For Bengalis, the annual Rath Yatra is not just about the long chariot processions and offering obeisance to Lord Jagannath, it is also about the fairs or melas that the festival is associated with. And a big part of such melas are local theatre shows called the jatra pala (folk theatre). However, owing to the pandemic, the city and suburbs are hardly up for any public gathering, let alone any shows popularly known as palas.
Walking down the street in Kolkata’s Chitpur area, an otherwise bustling neighbourhood in North Kolkata, which hosts an array of shops for such theatre companies (jatra dol) — is empty. While most doors are shut, a few who have pulled up their shutters, longingly wait for customers. Considered one of the busiest times of the year, the scenes are very different this year — torn posters, closed gates and silent alleys greet people coming there.
“Days leading up to Rath Yatra used to be so busy, we didn’t have time to even eat. Time was spent between managing rehearsals, getting props ready, and taking orders for shows in various districts in Bengal. But this year, we have nothing,” says the owner of Vishwabharati opera, whose dol has been in business for nearly 90 years.
From nearby districts like 24 Parganas to faraway in Murshidabad, mela organisers would usually line up outside these shops in Chitpur to book a show not only for the auspicious day, mostly reserved for any mythological play, but also for other days of the weeklong events too. With multiple shows during the fair, it used to be one of the most profitable seasons in the business.
The annual Rath Yatra in Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal and other East Indian states, involves a public procession with a chariot with deities of Jagannath (Vishnu avatar), Balaram (his brother), Subhadra (his sister).
Thousands of devotees gather around the chariot to pull the ropes as the three siblings travel to their maternal aunt’s house. After a week staying there, they again return to the sanctum sanctorum of the temple. During this time, devotees throng to many such fairs organised around the temple and celebrate the festival with much fanfare. Usually in the evening, mostly in villages, people would end their day watching such jatra palas to relive local folklores and mythological stories enacted in dramatic ways.
“The production of such palas in our golden days would be quite grand, and organisers would even spend over Rs 70,000 to Rs 1 lakh for just one show. However, now no one enjoys such shows. Now we try to do a production at a much smaller scale and might just earn Rs 20,000 to Rs 30,000. But this coronavirus even stopped that,” says Ram Kundu of Anandalok Opera.
With a dwindling interest in such traditional performing arts, mostly considered unsophisticated, was anyway reserved for people living outside urban areas. But with an easy access to the internet, it’s usually films that are projected in such fairs now as they guarantee bigger turnout and sell more tickets.
“Although we didn’t manage to book shows throughout the year, festivals like Rath really mattered for us, financially and even something we value traditionally. For us it’s our halkhata, the start of our business year, if on this day a company can book a good show, we believe it will bring us luck throughout the year,” explains Kundu.
Hoping things would be better by June amid the pandemic and lockdown, in time for the festival, some of the groups even began their rehearsals. However, when four positive Covid-19 cases were reported in the jatra para (theatre colony), even that stopped. With no scope to earn, it’s not just the owner of such companies but also the artists who have been hit hard.
“Mostly we actors do shows here or work as backup artists in cinema and TV serials. This virus killed our art and even aggravated our miseries. There are no live shows now as public gathering is banned, nor there’s any shooting for serials and films, all studios are closed. We are daily wagers too, with no shooting, we haven’t earned a single buck for the last three months and even though now it’s opening slowly, we doubt producers will hire us for the background work,” says a female star, on condition of anonymity.
With no shows booked for this year, a few owners and actors themselves have decided to host a pala, just to keep their annual ritual going amid all struggles.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines