August 07, 2005


Jatra, the folk theatre/village opera of Bengal has been popular since the ancient days. But in the last century, with the advent of cinema, radio and television 'Jatra' has diminished to a dying art in South Asia. Jatra usually consists of four-hour-long, high-energy plays featuring loud music, harsh lighting and extravagant props played out on giant stages under open skies at night. Unlike theatre, Jatra is answerable to the paying public at every moment. So there is no shortage of skills required to be a Jatra actor. A Jatra troop travels to villages from villages with their productions specially in winter season just like a nomad circus troop.

Although the usual scripts of Jatra contains melodramatic tales from mythology or history, it also covers the current affairs. This BBC report discovers that plays based on "sensational breaking news" are now becoming very popular with rural audiences in Bengal. Digbijoy Opera - one of Calcutta's 55-odd jatra troupes is scripting a new play titled "Bisphorone Jolche London" (Explosion Scalds London), which would begin its tour of the rural areas of eastern India in October. Blair, Bush and Al Qaeda terrorists are naturally the characters of this play. Digbijoee Opera, which is also coming up with a play on the tsunami disaster, had earlier produced plays on the World Trade Centre bombings and the hanging of rape and murder convict Dhanonjoy Chatterjee.

The power of Theatre/Jatra has always been a scare for the rulers. Last year some Jatras were banned in India by the West Bengal state government.

In Bangladesh 'Jatra' has become chained up by the government censure on the grounds that Jatra troops are resorting to vulgarity to attract audiences. In the past decade fundamentalists attacked Jatras and bombed crowds in a few incidents. Citing the security concerns the government kept all Jatra banned for a long time. The current status of permission of Jatra is still unclear to us. It is pathetic that we are letting this popular art dying in Bangladesh while in the neighboring West Bengal it is being revitalized with the 'current affairs' theme.

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