pay advance according to his caliber.

The Jatra addicts know that the artistic standard of a company changes with the changes of actors. As in Chinese restaurants in San Francisco, where the master cooks carry the gourmets with them to the new restaurants every time they change their place of work, the Jatra stars carry with them the loyalties of their fans. The Navaranjan Opera was the favorite in 1962; the Janta Opera brightened its glamour in 1963; the Natta Bharati was the chief attraction in 1964 because of Chhota Phani and the comedian, Hiralal Bannerjee. Only the Natta Company, headed by Surya Dutta, maintains a sound artistic standard year after year, and for this Surya Dutta’s personal magnetism is responsible. Some of the actors have been with him for thirty years, and this has given the repertory a style and stability.

The Jatra is highly organized. Controlled by private individuals, the troupes work through impresarios called dalals – the middlemen – who set up the itinerary. This frees the ensemble from the worry of where it will perform next. Unlike a professional city company, it des not have to bother with the sale of tickets, and the manager does not cast a worried look on empty chairs. There is always a throbbing, colorful mass audience. No microphones or amplifiers are used. In this the Jatra stands distinct from the Nautanki and the Tamasha, which have vulgarized their art by the use of loudspeakers.

The leading Jatra troupes visit the States of Assam, Orissa, Bihar and distinct town of Bengal. They are invited for festivals, fairs, marriages, and housewarming ceremonies and are paid from one thousand to two thousand rupees per performance, plus lodging. They even perform as far away as Varanasi and Delhi, which have large Bengali populations.

jatra12In most district towns, such as Hooghly, Nadia and Bardwan, Jatra competitions are held during the Durga Puja festival. The chiefs of coal field areas and tea plantations arrange special shows for their workers and organize contests in which half a dozen Jatra troupes are invited to perform each night in turn. The head of the locality or organization that invites the troupe pays a lump sum. He arranges for the stage, lighting, pandal (improvised auditorium), gatekeepers, living quarters and open-air kitchen. Here food is cooked by the Jatra troupe which travels with utensils, cooks and servants. When invited for an occasion such as the laying of the foundation stone for a school or a temple, the troupe accepts a smaller fee. On a commission basis, it charges 60 percent, and the rest goes to the organizers for the good cause. (Photo : A Jatra actor playing a Muslim chief in Bhuler Mashool)

The salaried staff of the leading companies varies from forty to sixty individuals, and their pay for a month varies from twelve thousand to fifteen thousand rupees plus food and traveling expenses. A leading actor – a hero, or a villain, or a Vivek, or a male “actress” – gets between five hundred and two thousand rupees per month, a much larger sum than the respectable professional theater offers.jatra13

The Jatra company is a single man’s concern. The proprietor puts in the money and engages everybody on contract. To launch a good Jatra troupe (costumes, instruments, advance payments to actors, paraphernalia of conveyance and kitchen), he must spend 35,000 to 40,000 rupees. A humbler company can be started on 20,000 rupees.

Most districts have professional Jatra companies, but these do not command popularity beyond their own locality. There are thousands of amateur Jatra companies. Calcutta alone has hundreds. Each street religiously performs a Jatra with the help of the amateur actors during Durga Puja.

Today a Jatra performance, like a professional city theatre generally starts on time, although the commissioned performances may be delayed by half an hour because of the slovenliness of the organizers, In a village or a small town the touring Jatra group maintains a tight schedule. Sometimes it performs two plays a night. A Jatra play is written with a technique all its own. The most famous living author is Brojindra Kumar Dey, a headmaster in a small town school. A prolific writer, he has the knack of building climaxes and piling situation upon situation. He does not bother about literary excellence or complex characterization. An efficient craftsman, he draws upon readily acceptable historical and romantic tales.

Political color is especially apparent in the Jatra. Plays on the Partition, Hindu-Muslim unity, patriotism are a big draw. The Bengali political consciousness never fails to express itself in the arts. This quality gives the folk theater a contemporary ring. In the 1930’s the actor-director Phani Bhushan Bidyabinod wrote Neel Kothi, a play on the life of the indigo plantation workers. It is a sequel to Dinabandhu Mitra’s Neel Darpana (“Mirror of Indigo Planters,” 1865), which portrayed the first phase of the farm laborers’ social awakening and created a stir throughout India. The British banned the play Neel Kothi was also suppressed by the British, and the author was confined to his town. Another politically zealous Jatra composer-singer was Mukund Das, who died a few years ago. He was jailed many times for his anti-British palas.jatra14

A Jatra play is not published if it is on the boards. In the absence of strict copyright rules, a rival company may steal the lines, the songs, the situations. If the printed text is available in the market, the actors feel they are playing a stale drama, a second-hand work; its freshness is lost. The audience misses part of the suspense and thrill. (Photo : Actor Sunil Roy as the heroine in Bhuler Mashool casting amorous glances at her lover)

The introduction of female actress has shifted the balance in some Jatra companies. They are losing their traditional color and heat. Popular film tunes are also invading the form. Cheap songs and bastardized rhythms are devoured by the Jatra, and these are jarring. Often the orchestra plays full blast. The shrill trumpet and clarinets drown out the actors’ voices. The musicians do not wear any particular dress. In their greasy vests and rumpled dhotis they look like petty shopkeepers. The stagehands lounge about and have no theatrical bearing. The lighting is dreadful. If the ancient oil-fed torches were used these would add to the atmosphere, but neon lights and diffused bulbs break the focus.

In spite of these drawbacks, the Jatra is dynamic and shapes the artistic consciousness of every Bengali. It still offers more vigor and enjoyment than the well-publicized professional theaters.

Courtesy & Copyright : Sri Balwant Gargi

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