Jatra, Part 2


Sep 30, 2013 — CANADA (SUN) — A serial presentation on Jatra performance art.

In the 18th Century the spiritual performance art form known as Jatra flourished in Vishunupur, Burdwan, Beerbhum, Nadia and Jessore regions of Bengal. The Krsna Jatra having been 'officially' inaugurated in the 16th Century with Lord Caitanya's participation as the dramatic character, Rukmini, Jatra performances slowly evolved over the centuries, spread far and wide across India. But as described in Banglapedia, the general social degeneration of the first half of the 19th Century was reflected in the Jatra, which became increasingly vulgar.

'By the latter half of the 19th Century, Madanmohan Chattopadhyay, instituted a number of reforms, placing greater emphasis on prose dialogue, shortening the length of songs and reduced their number. He also replaced classical ragas with popular tunes. The number of dances was reduced, as well as the number of characters who would dance. Attempts were made to ensure some historical accuracy in costume. Female roles continued to be acted by male actors, but the convention of singing by proxy was introduced. The songs of male characters were sung by mature male singers, while those of female characters were rendered by young actors. Live orchestra incorporated a number of western instruments including the violin, harmonium and clarinet.

Until about the end of the 19th Century, the adhikari used to write the play. By the beginning of the 20th Century, however, Jatra texts began to be written by individuals outside the troupe. The adhikari would either buy the text outright or would pay a royalty. Another change that took place at this time was the introduction of the character of Vivek (Conscience).

Another major change in Jatra took place after the First World War, when nationalistic and patriotic themes became incorporated into the Jatra. Though religious narratives and sentimental romances continued to inspire the Jatra, the nationalistic and patriotic spirit of Bengal also found its expression there.

The Partition of Bengal in 1947 also seems to have adversely affected Jatra. Most of performances were of historical plays, with a vague sense of nationalism and patriotism, or melodramatic social plays. There was a dearth of playwrights to write for the Jatra. However, Jatras continued to be performed. Still, the tradition of religious Jatra narratives continued, particularly in the form of Bhasan Jatra (with focus on Kali/Durga) and Krishna Jatra, both of which were dominated by songs and music.'

Today we are beginning to see a mood of revival, primarily on the part of ISKCON devotees, who are striving to return the Krsna Jatra to its true Vaisnava form. Mundane elements and sahajiya-like sentiment are being eliminated, and sastrically accurate scripts are being produced for enacting the divine pastimes of the Lord and His associates.

"Jatra today is performed on a rectangular platform (usually, 18' x 15' or 20' x 18'), open on all four sides, about three feet high and erected temporarily for the performance. Musicians sit on two opposite sides of the platform. Spectators sit around the stage, with a section of the space being reserved for women. The whole space is covered and enclosed. About two hours before the performance, between nine or ten in the evening, a stage attendant rings a bell signifying that the show is about to begin. After the second bell, the musicians take their positions and begin playing as a signal that the show is about to begin. Following a fifteen minute break, a third bell is sounded and a fast paced 'concert' commences.

A Jatra performance lasts about four hours and is divided into five acts, an influence of the 19th Century colonial theatre. Following each act, the prompter rings a bell to signal the end of each act. During the intervals between acts, there are songs, dances and comic displays. The performance ends slightly before day-break.

A large amount of capital is required to organize a good Jatra troupe. Normally, a Jatra troupe consists of 50/60 persons, including actors and actresses, dancers, singers, musicians, technicians, managers, cooks, servants etc. The reputation and fame of a Jatra troupe depends mainly on the standard of the actors-actresses and the dance artists. Generally Jatra troupes rehearse from the month of Shravan to Ashvin, sometimes to Falgun."


Syed Jamil Ahmed, 'Drama and Theatre', History of Bangladesh 1704-1971: Social and Cultural History, Sirajul Islam ed, Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, Dhaka, 1997


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