Rediscovering the Stars
The last luminaries of the fading folk art of Jatra
When you hear the phrase “theater is dying,” what may come to mind is shrinking Broadway audiences or the lamentations of coastal arts critics. But the age-old art of stagecraft has suffered well beyond the Western world. One example can be found in former Bengal, where the rise of film and TV over recent decades has been especially costly to a once-thriving form of folk theater known as Jatra.
With a name that translates to “journey,” Jatra’s traveling troupes traditionally regaled viewers with vibrant retellings of Hindu religious myths and popular tales, dramatically performed on small, open-air stages accompanied by live music. Though lacking the reach of broadcast entertainment, many Jatra actors nevertheless emerged as celebrities, known for their specialty roles and able to earn a good living. Around the 1970s though, as TV and film claimed more and more from the viewing public’s attention spans and wallets, Jatra theater began to shrink.
Visiting home in West Bengal after more than a decade, photographer Soumya Sankar Bose discovered the Jatra tradition he remembered from childhood had all but vanished. His uncle — once a successful Jatra performer in his own right — had taken up a job at a train station to make ends meet. Bose decided to capture in photos the former lights of the Jatra stage that may otherwise dwindle into obscurity.
“There is no article on the Internet, in books, or in Calcutta or Bangladesh about the artists of Jatra,” says Bose. “If they died, or if their old photographs were destroyed, we might never get a chance to see their archives or see the artists of the ‘70s. That’s now my concentration, to contact each and every famous old Jatra artist, to archive their old photographs and to reshoot the old characters.”
Through his uncle (whose portrait is included in the series), Jatra producers, old newspaper clippings and other clues, Bose was able over the last two years to track down a few dozen of the aging Jatra stars. Most were excited to be part of it, although some were less enthusiastic about — even averse to — the idea of re-living a painfully distant past. For many, this was the time of their life, and its passing was not easy.
“There are one or two people who don’t want to speak because they’re not too pleased about these things, but mostly they’re happy and want to speak with me,” says Bose. “Many are actors who [have not been] acting for the last 20, 30 years, so it’s exciting for them to reshoot the situations, the moments, the characters they used to play in the ‘70s or ‘80s.”
Jatra is known as a high-energy, loud and boisterous folk opera. On a raised stage, ensconced by seated viewers on all sides with little more than a chair as a prop, actors twirl about in bold costume and makeup. A compact but loaded orchestra consisting of horns, strings, wind, and percussion instruments accompany the hours-long performances with song, while the actors hype up the audience using sharp movements and dramatic poses based on the historical or mythological characters they’re playing. In the 19th century, Jatra started to become increasingly secular and began to incorporate female actors — until that point men played female roles.
Only a couple dozen Jatra troupes now exist in West Bengal, down from several hundred in the ‘90s. Political and cultural turmoil dealt a heavy blow to the largely rural art form. After the 1947 partition of Bengal along religious lines, predominantly Hindu West Bengal was separated from Muslim East Pakistan. It would become Bangladesh in 1971 following decades of unrest, finalizing a shattering of the cultural equilibrium that essentially expunged Jatra form Bangladesh.
The genre has been in steady decline since the ‘80s, the few troupes still in business barely able to pull in even the 50 rupees (about $1) per ticket they once could. Some complain that Jatra producers have also begun corrupting the Jatra tradition by putting on lewd or otherwise less-than-savory shows in an effort sell tickets.
Most of the former Jatra actors Bose found have turned to other gigs since their heyday — one is running a passport photo studio, another drives carriages, one operates a river ferry. Some are content with their new lives, others less so, but Bose sought to represent each of them in their former glory for at least one more frame.
Bose spent as long as a week with each actor, discussing which character they would revive from their repertoire, working out a meaningful and appropriate location for the shoot, sometimes even hiring tailors to prepare the costume they’d wear. He chose black and white both to evoke a sense of the past, but also to for visual balance — it would be easy for the extra ornate and colorful costumes from historical plays to overwhelm the more plain garb used in mythological plays.
“Mostly I want to make black and white to give viewers the sense that it’s a disappearing world,” says Bose.
The pictures were taken mostly in West Bengal, although a handful of the former performers still live in Bangladesh. A glance at the old photos of his subjects playing the roles of kings and queens shows the former grandiosity of Jatra in contrast to the austere singularity of Bose’s portraits.
Bose says he’s found as many as 70 or 80 names, but so far has only been able to contact and photograph about 15. Some he simply can’t track down, others have died before he could contact them, leading to frustrating gaps in the project.
Despite the challenges of locating the former stars of this rural theater art, and the somewhat grim theme of decline that it evokes, the series represents a positive outlook. It’s intended as a celebration of entertainers who, though no longer pursuing their craft as they once did, remain deeply connected to the characters they once embodied. It’s a stark image of artists past their prime, an honest but dignified account of aging that media like television and film typically work very hard to sweep under the rug.
Bose’s is possibly the last generation to have experienced this art form as it once was. These images are an effort to keep alive the spirit of an art that might otherwise be lost, and to ensure that the performers who defined themselves in the Jatra will be remembered that way.
“They were once famous in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but after twenty or thirty years, when Jatra became disappeared from the world, they also became disappeared from the heart of the people,” says Bose. “After 20 or 30 years they’re real again, they’re trying to develop their character in front of my camera.”
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