How often do we see a tantalizing Jatra performance in a modern theatre room in Dhaka or any city?
Jatra is traditionally a one-hour-long act that takes place beneath a giant pandal in a field or market of a village before an audience of many, sometimes thousands. The art form is one of the oldest features of our culture and heritage, a common place in rural Bangladesh.
However, this cultural craft is in decline. And the artists of Jatra bands are those suffering the most from this phenomenon.
On 7 December, Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy inaugurated the 13th edition of 'Jatra Festival-2021'. Commenced on the same day, the week-long event ended yesterday. This year, 38 amateur Jatra Bands from all over the country gathered on the Shilpakala premises to avail legal registration.
Of Jatra Uthshob and licence
Consent or a 'licence' from the respected juries would permit the jatras bands to continue their Jatra Pala across the country. Otherwise, they would have to wait another year for legal permission.
Earlier the licensing process was under the office of the deputy commissioners. But the bands faced difficulties in attaining the licences.
There was no fixed policy regarding how to issue the licence. That is why the former Director-General of Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy stepped ahead to reform the whole process, and in 2012, the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy formed a gazetted committee according to the policy.
Now the purpose of this annual Jatra Uthshob is to register the new Jatra bands according to the 'Jatra Shilpo Unnayan' policy issued in 2012 on behalf of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs.
Through this licence, a band can perform in any region of Bangladesh with the additional help of the police administration and the respective office of the deputy commissioner.
Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy has already registered 130 Jatradals through 12 Jatra festivals. However, 12 bands have been deregistered on various charges. Registration is usually issued for a minimum of one year to a maximum of three years.
Three 'Jatra Development Committee' members attended this year's festival and evaluated the performances every day. Based on their evaluation, the bands will get registration.
A Saturday performance and the tales of the artists
When TBS visited the Studio Theatre Hall at Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy on 11 December, New Shabana Opera was performing 'Apon Dulal Pala' on the stage. While New Zarina Opera and New Ruposhi Opera were preparing their acts in the green room. All three bands had arrived from Jamalpur on the same morning and would return to their homes immediately after their performances.
"There was a time we used to attend shows throughout the years. However, situations have changed now. We barely get to perform nowadays.
In fact, this is our first show this year. Nowadays, we face many obstacles during a show. For example, we cannot arrange pandals frequently. Also, we do not get much help from regional administrations and face problems from local leaders too," said Mr Kamal Hossain, the director of New Ruposhi Opera.
Rubi ran away from home during her childhood to escape the oppression of her stepmother.
"I have been doing Jatra Pala since my childhood. This is what I am good at. I travel all around the country with different troupes.
I have learned acting, dancing and singing to perform this art. But as days go by, the shows are becoming few and far between forcing me to take other jobs to support my livelihood," she said.
Although Jatra Pala artists blame the administration's apathy behind the downfall of folk art, Tapash Sarkar, an actor and one of the respected juries, believes there are some other underlying reasons behind the current scenario.
Why is Jatra a diminishing act?
He explained, "Losing the social and family values are the main reasons for the decline. Earlier in the '70s, rural people used to attend jatras with their families. The members would stay long at night and return home feeling sentimental and satisfied.
But during the '80s, a number of vendors introduced indecent dances and acts in Jatra pandals. The chronic aggression of this trend diminished the family-friendly nature of Jatra Pala."
He also pointed to the negative perception of the society to Jatra Pala as a major cause. "Our society holds a very rigid and negative idea about jatra artists. In my own crew, actors often show apathy to perform in a jatra. But the outlook is different for theatre dramas. I have even heard from my female acting colleagues that they might not get married if they perform in a jatra."
To tackle this situation, he suggested introducing Jatra Pala to the educated and elegant youth rather than keeping it only in the hands of rural-based band artists.
Most art forms have more or less adapted to the modern setting but Jatra Pala has not managed this and continues in its usual traditional fashion.
The typical acts consisting of actors delivering dialogues in phoney and monotonous tones, wearing extremely colourful and glaring costumes and the unusual dancing and singing have not been effective in attracting the younger generations.
As a result, there was a minimal presence of young people acting in the festivals. If the reins are not handed over to the next generation, the cultural legacy of this folk art will soon become extinct.
However, to preserve any art form, primarily, it is necessary to uplift the livelihood of the respective practitioners. But the financial stability of the jatra artists is grim and gloomier than ever before.
Trials and tribulations of Jatra artists
"At times, we have to starve. During the Covid-19 pandemic, many of our colleagues suffered and even died of poverty," said Kamal.
"A play takes months to prepare. We invest a large portion of our time preparing ourselves for the act. But unfortunately, we cannot pursue this as our main profession," he added.
"We have to maintain other jobs and manage time for jatra too at the same time. We do not want to perform jatra as only a hobby, we want to perform it as our full-time job, but that is not an option anymore," said Alom, a crewmember at The New Jarina Opera.
While asking Purnalaksa Chakma, a set designer and coordinator of the 'Jatra Festival-2021,' about the response of the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy in regards to aiding the artists, he responded, "During the Covid-19 lockdown, we issued funds for Jatra bands under the direction of respected Director-General.
Moreover, at various jatra festivals, we deliberately distributed funds to the bands as well. Lately, we have issued grants to 82 registered Jatra bands, 10 Jatra directors and seven academic institutions to form Jatra bands in their campuses to ensure their survival. As a result, they have started performing in different districts," he said.
"The bands have received Tk50,000 whereas the 10 directors and seven institutions received Tk2 lakh and Tk2.5 lakh respectively," he added.
Jatra Pala is a part of our thousand-year-old tradition. Its unique presentation alongside jatra songs and dances is a fantastic display of our folklore tales and sagas.
In the classic literature of Tarasankar Bandyopadhyay's 'Kavi' and Manik Bandopadhyay's 'Padma Nadir Majhi', for example, the golden days of Jatra Pala are described as one of sheer elegance and admiration.
Losing this art form due to mismanagement and lack of appeal will indeed be tragic.