Vol. 5 Num 744 Sat. July 01, 2006  

Jyotsna Biswas
Jatra queen's endeavour for the welfare of artistes

Once jatra, a form of folk drama combining acting, songs, music, dance, characterised by stylised dialogue delivery and exaggerated gestures and orations, was an important form of entertainment. Nowadays, the genre has been sidelined by other modern theatrical forms. The taste of the audiences has also changed. Thus, the demand for jatra has diminished to a great extent. Jatra performances are therefore being modified, and are nowadays often merely the subject of seminars and symposiums. As a result the traditional jatra artistes eke out miserable lives.

Known as Jatra Samragnee (queen of jatra), Jyotsna Biswas is a peerless actress of the decaying performing art form of jatra pala. She has taken initiatives for the preservation of the performing art form as well as for the welfare of the jatra artistes. Commenting on her recent endeavour, Jyotsna asserts, "My family has formed an organisation at Manikganj named Amalendu Biswas Kalyan Trust to extend patronage to jatra artistes, whose performing art has become endangered. The trust's aim is to arrange workshops for the newcomers and provide earning sources for seasoned jatra artistes. Moreover, we are giving these artistes a chance to perform in TV plays."

What is the current scenario of jatra? Jyotsna says, "Around 20,000 jatra artistes from over 200 troupes have become almost jobless, as authorities do not allow them to stage shows. As a result they are shifting to menial jobs. What's worse is the neglect of these unfortunate artistes, though jatra is still a recognised performing art form in India. During the Rathjatra eminent film actors of Kolkata perform in the jatras. However, in our country the scenario is exactly the opposite. The Dramatic Performances Act of 1876 was abrogated in Bangladesh by the Jatiya Sangsad on January 30, 2001. To date, atra troupes have to take permission from the district authorities before staging shows, which is the continuation of the 'District Endorsement Act' enacted by the British raj. The Act sought to stymie legendary jatra artiste Mukunda Das (1878-1934) and his troupe, the Swadeshi Jatra Party, who performed jatras on several contemporary issues such as colonial exploitation, patriotism and anti-colonial struggle, oppression of feudal and caste system and others. What's more, after the recent nationwide bomb blast, jatra troupes don't get permission to stage shows."

Jyotsna admits that vulgarity of the performing art form is one of the major causes of the deterioration of jatra, as the performing art form never received any patronage. She says, "It's true that vulgar dances are staged before as well as in the intermission of the jatra shows in rural areas. However, we should analyse who is responsible and the reason for such tasteless entertainment. The bottom line is that the sponsors, who hire the jatra troupes, and force the latter to feature vulgar dances by 'princesses' who are not actors. The scenario has changed over the last 30 years.

"In fact, jatra has the history of hundreds years and has been continuously modified. This performing art form was derived from rituals and by the 18th century, a good number of forms-- Shakti jatra, Nath jatra and Pala jatra. Krishna jatra and Chaitanya jatra-- of jatra had developed, which introduced comic characters and the gradual secularisation of the form. Later, being influenced by the 19th century colonial theatre, jatra performance has taken the form of 'five acts' performance, which is the existing form of jatra. When I began my career in the 1960s the situation was different."

On the golden era of her acting career, Jyotsna says, "In our days there were well reputed jatra companies such as Bashonti Opera, Babul Opera, Joy Durga Opera and others. Through the historic characters like Sirajuddaula, Debi Sultana and others as well as social drama, jatra palas in those days delivered powerful messages. Moreover, the character Bibek represents rationality in the jatra pala. I still remember those days when seeing my performance in the jatras such as Lenin, Hitler, Janwar, Michael Madhushudan Datta, Achol Paysa, Debi Sultana, Meherunnesa, and others, audience was moved. And we got respect from the people."

Besides acting in over 200 jatra palas Jyotsna Biswas has directed 20 jatras. Several organisations have honoured her with gold medals.

Jyotsna Biswas