Jatra is a South Asian theatrical form that is not performed within closed walls but under the open sky and without a “third wall” as in the proscenium theatre. The text of the jatra plays is called pala. Usually, the audience gathers around the stage on all sides, and they include people of all ages – children, youngsters, and the old. In present times, the audience does not belong to a specific religion, nor to a particular caste or creed. The rich, the poor, the middle class people – all are the audience of this form of theatre. In this article, I will explain how Jatra has undergone a process of secularization, which implied that the subject matter of the performances changed and also became more varied. The jatra tradition has in particular been strong in the eastern part of the Indian sub-continent: in Bengal (Bangladesh and West Bengal), Bihar, and Orissa.
The development of jatra and its subject matters
In the early days of Jatra, mainly events described in the Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata were used as themes for the plays. Typically, the stories were based on the epic characters Krishna, Shiva, and Rama.
Later on, a great variety of themes was taken up. Human relationships, love, and affection have been depicted in the stories. For a long time, various social and political issues also entered the themes of the jatra plays, usually in response to problems in the society and concerns for people’s welfare. Such performances have, for example, militated against the practice, once prevalent among the Hindus, of burning the widow on the chita (pyre) with her dead husband and also against the prejudice against widow remarriage. Furthermore, performances have served as a platform of agitation against the colonization of the Indian sub-continent and to create awareness about the political situation. Many plays have focused on the oppression during colonial times by the Zamindars (feudal landlords) of their subjects and on the sufferings of the distressed and famine-hit people of Bengal. During World War II, playwrights wrote anti-war plays depicting the devastating aspects of war. Playwrights have also portrayed the world’s most notorious characters, such as Hitler and Mussolini. It is also interesting to note that Jatra has represented the liberal credo for promoting religious harmony, or rather “the religion of humanity.”
From around 1960 to around 1970, as socialist and communist movements gained influence, Jatra absorbed new themes. During this period, it was thus not uncommon for plays to focus on the life of Karl Marx, Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, or Mao Zedong.
Today, performances of Jatra typically protest against the prevailing discrimination and oppression in society, and at the same time, they often expose the dark sides of political leaders and hypocritical religious bigots.
This form of theatre is performed in a way that does not leave a gap between the performers and the audience. Although the themes of the plays are usually very complex and often deal with social conflicts and religious or psychological issues, they are portrayed in a way that is close to the beliefs or the experiences of the audience. The audience therefore understands the characters as if they were individuals in real life. The audience also thinks of every action on the stage as if it were true and as if what happens on the stage were a part of their own life. Hence, the audience becomes deeply involved with the plot. Music adds to the attraction of this form of theatre. Traditionally, the performance continued from 8:00 p.m. until sunrise, but now the duration of the performances varies and is usually shorter.
This form of theatre is performed in rural and semi-urban areas. Traditionally, it was performed in the same area for at least 20 days, and in some cases even for several months. This is still the case in many places. Local people regard these performance days as a great festivity.
Between the ninth and the twelfth centuries, a form of chanting called carya, believed to have been created by followers of Mahayana Buddhism, was popular in Bengal. In these carya, there are references to a Buddhya nataka (a song-based play about the life of the Buddha) as well as to a few musical instruments. While no definite deductions can be made, there are indications that this kind of musical drama influenced Git-Govinda (dramatic songs about Krishna). What is clear is that Git-Govinda provided the foundation of poetic, musical, and dramatic activities in Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa.
Singing with dramatic elements gradually came to be known as Jatra, which literally means ‘to go in procession’. One explanation about its origin is found in the Bhakti movement (a devotional movement that emphasized that love for each other and for mythological/religious heroes would lead to salvation and a pathway to God), which swept Bengal in the fifteenth century as devotees sang and danced in processions. Phani Bhushan Biddyabinod, a celebrated actor-director-writer, provides another explanation. He claims that the Jatra concept grew out of the musical enactment of an episode in Lord Krishna’s life.
From the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, other popular cultural forms of dramatic singing and expressive acting were integrated into and enriched the Jatra form. Most important among these 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).
Throughout the nineteenth century, Jatra became increasingly secular and usually also more contemporary in character. During this period, the jatra repertoire swelled with love themes, erotic stories, historical romance, mythological heroes as well as tales of legendary robbers, social reformers, and champions of truth and justice, thereby diluting its previously dominating religious colour.
An interesting development towards secularization took place in Bengal, which was governed by the British East India Company after the last ruler of Bengal, Nawab Siraj-ud-Doula, was defeated in 1757. Around this time, the British introduced the concept of private property rights to land and a new system of governance. The resulting economic and societal changes as well as the injustices experienced by the people were increasingly reflected in the themes of jatra plays as political consciousness grew, especially throughout the nineteenth century. In this way, Jatra came to serve a political function in the agitation against colonialism. Apparently, this kind of jatra plays was very effective since the British found it necessary to introduce the Dramatic Performance Act in 1876. According to this law, all jatra companies had to be registered with the local authorities, and plays with an anti-British content were forbidden. However, many jatra plays continued to have some sort of political message.
The largely secular character of Jatra was maintained in the twentieth century and onwards. At the same time, the contemporary relevance of the plays strengthened, as witnessed, for example, by the increasing influence of the socialist and communist movements, which grew in importance in this part of the world from around 1960.
Traditionally, male actors performed all roles. The tradition of men also acting female characters is common in many forms of Asian theatre. Due to social and religious reasons, women’s participation in the performances was strictly prohibited. As a part of the increasingly secular module of Jatra, women actors were gradually included in the performances.
The stage, called ashara, is an open and empty space improvised by a square-shaped platform, sixteen by sixteen feet in size and two and a half feet high. Ramps run along two sides at a height of about two feet and serve two purposes, as entry and exit and as a place for the musicians. On one of these, the percussion players sit with drums, cymbals, and bells. On the other side, the other musicians – comprising a clarinet player, flutist, violinist, trumpet player, and a harmonium player – are seated. From one corner of the stage, there is a nearly sixty feet long gangway, which is made of rope and short bamboo sticks. In addition to providing connection between the green room and the stage, this gangway is also an extension of the stage and may serve different purposes: it may suggest a street, a highway, a temple path, the venue of a procession, or the assembly place of an army. Bamboo poles are erected on all four sides of the stage and are used for lighting purposes and to hold the sheds above the stage. The audience sits on all sides of the stage, with one side reserved for women.
The props used in jatra plays are simple, and they are symbolic rather than realistic. One and the same object might represent different things, depending on how the performers use it. A chair might thus not only serve as a chair, but also as the steps of a riverbank, stairs, etc. Similarly, the bamboo poles along the sides of the stage may also represent trees, etc.
Costume and make-up
Visual effects are created through costumes and make-up. The costumes have strong colours, selected on the basis of the social status of the characters. However, the design of the costumes is vague and does not relate to any specific time or space. The make-up is exaggerated, powerful, and stylized. Stripes and lines on the face are drawn according to the character, the demons being particularly fearsome with teeth painted at the upper lip. In some palas, especially the religious ones, masks are used to create a special effect.
The music in Jatra is strongly influenced by Indian classical music. Music has played a vital role in the shaping of the Jatra form, and despite changes over time the musical flavour of the palas has been retained. In fact, the tune of the music determines the vocal expressions of the performers.
Performance and acting style
It is a characteristic feature of the jatra pala that it starts with a climax. Thus, the playwright (palakar) wants to catch the pulse of the audience by presenting a big or dramatic event in the opening and not slowly take the story from a low pitch to a high. A mythological play (Puranic Pala) may thus start with the entry of a demon holding a blood-dripping head, and a historical play with the firing of a gun. Neel Kuthi, a socio-political play about the oppression by the indigo planters, opens with the plantation owners whipping the farm labourers.
The role of the Bibek character
In every pala, there is a stock character, which is called Bibek, meaning “conscience”. However, the Bibek character is a relatively new phenomenon, emerging in the early twentieth century, and it is related to the secularization of Jatra. Some are of the opinion that the Bibek character was introduced by Ohibhushan in his Surath Uddhar pala, while Kapila Vatsayan in her book “Traditional Indian Theatre” claims that this conscience character was created by Mathursha. Bibek was initially introduced in Jatra as an allegorical character.
The Bibek is mainly a singer but sometimes also takes part in the dialogue. It is always the finest singer in the company who acts this character. He wears a robe of black, saffron, or white. His movements are sharp and conclusive.
The Bibek enters the gangway, and disappears the same way. He has the freedom to move around during the entire play and can appear in any scene – in a bedchamber, in a king’s court, in heaven, in hell, in a burning forest, in a street. The topics of the songs are always serious. When a main character does something wrong, the Bibek turns up to warn him through a song. In this way, he performs the function of a moral guardian. He lives in the past, present, and future. The Bibek is thus the shadow of every main character. The Bibek has also a definite dynamic function. Not only does he comment upon actions or wrongdoings through his songs, but he also externalizes the often-contradictory feelings of the main characters by raising questions to them as well as to the audience. He may thus also present an alternative or philosophical point of view.
Mukundo Das, the most important playwright of political pala, exemplifies how Jatra developed into a secular and contemporary form. The Bibek character in his pala Shamaj (“Society”) can be cited as an illustration of how Jatra was used to advocate against religious fundamentalism:
Look my brother in what way you judge the caste
And creed of Brahmin, Ksatriya, Baishya, Hindu, Muslim,
Death will not spare you.
As long as you are living,
You are judging the caste and creed.
But when you will come to the Ferry for sail
All of you will be on the same boat.
As I see, the concept and introduction of Bibek was instrumental in moving Jatra away from religious stories, values, and morals. To me, the Bibek characters intermingle with the two “non-dualism” cults of Sufism and Vaishnavism. Also, the Baul tradition, a combination of Bhakti and Sufi traditions, influenced the emergence of the Bibek character by eliminating the religious aspects from the performance body and its performativity.
The influence of Jatra on Rabindranath Tagore
Rabindranath Tagore describes his outlook on Jatra in the essay entitled “Rangomancho”:
“There is a stage in the thoughtful mind and no lack of space is there in that stage. There the scenes are created spontaneously by the magician’s hand. The playwright’s target is that stage, that scene, no artificial stage and artificial scene … Jatra has some characteristics of its own. The special characteristics of Jatra is to preserve a close proximity between the audience and the actors with its absence of sceneries and importance given to the music”.
It is interesting to note that Tagore introduced many characteristics of Jatra in his allegorical and symbolic plays, notably Muktodhara, Acholayotan, Raja, Falguni and Rathojatra. In particular, he was influenced by the concept of the Bibek character. However, he did not make use of Bibek as a stock character as in Jatra but maintained its secular philosophical and functional aspects through the portraying of certain characters such as Thakurda, Dada Thakur, Baul, and Dhananjoy Bairagi.
My understanding is that the character of the blind Baul in Falguni is totally influenced by Jatra. Like the Bibek, the blind Baul not only criticizes the deeds done and illuminates strength, hope, and aspiration in life, but he also indicates the ways to be followed. This character thus offers an insight into the purification of the mind:
O dauntless, valiant fighter,
Victory is inevitable
Wake up from sleep and open the eyes,
Let weariness be driven away
Let there be emergence of the hopes of sunrise.