Things that make you to Think

Jatra: A Legacy Threatened

“Jibon je katiachhey Banglay, charidike Bangalir bhir

Bohudin kirton bhasan gaan rupkatha jatra panchalir

Norom nibir chhandey jara aajo sraboner jibon gongay,

Amare diechhey tripti…”

Jibanananda Das, the esteemed modern poet of Bangla literature, wrote those lines in his poem Jedin Saria Jabo, in which he invoked his admiration and contentment towards the age-old folk drama in Bangladesh. However, Jibanananda probably would not admire it the same if he was alive and witnessed the present situation of Jatra, one of the forms of folk drama once a quite popular form of entertainment among the rural Bangalees.

While on a visit, this reporter came across a Class-X student and asked him to share his recent experience with jatra. “I have heard about the girls’ dancing in jatra. I was surprised when a break was announced in the middle of the drama Beder Meye Jotsna. One by one, five obscenely dressed girls took to the stage and began dancing provocatively  while some people from the audience began throwing money at them. An extra 15 minutes was added to the usual break time as they continued to perform. Some female spectators began leaving the jatra area, an enclosed place decorated with different coloured cloths.”

The practice of jatra originated on this country’s soil, growing with time. Sadly, at present this interesting sect of our heritage faces the huge risk of extinction. According to the records, there used to be as many as 215 jatra troupes around the country once upon a time; the number has declined to 20-25 troupes now. The major reasons behind the degradation are commercialisation, religious and political impact on the cultural practice, obscenity and lack of concern on the government’s part.


About Jatra

Popular folk singer Mostafa Jaman Abbasi defined jatra in one of his essays: “Jatra, a spoken drama heavily depending on music and dance, has mostly been a religious or historic subject which has the inner strength of holding the villagers spell-bound throughout the whole night’s performance.”

Generally, it is performed during summer and winter, especially on the occasion of Puja festivals or Pohela Baishakh. The proprietor of a professional jatra company is known as swatwadhikari, who is usually assisted by a manager.

A troupe is comprised of 7-10 musicians who play clarinet, cornet, trumpet, violin, dhol, baya-tabla, congo drums, mandira, etc – their very own ‘orchestra’. They are led by the harmonium ‘master’, who conducts the whole music session and plays the harmonium during the performances, alongside rehearsing vocal music with the actor and the actresses. There are 8-10 female dancers-slash-singers who are trained to dance by the ‘dance master’. The troupe generally consists of 12-15 actors along with 4-5 actresses.

Ahead of Hindu religious festivals or Pohela Baishakh, the villagers usually organise fairs, where there are segments for jatra. It generally starts after dusk and ends in the wee morning hours.

Jatra is closer to the hearts of rural Bangalees, compared to the urban ones, as it has been one of the major entertainment and educative platforms that allows people to communicate with the mass and convey social messages through the performances on stage. Jatras work as an excellent medium to reach general people and provide them with social education. Historical recounts are also common story lines in jatras, opening another aspect og educating people.

Samaj, Palliseba, Samajer Boli, Bangalee, Gayer Meye, Bodhu Keno Kade, Ajker Bangalee, Joutuk, Bangaleer Meye and Gariber Kanna are some of dramas that address social issues in jatra. Historical dramas include Cleopatra, Bidrohi Nazrul, Hasaner Bishpan, Nabab Sirajuddaula, Mirjafarer Artanad, Samrat Jahandar Shah, Ditiya Panipath, Sipahi Bidroho, Ami Sirajer Begum, Tipu Sultan, Mughale Ajam, etc.

Another popular form of plot for jatras is based on legends/fictions, more preferable by the rural audience. For example, Shiri Farhad, Laili Majnu, Alibaba Challish Chor, Rahim Rubban, Beder Meye Jotsna, Sita’r Banabash, Ek Jubati Hajar Premik, Kamala Sundori, Debdas, etc are the most famous fiction jatras.

The trailing legacy

While visiting Manikganj district, a place where there was once 15-20 jatra troupes, the reporter found out that only 8-10 troupes are now active. It was found that most people are concerned about the decline in the jatra performances. They claimed that they could not enjoy jatra opera due to the obscene dance performances. Also, sometimes running a jatra may prove to be quite hazardous.

Sometimes the jatra committee hires a ‘princess’ – a show performer who does a raunchy dance for the audience. It is like paying for one ticket, but getting to watch two shows. “During my childhood, my father used to take me along with the entire family every night to watch these shows. Alas, it is not possible now. I cannot sit with my family through any of these shows as they have grown to be quite vulgar, and risky too,” says Shamsul Haque, a 30-year-old man from Manikganj.

Sultan Selim, a veteran jatra performer for the past 35 years, is extremely distressed about the present situation this fascinating art form. “Obscenity, bureaucratic complexity and political difficulties are the main reasons for such a situation,” he said, who is also the president of Bangladesh Jatra Artiste Association.

“Now, a jatra troupe needs to provide extra money to the DC, ASP and OC of the local area to avail the permission to set up a jatra programme. Due to this reason, Jatra artistes have resorted to obscenity in order to bring in more money. The jatra troupes are not at fault, as they do not do so by choice; they are rather compelled to do so,” he points out.

Kamal Hossain, the principal of Manikganj Women’s College, engineered the collection of the institute’s construction costs by collecting funds earned through several jatra events he organised. This goes to show how this particular art form can affect coomon people. Nowadays, it is difficult to find jatra troupes who use their funds for any kind of social work, mainly because they are mostly controlled by dishonest, corrupt people whose main motivation is to make a profit. As a result, jatra performers, especially female performers, are forced to engage in provocative dances.

Moreover, it is a well known fact that jatras are mostly organised by politically affiliated activists, whereas before it was organised by aged, honest and honourable people.

Ranjit Karmakar, a blacksmith who is also a member of a jatra troupe and has been performing since 1970, said, “Jatra is our life. When we perform anything crude in nature, every beat of the drum strikes our heart and fills us with regret and misery. However, we are compelled to perform for the sake of our survival and to keep our tradition alive.”

Unfortunately, though one of the oldest traditions of our country, jatra no longer carries its former glory. Ever since 1947, it has gradually lost its traditional values and legacy as political and cultural factors continue to change jatra from the art form that was meant to be .

“Before 1947, religion and culture had two separate places. The ’47 Partition left the people divided into two different sects – Hindu and Muslim. They became separated from each other; many people suffered and were even forced to leave the country. During that time, there was a crisis in our cultural compound which had a negative impact on all forms of folk drama, including jatra,” said Dr Rashid Haroon, a professor at the Department of Drama and Dramatics in Jahangirnagar University.

Despite such a major crisis, jatra continued its journey till the Independence of Bangladesh in 1971. However, it suffered another blow after the independence as several social and economical difficulties arose.

“Then, people had found the idea of being more benefited with less capital, which also affected jatra. A group of dishonest and corrupted middlemen took over and started exerting their power to get their ways,” Haroon pointed out.

In the past, Jatra events used to cater to audiences of all classes and genders. At present, without a few  exceptions, most women are far away from enjoying jatra events due to the obscenities. Even families cannot go together.

Haroon argued about the reason behind this, “The young generation is the targeted group, as the corrupted use these performances to lure young men, intending to fill their pockets, ruining the innocence of the youth in the process. It is a lucrative investment area for those businessmen whose aim is to benefit themselves, rather than upholding our country’s cultural traditions. In fact, theire are some organisations that even patronise these shows, and not the real and appropriate ones.”

The government, or any other private or public organisations, are hardly found patronising the art of jatra, and there is no law regarding it, claimed several jatra artistes while talking to this reporter. Most of the time, sponsors prefer to invest/donate their money in concerts or band shows. Interestingly, ahead of Pohela Baishakh or any other cultural festival, they are seen donating to the traditional event, once a year.

The veterans believe that these organisations only aim to make a profit from the people, especially the young generation, via their business policy.

It is high time that the high and mighty of the cultural world took their time to notice that a significant part of our heritage is about to lose all its dignified glory. Steps need to be taken in order to preserve what is left of jatra. Here is hoping that the government will take initiatives to revive these almost-lost art form.

This article has been published at Daily Sun

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