Jatra, the centuries-old Bengali folk theatre extremely popular in the villages, is in the throes of a fresh crisis post-demonetisation….writes Milinda Ghosh Roy
With an unprecedented cash crunch that has followed the ban on high-value currency notes, the Jatra organisers and opera owners say the usually peak winter business hasn’t really picked up.
“Jatra has already been struggling for its existence in the last decade. Earlier, a Jatra troupe would perform 250-300 days annually. Now even a super-hit production gets to do 100-120 shows in a year at the most.
“The cash crunch this year has made the problem even more complex. If people don’t have the money themselves, how would they pay for entertainment,” asked Manjuri Opera Director-cum-Producer Gautam Chakrabarty.
Jatra, a Bengali brethren of sorts of Tamasha of Maharashtra and Nautanki of Uttar Pradesh, is a travelling theatre chracterised by two- to three-hour-long high-octane plays, with loud music, harsh lighting and extravagant props. It is generally played out on grand stages under the open sky.
During winter, a mood of festivity pervades rural Bengal and “jatra pala” (folk theatre shows) are organised as people have the money and leisure for entertainment.
But the scenario has turned bleak this year after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Nov 8 demonetisation announcement.
“In Jatra, payments to artists, barring those of the lead actors, are mostly done in cash. The group owners cannot issue cheques for so many artists after every show. The artists who work on daily payment are facing major issues as they were paid with old Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes that are now worthless,” Chakraborty told IANS.
Raja Dutta, secretary of the Jugabani Club in Midnapore district, rued that for the first time in 40 years, no Jatra shows could be organised in his village.
“People don’t have money in hand even to employ agricultural labour in the field. So many people are out of work. There is gloom everywhere. In such a scenario, they are in no mood to spend money for buying the tickets. So we are not hiring any Jatra group this year,” said Dutta.
The roots of Jatra can be traced to 16th century Bengal that saw the rise of Sri Chaitanya’s Bhakti movement and the famous form of musical drama called the Carya that was characterised by its distinctive use of language.
For centuries, Jatra successfully communicated mythological, historical and morally educative content to the residents of Bengal, particularly to rural audiences. But with rising production costs and easy availability of other forms of entertainment like television and cinema, the genre has seen a steady decline in the number of spectators.
However, even for those managers who successfully sold their productions until last season, getting a good bargain this year has become difficult. Some are even planning to drop the idea of multiple productions and go ahead with the one that is more economical.
“My company prepared two productions of distinctly different taste this year, as last year we had a successful venture. But now we are planning to drop one of the productions as it has become difficult to sell amid the cash crisis. I remember completing 35 shows by this time last year. This year I have only managed to arrange nine so far,” complained Anandalok Opera production manager Bapi Saha.
“Dropping your own production is tough after so much effort and cost has gone into it. But we had to take the harsh decision of dropping the thriller as it invokes more cost per show, and go with just the contemporary comedy that has a greater appeal among the audiences,” he explained.
Apart from the production cost, a Jatra troupe requires a serious amount of travelling expenses as an entire group of 50-60 people moves around together for different shows. The daily income is mostly met from the ticket sales. As the Jatra enthusiasts are feeling the note ban’s heat, ticket sales have significantly declined.
“Unlike a film or a theatre, Jatra does not have seat limitations as it is performed in vast grounds. So ticket sales at some shows give us a significant amount of revenue. This year my group hasn’t done a single show that ran houseful,” said Prasanta Saha of Agragami Opera.
Saha, who manages two more operas called Nandi Company and Swarnanjali, is now hoping the season would pick up during the Saraswati Puja festivities in February and the production houses would be able to recover their money.
“The organisers are not booking shows at present for lack of cash. Hopefully, the season will pick up after Swaraswati Puja in February. The problems related to flow of cash would also reduce to some extent by then,” he said.