Jatra: Ashes of Folk Theatre
On a chilly and dry night, people sit close together, and a layer of hay makes a nice warm cushion on the ground. Everyone, from grandparents to grandchildren, gathers to watch the show. At dawn, it is over and they all head home, exhausted, but fully entertained.
This is Jatra (pronounced ‘yatra’), a centuries-old Bengali winter celebration of open-air folk theatre, which is still popular today in rural Bangladesh. There are approximately 50 active Jatra troupes, comprising about 4000 performers in total. Their income is mostly used to support their families; a further 200,000 people.
However, the performers are jobless for six months of the year during the monsoon season.
Folk orchestra, loud dialogues, over-acting and dance is a very powerful way to tell the social and political story of the country’s history. Jatra is a vigorous form of art and entertainment for the rural people who otherwise have very few cultural outlets. But in the early 80s this cultural tradition went through marked changes when Jatra dance, an inseparable part of the show, virtually turned into striptease.
Now, the amateur artform is almost beyond salvation due to its commercialisation. It has become exploitative of the performers who often live an inhuman life with no social recognition. They sometimes suffer sexual, mental and financial abuse, especially the women. But for the male performers, their love and passion for Jatra, and the need to provide for their families, outweighs these negatives.
Having transformed into a cheap form of sexual entertainment, this cultural heritage of Bengal is at risk of losing its authenticity. The question is – can we save Jatra from the ashes?
Habib Sarwar, a hero and the Director, is one of only a few with a bachelor degree. Every Friday, he takes a full day session of meditation and meets with no one. He believes it increases his power and acting skill. Ananda Opera, Kansat, Chapai Nawabganj, Bangladesh, September 29, 2002.
Since dresses are scarce, the dancers use any piece of cloth to improvise into a new dress. Dancers work hand-in-hand together to create new outfits. Sabuj Opera, Gajipur, Dhaka, Bangladesh, February 09, 2002.
Behind the scenes, Kavita sings for the dancers on the stage. She had to learn to sing in addition to dancing, and this quality has made her the top rated princess (dancer) of the group. New Jayanti Opera, Mohammadpur, Dhaka, Bangladesh, February 02, 2002.
A dancer can earn more than the standard salary by stripping. Sabuj Opera, Nurullapur, Dohar, Dhaka, Bangladesh, March 01, 2002.
Spectators’ favourite way to give tips to the performer is by putting the money in her bra, so that they can touch the dancer. Sabuj Opera, Gajipur, Dhaka, Bangladesh, February 09, 2002.
A smoke during the break at the green room. Sabuj Opera, Gajipur, Dhaka, Bangladesh, February 09, 2002.
Head dancer, Kavita has a tea break during the show. Kavita says she has no problem displaying her body as her husband guards her from trading with it. She earns about $100 per month in addition to her husband’s $30. The couple, who have one child, must sustain themselves on this tiny amount. New Jayanti Opera, Mohammadpur, Dhaka, Bangladesh, February 10, 2002.
Beauty is a dancer and mother of a 4 year-old boy, Shapath, and 1 year-old girl, Barsha. Her husband has married again and he only visits for a night’s fun every now and then. One week after this photograph was taken, Barsha got pneumonia and passed away. Ananda Opera, Kansat, Chapai Nawabganj, Bangladesh, September 29, 2002.
The king of the stage, though he knows there is no such kingdom in his own life. New Jayanti Opera, Mohammadpur, Dhaka, Bangladesh, February 02, 2002.
Scene from a show, Dosyu Rani Phulan Devi (the favourite Bandit Queen of India). Sabuj Opera, Gajipur, Dhaka, Bangladesh, February 09, 2002
Shilpi is a Hindu artiste who converted to Islam to marry her co-worker, Salim Reza, three years ago. After each wild night on stage, life returns to normalcy. She tries to find salvation in religion as she has been spared from the torturous whole night shows. Ananda Opera, Ananda Opera, Kansat, Chapai Nawabganj, Bangladesh, September 30, 2002.
Meals are provided for all staff twice a day, but the standard of the food is not good. Those who do not earn enough to buy additional food, have to survive on these provisions. Ananda Opera, Kansat, Chapai Nawabganj, Bangladesh, September 29, 2002.
A light rehearsal after a lunch break. Usually, each party starts rehearsing a month or two prior to the season. Ananda Opera, Ananda Opera, Kansat, Chapai Nawabganj, Bangladesh, September 29, 2002.
Princess Shoma is a single mother with a three-year-old son. She was a typical lower class girl who left home with a dream to be a movie star. She managed to appear in a few dance scenes of a movie, but her time on set was cut short due to the advances of men. This was also the reason she left a dancing job in Dubai. “It really hurts to think that I have to live on this job. But all my sorrows are wiped out when I get the applause from the audience,” Shoma said. Sabuj Opera, Nurullapur, Dohar, Dhaka, Bangladesh, March 02, 2002.
Once a master of a famous Jatra band, Mohammad Ali is now paralysed after suffering a brain haemorrhage. His band and costume rental business no longer exist. His wife, actress Sabita, tried to maintain her husband’s expensive treatment using her small earnings. Unfortunately, Mohammad Ali died about a month after this photograph was taken. Ali’s death forced Sabita to introduce her eldest daughter, Sonia, to the stage. Sonia is now a novice princess. Gajipur, Dhaka, Bangladesh, August 25, 2002.
To feed their jobless parents, Banya ,17, and her elder sister Hridoy, 19, had to leave home and work at a Jatra band six years ago. Every year, they have to be away from home for at least six months. Their mother has nothing but to mourn their absence. Sometimes, a picture can bring comfort. Batiaghata, Khulna, Bangladesh, August 17, 2002.
An organiser and director of a Jatra band, Gazi Mannan, is lazy during the off-season despite owning a small grocery shop. His wife, Sahida, an actress, is a very active worker and takes tailoring orders at home. Siddirgonj, NarayonGonj, Dhaka, Bangladesh, May 29, 2002.
In a rehearsal Beauty and her comedian co-artistes practice a dance. Maushumi Opera, Krishok gonj Bazar,pabna, Bangladesh, September 04, 2003.
It’s one hour til midnight but the night is still young for the Jatra audience who take their seats around the heavily-lit stage. About 2500 spectators show up to each show, giving the lessor an income of approximately $1200-$2000 per night. Very little of this amount goes to the artistes. New Jagoroni Opera, Golakanda, Rupgongj, Bangladesh, February 02, 2003.
For tired and exhausted sisters and co-dancers, Hridoy and Banya, sleeping late in the morning is invaluable after a hard night’s work. All they get is a common quilt under an unsafe bamboo roof in the chilly winter. Sabuj Opera, Gajipur, Dhaka, Bangladesh, February 09, 2002.