Gone are the days
The waning popularity of Jatra in the famed Raas Mela of Bilasipara
For the last 58 years, the Bilasipara town of Assam’s border district, Dhubri, has seen a constant – the annual Raas Mela. The traditional 15-day fair, held to celebrate and pray to Lord Krishna, commences on the day of Purnima in the Bengali month of Kartik. Every December, the town reverberates with a range of cultural activities, the prime attraction being the traditional open air theatres, the Bengali Jatras.
However, with the changing times, this traditional popularity of the Jatras during the mela has certainly faded. Unlike before, only one show is staged during the fair these days. This year, the organisers invited the Jatra dal, Kolkata Opera -- again for a single performance.
Admits Surodas Bhowmick, the Secretary of the organizing committee of Bilasipara’s Raas Mela, “The Jatra performances are running into losses for some years. The organizing committee continues to invite a Jatra dal to the mela every year only in keeping with the older tradition.”
“Earlier,” Bhowmick recalls, “Jatras were staged for the entire period of the fair. Special stages were prepared for their performance. But these days, a common stage is prepared for the Jatra, the Assamese plays as well as other cultural programmes.”
Recalls Bilasipara resident Shahidul Islam wistfully, “Some two decades ago, the Jatra shows during the mela were very popular. As children, we would come in a huge group every night and watch the shows. A single jatra dal would perform different shows staggered through days. The stage would be open on all sides and surrounded by audience and actors would walk through the audience reciting their dialogues.”
Jatra (Yatra), meaning journey in Sanskrit, is a form of popular folk theatre spread throughout the Bengali-speaking areas of the sub-continent. In India, it is popular in West Bengal, Orissa, Assam and Tripura. The folk form has a long history and can be traced back to Sri Chaitanya’s Bhakti Movement. While it started as a platform to revisit religious stories, with changing time, it took a more secular tone. The themes included episodes from Indian and world history. Lately, the performers also began to include subjects on social issues to appeal to the changing tastes of the audience.
Still, the folk form seems to be striving hard to keep its audience base. A conversation with Mohammad Sabbir, the lead actor/singer of this year’s troupe at Bilasipara, Kolkata Opera, clearly shows the struggle that Jatra performers are going through. Originally from Dhaka’s Mirpur, Sabbir has been associated with Jatras for the last 38 years. “I think with TVs and easy access to new movies, people have found newer avenues of entertainment,” he says.
Sabbir recalls visiting towns like Jorhat, Digboi and Dibrugarh in Assam for performances. Now, the frequency of such visits has come down. Owing to lack of demand from the audience, he says, his troupe has stopped doing historical plays altogether and keeps to plays based only on social issues.
Despite these limitations, jatras still provides a different rustic taste of theatre to the interested. Traditionally staged in open theatres, jatras are often four-hour-long plays. The loud gong of a bell marks the beginning of a musical concert which is then followed by the main play. The stage is a free neutral space with minimal props and furniture. The actors through their performance and songs carry the story forward. The musicians sit on both sides of the stage and the actors also sing songs in the middle of the play. The dialogue is delivered in a fast pace and rhythmic tone.
Unlike the all-male troupes of jatras of earlier days, female actors are also part of Jatra dals these days. The Kolkata Opera has five female actors in the group of 32 performers.
Earlier, when one troupe did multiple shows, a prompter sat in front of the audience to lead the dialogue. Now, when a troupe does only a single play, the need of the prompter has vanished, rues Sabbir.
At the Bilasipara Raas Mela, the sitting arrangement for the audience includes chairs in front of the stage while on the extreme sides dried hay is put on the ground for people to sit for a cheaper ticket. A special concession is given to women ticket seekers. Irrespective of the late hour, women comprise a large part of the audience. Engrossed in the play, the interested audience is only typically disturbed by the chaiwala who comes with the much-needed cup of tea in the middle of a cold December night.
(Parvin Sultana is Assistant Professor in P B College, Gauripur, Assam)
(Photo credits: Iftikar Ahmed and Parvin Sultana)