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Shyamal Kumar Dihidar, 51, is drawing a moustache on his face. Once it is done, he cuts an impressive figure. “When I perform on stage, people identify me by my moustache. In jatra, things have to be loud and clear. The good guys have certain markers, the bad guys have theirs. My audience knows that if the character has an impressive moustache, he must be a police inspector,” says Dihidar, who has been a jatra artiste since he was in his teens. Dating back to the 16th century, the jatra is a folk theatre form of Bengal, employing dialogue, monologue, songs and instrumental music to tell stories. Jatra pala, as the plays are called, are enacted on wooden stages. The plots vary from Indian mythology and historical incident to contemporary social issues.
Today, Dihidhar is not preparing for yet another turn as inspector Sinha in the successful Duniya Amar Shotru. He is in the dimly-lit library of the Chitrabani Film School in central Kolkata to be part of an unique photography-cum-art exhibition on jatra artistes, at the behest of his nephew Soumya Sankar Bose.
Over the last few years, Bose has been photographing jatra artistes like Dihidar. “He wanted me to be here to talk to people about my experiences,” says Dihidar. The exhibition includes 22 portraits of artistes from Midnapore, Kutigiri, Nandigram and Sunderbans in West Bengal and Dhaka in Bangladesh. “I was born into a family of jatra artistes in Midnapore. My grandfather was one, so was my uncle. As a child, I would accompany them for their performances. I was fascinated by the world where my grandfather dressed up as emperor Shah Jahan one day and a beggar the next day,” says the 25-year-old photographer, who received a grant from India Foundation for the Arts for this project.
Today, there are about 20 jatra companies in Kolkata’s famous Chitpore district. In 2001, there were over 300 companies which employed over 20,000 people.
“The 20-odd troupes will also close down in a few years. The Partition had a major impact on jatra. Artistes in the newly formed East Pakistan (later Bangladesh), stopped enacting Hindu folk tales of Krishna lila, Kongsho bodh, etc. On the other side of the border, artistes in West Bengal stopped playing Muslim characters such as Siraj-ud-daulah. The advent of cinema and TV in the 1960s and 1970s was another major blow,” says Bose.
He photographed the jatra artistes in avatars that won them recognition. So, Pradip Kumar Pal, an unassuming 59-year-old who runs a stationery shop in Gambhiranagar in south Bengal, is Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the spiritual leader from medieval Bengal. He holds his arms up in the trademark pose, his eyes are half-closed, a rajanigandha garland adorns his bare chest. “I wanted it to be stark and incredulous. I wanted their realities to be the talking point of the picture, not their get-ups,” says Bose.
Jayashree Mukherjee, 66, who started her career in 1965, hasn’t acted in a jatra pala for about five years. She was 14 when she was spotted selling flower garlands at a north Kolkata market by renowned jatra director Bhavesh Kundu. She had five mouths to feed. “My father had lost his job and I had younger siblings. Bhaveshda asked me if I could act, I couldn’t say no,” says Mukherjee.
Her first role, the titular character in the popular Tapasi, required her to play a child bride married to a 40-something zamindar. “I would just mouth lines but people loved my performance,” says Mukherjee. For the next 20 years, Mukherjee played lead roles in a number of jatra palas, but the 1980s spelled doom. “Television ate away a large chunk of our market. Producers started bringing film stars to jatras to draw in the crowds,” says Mukherjee. Since the 1990s, popular film stars like Moon Moon Sen, Satabdi Roy and Raveena Tandon have performed in jatras.
Mukherjee, who acted in a jatra pala with Raveena Tandon about a decade ago, was paid Rs 1,000 for her efforts, while Tandon was paid “more than Rs 1,00,000”. Mukherjee does small roles in television serials now. “At times, I make about Rs 8,000 in a month, at times not even that. There are months where I don’t get any work. And to think less than two decades ago, I was too busy to attend even a nephew’s wedding,” says Mukherjee, who is at the exhibition to interact with visitors.
Behind her is Bose’s portrait of her dressed as the wistful Tapasi, the child bride, an image from another time.