With the advent of autumn also begins the season of jatra, the traditional form of open-air folk drama from West Bengal. Jatra groups, who also call themselves operas (because in earlier times jatras more about music and singing, and even now music is the key), mostly perform in rural areas and small towns, on makeshift stages, where they draw large crowds. Social message through wholesome entertainment is the plank on which jatra groups operate. And it has survived over the centuries, despite the advent of so many other sources of entertainment.
Survived it has, but jatra has not been in a very healthy state in recent times. A major reason is the advent of other forms of entertainment, like TV, videos, DVDs, etc., which can be enjoyed from the comfort of homes. Thus, though people still go to see the shows, the numbers have definitely declined. Production costs have skyrocketed too, which includes costs of hiring actors, stage props, etc. Other things like increased cost of fuel for transport, and food, are also factors, for jatra is essentially an itinerant form of entertainment. To counter the influence of TV, jatra groups hire big stars from Tollywood, and even some from Bollywood. This shoots up the production costs, and eats into the profits.
Despite the advent of sit-at-home entertainment, there is still enough demand all over West Bengal to inspire the actors and actresses, directors, scriptwriters and everyone else involved in jatra to give their best. For the dynamic nature of this art form is hard to resist. Those closely involved with jatra say that the live, pulsating, vibrant entertainment, firmly grounded on social issues, will always make it the mass entertainer of choice for the rural belts.
Phanibhushan Vidyavinod Jatra Mancha in Bagbazar, Kolkata
Removing the red tape
In the last few years, the state government has lent a lot of support to jatra groups. Jatra groups have been complaining about the red tapism that has been a stumbling block for their healthy survival. The government has come forward to remove that.
A comfortable tax structure has been worked out, by paying which jatra groups can avail of all kinds of cooperation from the state administration. The salient features of the new tax structure are the following:
- Organisers of jatra palas (performances) have to pay Rs 200 as entertainment tax for each performance.
- For each performance, a group has to pay Rs 1,250 as police tax.
- For each performance featuring leading Tollywood actors, police tax would be Rs 5,000.
- Groups have to pay Rs 500 towards fire services.
- In case of any incident of fire, the amount would be Rs 2,500.
By paying these small amounts as taxes, jatra groups could get a sticker for their buses issued by the Information and Cultural Affairs Department, which would enable them to move around the state uninterrupted. No other permission would be required.
Building awareness has also been part of the government’s plan for rejuvenating the jatra culture in the state.
- It has brought out a booklet named Jatra Darpan, containing details of the jatra groups operating in the state, like contact numbers, addresses, and names of the jatras they perform that are listed with the West Bengal Jatra Sammelan, for the benefit of all jatra lovers.
- A copy of the booklet has been given to all district magistrates and police superintendents in the state, so that there is no problem with necessary permissions.
- The government has formed a new board of directors of the West Bengal Film Development Corporation Limited (WBFDCL) with Minister of Youth Services, Aroop Biswas, as its chairman.
- The West Bengal Jatra Academy is looking into bringing back the old glory of jatra.
Inauguration of Paschimbanga Jatra Utsav 2012
Battleground for advertisers – a new rewarding trend
Sometimes it is bouma (daughter-in-law) advising sasuri (mother-in-law) to use Boroplus. At other times, it is a fugitive, fleeing from the police, staggering into the arms of the hero, all grimy from his trying to escape, getting advised by the hero to go and wash his face quickly with Vivel soap.
Welcome to the brand new world of what can be termed as in-jatra branding. Like in-film branding, leading jatra artistes are also promoting brands during the plays. Jatra has become a battleground for advertisers. Fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) majors like ITC, Hindustan Unilever, Emami and others are neck-and-neck in the theatre race, sponsoring jatra companies and having their products woven into the script.
They have all recognised the tremendous potential that jatra has in marketing products to the rural clientele, a potential no other media can provide. There are remote areas where no radio station or TV channel can reach. But jatra can, and FMCG majors are cashing in big. The cost is also minimal. Companies sponsor up to 25% of the jatra cost, which comes to much less than what they would have to fork out for advertising spots on TV channels or giving advertisements in top newspapers and magazines.
Corporates promoting jatra groups is a win-win situation for both parties. The jatra season generally starts in September and continues till Poila Baishakh, the Bengali New YEar (in April).This is typically the festive season in Bengal, which is also when farmers get money from rabi and kharif crops and go on a buying spree. Hence, this is when FMCG companies can tap into the rising rural aspirations and reap a good harvest.
The show must go on
Jatra has had a long history. This form was born and nurtured in Bengal. Krishna Jatra became popular in the 16th century due to Chaitanya's influence. However, a form of singing called charjya, with similarities to jatra, existed even earlier in Bengal, between the 9th and the 12th centuries. In fact, jatras were earlier more about music and singing. Dialogues were added at a later stage.
Initially mostly religious, worldly love stories and historicals found a place later. Today, contemporary social issues dominate, as well as contemporary news events like the London bombings, 9/11 or the war in Iraq. Domestic plots have also found a popular place. Most of the plays have a moral message. Mythology still remains a staple fodder for jatra scripts. In jatra, the actors themselves describe the change of scene, the place of action, etc.
The seat of jatra activity in West Bengal is Chitpur Road in Kolkata. As of 2005, there are some 55 troupes based there, involved in a $21-million-a-year industry.
According to Utpal Ray, a leading scriptwriter, “Jatra has very little space for gimmicks and techniques. As long as a socially relevant message is conveyed through a good storyline, it is bound to have takers.” A number of steps have been taken by the state government to promote jatras. Corporate sponsorship are also happening now. These epic, hours-long open-air plays have been a staple source of entertainment for the millions of rural folk in Bengal for centuries, and the show must go on.
Written by Anushtup Haldar for Team M3.tv