“As kids we would go in a big group every night and watch jatra,” quips my maternal uncle. Then he launches into telling me about how jatras or Bengali folk theatre used to be the main attraction in Raas melas. The stage would be open in all sides and audience would sit all around it. The green room would be at a distance. And actors dressed in fascinating attires would walk through the audience to the stage.
Raas melas are traditional fairs held to celebrate and pray to Lord Krishna. Commencing on the day of Purnima in the Bengali month of Kartik, it continues for almost 15 days. As these fairs are held during winter and jatras are staged at night, for audience sitting arrangements are made accordingly. Along with chairs, dried hay is strewn over the ground covered with plastic. The ticket for sitting on the hay is cheaper and in fact sitting on the ‘farash’ (floor) is more comfortable to many.
In my family gatherings, one of the favourite stories often repeated would be how my mama went to watch a show of the jatra and went off to sleep on the hay. By the time he woke up, the show was over and our national anthem Jana Gana Mana was being played. The talk of such times when jatras and similar cultural shows were the sole source of entertainment would transport us to a different world. It would make me and my cousins feel nostalgic about things we never even did.
Hearing about jatra which was a part of my mother and her siblings’ growing up, I decided to watch it for myself. So this year even before the Raas mela started, I told my uncle that I would like to see jatra. After making enquiries I got to know that there will be a single show on the 1st of December. On the day of the show, accompanied by my uncle and a cousin, we made our way to the venue of the fair. Having reached half an hour early we were taken to the Green Room where the artists were busy getting ready for their play.
Kartik uncle, the secretary of the Organizing Committee of the Fair introduced me to the members of the Kolkata Opera. In conversation with the actors over cups of steaming cardamom tea, many interesting issues popped up. The lead actor and singer of the troupe, Mohammad Sabbir told me how jatra is losing its earlier popularity. With the influx of TV and film actors in jatras, the quality of jatra suffered. Jatras have also had to compete with newer sources of entertainment like TV soaps and movies. The dwindling demand of jatras is proven by the fact that this very group used to visit different parts of upper Assam but with time the frequency of such visits diminished.
Kartik uncle chips in saying that as opposed to earlier days when special stages were prepared for staging jatras, this time the organizing committee provided a common stage for all the cultural programmes.
Despite this, jatras have tried to compete for its previous position. Another actor of the troupe, Swapan Das tells us that as opposed to historical plays, jatras now stage plays on contemporary social issues responding to the demand of the audience. They are trying to use better sound and light to appeal to the younger generation who are more used to high definition images. The conversations did leave me a little concerned about the possibility of extinction of this folk theatre.
After this we moved to the sitting area and eagerly waited for the play. The musicians sitting on both sides of the stage played some pieces of music before the play started. A loud gong of a bell marked the start of the play. It was about a family falling apart because of contemporary social evils like corruption, nexus between administration and mafia. The story seemed very similar to the kind used by popular TV soaps. While earlier jatra troupes performed two to three different plays simultaneously, these days they perform just one play hence doing away with the need of a prompter.
Half way through the show, my uncle says this is different from what they used to watch. And he is right in some ways. Jatras have changed over the time. While it continues to be unique in practically using no or minimal props, the story being taken forward by the dialogue and songs performed by the actors, the impact of changing times is obvious in the kind of stories being used. The dialogues are delivered in a rhythmic fast pace to ensure the audience’s attention.
The tickets for women were cheaper and it was good to see that they comprised a large part of the audience. While the show proceeded, a tea seller walked across the rows. Sipping on hot tea, we watched this version of folk theatre which was very different from Assamese theatre with proper sets and props. Four hours later when the show ended, we all made our way out. At 1.30 a.m I walked back to my uncle’s house, feeling happy for having seen something which was new for me but also aware of the kind of competition these theatre groups had to face.