The clutter of newly-installed glossy hoardings and posters with catchy titles at the busy Chitpur road crossing points to the approaching jatra season. Considered the poor man's entertainment today, jatra (folk theatre) was once the backbone of commercial theatre for Bengal’s bhadralok (educated middle and upper classes).
A form of folk theatre that enjoys enormous popularity among rural people because of its simple storyline and musical fervour, jatra has been one of the most powerful ways to spread a message. Political parties, too, have been known to turn to jatra to reach out to rural Bengal.
The festive season begins in October, around Durga Puja, and goes on till Saraswati Puja in January. With just two months to go, preparations are on in full swing. While opera companies are busy putting together scripts and selecting actors, organisers and clubs have started the bayna or booking for the shows.
For a jatra to be a draw, its star quotient is of utmost importance. So the selection of the star actor begins early, says Ram Kundu of Vishal Opera and Indian Opera. The next big task is to decide the storyline, which is often picked to suit the chosen actor’s image.
For example, if an opera company strikes a deal with a famous television “hero”, the script is likely to centre on the male lead. If the company gets a TV vamp, then the script will revolve around the negative character. “Our next production, Shinthir Sindure Naginar Chobol, starring Moumita Gupta, is based on a family drama in which the snake goddess puts a family to the test,” says Kundu. Gupta usually plays negative roles on the small screen.
Not all companies swear by a star. Ashish Ganguly of Bhairav Opera, one of Kolkata’s oldest opera companies, says, “It’s only with a good script that you can retain your audience year after year.” His productions focus on scripts usually inspired by the state’s socio-political situation. The West Bengal chief minister’s slogan of “Ma, Mati, Manush” he says, was inspired by one of their productions. The next production, Kamal Korlo Damal Meye (The Boisterous Girl Works Wonders), he adds, will be reminiscent of the chief minister’s success.
Besides famous actors and a strong script, a catchy title is a must-have to draw clubs, that will eventually host the production. Once a deal is struck, the clubs pay an advance to the opera company. The remaining amount is paid after the show. Achal Poisha (Money of No Use), Noti Binodini (Binodini of the Theatre), and Bhogobaner Bichar (God’s Judgement) are popular jatras. “It’s the organiser or club’s responsible to get permissions from the civil bodies and sell tickets etc,” says Kundu.
While it costs Rs 35,000-Rs 3 lakh to put together a show with a team of 50-60 people, the ticket price is as low as Rs 10-20. But then, each jatra is staged 70 -80 times during a season.
The times are changing. And with them the jatras. In a desperate attempt to survive in a shrinking market, several production houses are aping the names and titles of popular television soaps, says Ganguly ruefully. Maoist unrest in West Midnapur and parts of Bankura and Purulia districts has also impacted business. Then there is the threat of satellite TV.
But he is optimistic. After all, a live three-hour performance is still an unmatched experience.
|The play that inspired Mamata
“Ma, Mati, Manush”, the slogan that became Mamata Banerjee’s war cry, is the title of a play written in 1976 by Bhairav Gangopadhyay, founder of jatra group Bhairav Opera. Set against the backdrop of the Leftist Tebhaga movement in Bengal, the play talks about the rights of farmers and conservation of agricultural land. It became the Trinamool Congress chief’s slogan during her Nandigram and Singur campaigns. But its director, Meghdoot Gangopadhay, felt the play, written 34 years ago, had lost some of its relevance in the present context. “I realised that the needs of the masses had changed over time and that one has to adapt the work.” The outcome of the Singur and Nandigram campaigns and the death blow it dealt to employment opportunities compelled him to re-script the entire play in 2009. What is being staged now, with great success, is a modified version of the play. But he knows better than to change its name.