Jatra is believed to have originated from ceremonial functions that are called before starting on a journey. There are also the other legends saying, that it developed from processions brought out in respect of different gods and goddesses. These processions often included songs and dances as its primary part. Jatra is a form of Indian folk drama combining acting, songs and music and dance altogether by the troop that is travelling from one place to another. In the earlier years, the religious values were well communicated with the help of Jatra to the masses. Jatra performances in West Bengal resemble the Tamasha of Maharashtra, the Nautanki of Uttar Pradesh and Bhavai Dance of Gujarat. Even if the birthplace of Jatra lies in religious landscapes, filled with different Bhakticults of Hinduism, but it is replaced by morally educative contents by the end of 19th century. As a result, during Bengal Renaissance, it gained entry into the urban theatres.
Various parts of Hindu epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana was also preformed. Later on, the Jatras were held beside palas, and sometimes even replacing it.
Origin of Jatra
The roots of Jatra may be traced back in at least the 16th century, in Bengal, where there was a famous form of singing called the Carya, which were characterized by the distinct use of language. This was a kind of musical drama, which was possibly prevalent during that time. Even Chaitanya (social reformer) and his followers contributed to a reawakening among the people and were responsible for bringing about a national integration in various parts of India at the cultural level, since Chaitanya himself played role of Rukmini in a drama. This drama was perhaps the beginning of the "Krishna Jatra". So he is respected as the predecessor of the contemporary Jatras of Bengal.
Development of Jatra
Mukunda Das (1878-1934) and his troupe, the Swadeshi Jatra Party, performed Jatras and represented colonial exploitation, patriotism and anti-colonial struggle, oppression of feudal and caste system etc through Jatra. During the 1940s, the socio-political content of Jatra superseded the religious-mythical theme. Apart from theme, major change that took place around this time was in the induction of actresses to enact female roles in the play. But the incident of Partition of India however, seems to have adversely affected Jatra as most of performances were performed related with historical plays, with a vague sense of nationalism and patriotism, or melodramatic social plays. Particularly popular during this period, especially in the southern district of Barisal, was Gunai Jatra. Gunai Jatra was based on the tale of a village maiden named Gunai Bibi. The tradition of religious tales continued, in the form of Bhasan Jatra and Krishna Jatra, both of which were dominated by songs and music in terms of its content.
Comparing in olden performance, today the style of writing plays for Jatras has undergone through many changes. Now, Jatra plays are not limited to the mythological, historical or fantastical themes for its performance for its subjects. They included many social themes to suit modern taste and preferences of audience. Nowadays, huge capital investments are required to organize a good Jatra troupe, since it normally, consists of 50/60 people, including actors and actresses, dancers, singers, musicians, technicians, managers, cooks and servants. The fame of a Jatra troupe depends mainly on the standard of the actors-actresses and the dance artists. Generally, Jatra troupes start their rehearsal from the month of Shrawan to Ashvin, sometimes it continuous up to Falgun. The Jatra troupes travel from place to place visiting many villages on the occasion of Durga Puja in the month of Ashvin. For such performances, the contracts are signed long before the occasion, in advance.
Jatra and Krishna Jatra
Jatras are usually taken from epic and about four-hour long plays, featuring loud music, bright lighting and dramatic props played on giant outdoor stages skilfully. They are often, also very melodramatic with stylized delivery and exaggerated gestures. Travelling groups under the supervision of a man, Adhikari, performs the Jatra. Some argue about the original theme of the Jatra had only the themes of Radhaand Krishna, but today Jatras are written and performed on various topics by writers and dramatists of rural and urban centres. Krishna Jatra's content primarily consists of song and dance, improvised prose dialogue and comic episodes. Male participants play all the female roles with the support of musical and choral accompaniment. Krishna Jatra stressed more on the individual's relationship with Lord Krishna that lead to produce different manifestations of love in life. In the 18th century, a number of other forms of Jatra had developed such as Shakti Jatra, Nath Jatra and Pala Jatra. Krishna Jatra and Chaitanya Jatra, however, continued to dominate the scene.
Performances in Jatra
Generally, Jatra is performed on a simple stage without any raised platform, or curtains and surrounded by spectators on all the sides. There were occasional exchanges between spectators and performers on various topics. As per the tradition, the chorus and the musicians take their position at off stage, where there are no more stage equipments except a single seat. This is to serve various functions such as a throne, a bed or a wayside bench and many more. While performing onstage, the actors behave in a very theatrical manner with delicate movements, delivering their speeches in high-sounding words.
Their costumes are dazzling with their swords blazing in sequence and the words of songs boom with the accompaniment of the crashing cymbals providing musical accompaniment. At times the actors try to depict subtle emotional moods like love, sorrow, pathos through their performance, but the element of exaggeration is always present. The actual Jatra performance is preceded by some preliminaries as in the case of other theatre forms. In this, the singing of a melody and the playing of several instruments can be noticed. This is a kind of invocation. Many Ragas including Syama Kalyana, Bihag, and Puravi etc. are used in it. These singing of the same melodic line follow the playing of the instruments at the performance. Soon after the conclusion of the musical overture, a group of dancers rush in from the gangway side and begin a dance. Later, most group dances are followed by a solo performance.
The most important developments in the form Jatra took place in the 18th century, where the gradual secularization in the form of performance took place along with the induction of comic characters such as Narada and Vyasa in the play. This change can be evidenced in Vidyasundar Jatra, skilfully adapted from Annada Mangalkavya by Bharatchandra Ray. It is possible that the period also saw the growth of wandering Jatra troupes in parts of West Bengal. Performances of Jatras were mostly held in temple yards, at public festival sites and courtyards. As attributed by Brindavan Das, early performances in the 16th century were given on level ground. But the rising popularity of Jatra in the 18th century in Bishunupur, Burdwan, Birbhum, Nadia and Jessore region of State led to form artificial stages of bamboo poles and planks or wooden platforms for performance. Spectators used to sit round the stage as they seat now.
Due to inadequate lights, some scholars believe that these performances were held during the time of day. Music and songs continued to dominate in this folk-drama, which included musical instruments like the Dholak, mandira, Karatal and khol. The Adhikari, manager-narrator, played the role of the narrator, very often explaining and commenting on the songs, linking the scenes and sometimes even exploring the theme of the play.
The general social degeneration of the first half of the 19th century was reflected through various themes of the Jatra, thus in the latter half of the 19th century, Madanmohan Chattopadhyay, instituted a number of reforms related with presentation of play. He emphasized on prose dialogue, shortened the overall length of songs with its quantity. The major change is that he replaced classical ragas with popular tunes for more audience appeal. The number of dances was reduced, as well as the dancers. Even after the First World War, the spirit of nationalism and feelings of patriotism themes became incorporated into the Jatra. Though religious myths and sentimental romances continued to inspire the Jatra, the nationalistic and patriotic spirit of Bengal also found its expression in the Jatra. Similarly, attempts were made to ensure some historical accuracy in relation with the costume and the ornaments. Mature male singers sang the songs of male characters, while young actors rendered those of female characters.
Changes/Modifications in Jatra
Today, Jatra is performed on a rectangular platform raised in open on all four sides, about three feet high and erected on temporarily basis especially for the performance. All musicians sit on two opposite sides of the platform with their instruments. Spectators sit around the stage in huge numbers, with a special reservation for women. The nearby space is covered properly with stage arena and enclosed.
Nearly, about two hours before the performance a stage attendant rings a bell signifying the beginning of the show. Then the second bell rings, where the musicians take their positions and start playing, again as a signal that the show is about to begin. After a break of fifteen-minutes, a third bell is sounded and a fast paced "concert" begins. This follows a patriotic spirit song sung by the troupes, which was an effect of post-partition feature of Jatra in East Pakistan and it replaced the earlier tradition of Hindu devotional songs.
The patriotic song is usually followed by an hour-long variety show, reflecting skills of artists, by incorporating songs, dances and comic interludes in it. Around midnight this variety show ends, followed by the ringing of a fourth bell as a signal for the actual performance.
The Jatra forms are considered as an important branch of the parent tree of Indian literatures, languages and theatre forms. It has laid roots for the modern Bengali drama culture. The Jatra has proved as an important form of entertainment in the past. But, many modern forms have replaced it, since the tastes of audiences have changed over the period of time. Thus, the demand for Jatra has diminished to a great extent resulting modification in Jatra performances.
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