The constant struggles and lasting popularity of jatra groups in Odisha

When a bus plunged into a gorge wiping out nearly an entire jatra troupe in Odisha, it was a reminder of the lives on the road the state’s 100-odd such groups lead. Photographs: CHANDRA SEKHAR SAHOO

Updated: May 22, 2016 11:16:35 am

Fifteen kilometres from Bhubaneswar, and by the side of an irrigation canal in Cuttack’s Dhakulei village, at least 60 men and women are readying themselves for a night during which they won’t get any sleep. It’s 34 degrees even after sunset, and under a grimy canvas, sweaty men are wearing make-up looking into small mirrors propped up on plastic tables, under a 200-watt electric bulb. Just a flimsy curtain away, the women, mostly in their 20s and early 30s, are putting on tight-fitting sequinned dresses and brightly coloured saris, in bold defiance of the weather.

The crowd has been building all through the evening, and the buzz of at least a thousand seated in front of a 3-ft-high stage, barricaded by steel and iron railings with microphones hanging from overhead, makes its way to this make-shift dressing area.

The audience have arranged themselves on flattened paper cartons and mats spread on the ground.

jatra, odisha, odisha jatra groups, jatra groups odisha, odisha news, jatra group accident, odisha artistes accident, odisha bus accident, odisha news, india news The ‘dressing room’

It’s 11 pm finally when Konark Gananatya, one of the 100-odd itinerant jatra troupes of Odisha, comes on. Today is their last act in these parts. The play for the day is Radha Pindhila Meera Sindura (Radha Got Meera’s Vermillion), a tearjerker tale of two sisters in which one marries a man meant for the other after numerous twists.

It will be 5.30 the next morning by the time they finish. The audience sits glued, without even a fan to stir the night air. As hawkers selling ice-candy, lassi and peanuts do brisk business, others have a little something extra — consumed in tiny swigs from obscure bottles.

Watching on from a makeshift temple, set up backstage, are gods and goddesses.

jatra, odisha, odisha jatra groups, jatra groups odisha, odisha news, jatra group accident, odisha artistes accident, odisha bus accident, odisha news, india news The makeshift temple backstage where all artistes say their prayers before getting onto the stage.

***

Even amidst the hectic performance lasting over six hours, greeted by whistles and hoots, the talk backstage keeps going back to the tragedy of April 17 in Deogarh district that wiped out almost the entire Bharati Gananatya troupe. The popular Bargarh-based group was travelling to its next stop after a performance when its bus with 38 people had plunged into a 300-ft gorge. Only 11 survived, including an eight-month-old child, Dipika, and her mother Laxmi.

For Konark Gananatya, the deaths were a reminder of their lives lived on the road, and that of those around them.

Odisha’s jatra troupes such as Bharati or Konark, each comprising 100-150 members —including actors, directors, dancers, sound and costume assistants, lightmen, cooks, technicians and labourers — spend more than 300 days a year travelling, in similar buses. They sometimes cover up to 300-400 km between shows. There are no breaks except for two-three weeks in June, set aside for the Odia festival marking the start of the cultivation season, and a month reserved for rehearsals.

The stay at their brief halts is organised by locals, generally in homes or at anganwadi centres, but they cook their own food. Only the bigger artistes may get airconditioned hotel accommodation.

The schedules are decided by the owners and managers of the troupes towards June-end, after villagers contact them on the basis of the plays lined up for the season.

Mostly, husbands and wives are both part of a troupe, like Laxmi and her husband Rajkumar, who died in the Deogarh bus accident along with their son Dipak, 12. Children are generally left behind to be raised by relatives, unless they are too young, such as Dipika.

Filmmaker Kapilas Bhuyan, whose documentary Jatra Jeevan, Jeevan Jatra got a national award in 2006, says, “One moment a jatra troupe is at a dilapidated school building trying to take some rest before the night’s performance, the next morning they are sipping tea at a roadside dhaba. It’s like a big household travelling, with pit stops.”

Underlining the grime behind the glamour, noted jatra director Lala Biren Ray says, “Only a few make it big, and those who do, pay a big price for it. There is no social life.”

However, as the director of Radha Pindhila Meera Sindura, Ashrumochan Mohanty, points out, “Jatras are still a bigger draw compared to Odia films, TV serials. How many movies and serials get people in villages to fork out Rs 200 for a show?”

The Odisha Film Distribution Syndicate estimates that the Odia film industry, with an average of 30 films a year, makes Rs 20 crore annually. The jatra turnover, industry professionals say, is anything between Rs 120 crore and Rs 130 crore a year.

***

At Dhakulei village, there is still some time for the play to begin. Around 11 pm, a bunch of girls and boys come up on the stage for a 90-minute dance to peppy Odia songs.

Konark’s choreographer-cum-main dancer is Litu Mohapatra, 33. Dressed in a shiny silver suit, he poses on a motorcycle for his photograph. Born to a jatra artiste, Mohapatra was orphaned at the age of 11. He was at the time training in Gotipua, Odisha’s oldest dance form, in which small boys dress up as girls. He joined Konark nine years ago, where he now directs 24 boys and girls.

Mohapatra’s wife Runu, 26, too is part of the Konark troupe. Her father is paralysed, she says, and she had little choice but to drop out of school in Class VI and start working. Runu, who remains a dancer 12 years after joining jatras, dreams of playing a “heroine”. Apart from the money, other things change for the “stars”. “When we wear skimpy clothes as dancers, we have to suffer lewd remarks,” she says. They have learnt to treat the catcalls as “admiration”.

Together, the couple make around Rs 3-4 lakh a year. But that doesn’t compensate, Runu says, for leaving behind their daughter, 7, with her mother-in-law at Puri. “I wanted to put her in an English-medium school, but the cost was too much. So this year I put her in an Odia-medium school,” she says.

jatra, odisha, odisha jatra groups, jatra groups odisha, odisha news, jatra group accident, odisha artistes accident, odisha bus accident, odisha news, india news Runu Mohapatra (on the stage, left) with other dancers before the play begins.

Like Mohapatra, 58-year-old Basant Sahu started young, at 17. He now does character roles. Sahu was born to a Pala singer. Once his father died, it fell upon Sahu to provide for his six siblings. One of his younger brothers is now an assistant engineer in the Water Resources Department while another is a software engineer.

Applying powder on his face, Sahu smiles little, as he talks about staying sleepless “night after night”. The lights have started to hurt his eyes, he says.

Sahu’s eyes still twinkle though when he talks about the time he acted with his wife Parvati in Konark till three-four years ago. “With your life partner around, the hardships seem less,” he says, adding Parvati stays home now to look after his ailing mother.

***

The rehearsals for the new season take place mostly in July. “If a troupe is to enact three-four new plays in the season, the rehearsals last a month,” says director Ashrumochan Mohanty. The music assistants rehearse separately before they all finally practise together. Once the travel starts, there is no time for rehearsals.

The dancers though must squeeze in some practice every day.

Runu Mohapatra calls July the toughest month for them. “We wake up by 5 am and practise from 6 am till 8. After breakfast, we start again at 9.30 am, and continue till 1 pm. Then we have lunch and resume practice at 6 pm, which goes on till 11 pm.”

The dance masters are unsparing, Runu adds. She remembers getting hit on the leg by them if she got a step wrong when she started out. “We would even be asked to kneel on the gravel.”

Jatra director Minaketan Patnaik says the dancers perhaps have the toughest life of all jatra artistes. “The payment is hardly adequate for the work they put in or the conditions in which they live.”

While “A-class troupes” such as Konark earn round Rs 1.5 lakh-Rs 2 lakh a night, mostly raised from tickets priced between Rs 30 and Rs 200, “C-class” ones (also called Malei parties) like Bharati Gananatya earn Rs 50,000-Rs 60,000. The presence of big names on the rolls decides the matter.

Top artistes such as Odia cinema baddie Raimohan Parida and film actress Ushasi Mishra can earn up to Rs 42 lakh and Rs 35 lakh a year respectively, but dancers in C-grade troupes get around Rs 50,000 for working through the year.

Ratikanta Parida, 38, is now among the top performers, cornering the meaty role of hero or villain in his plays. He became a part of jatras fresh after college, after trying his hand at selling tractors.

Now he can draw in a crowd on his own, Parida smiles. He and wife Mituna earn about Rs 25 lakh annually. “In

which other profession do you make money working for just five hours? We make lot more than an average youngster in Odisha,” says Parida.

While most of the troupe travels by a bus, Parida and Mituna move around in their Tata Indigo. “If I can afford a car, why should I travel in a bus?” he says.

However, the working hours still hurt, apart from the pain of leaving behind their five-year-old son Koushik with Mituna’s parents at Jagatsinghpur and of not being around for the rest of the family. When his father died, Parida says, he couldn’t stay for even the last rites as he had a show that day.

The couple are now planning to put Koushik in a boarding school.

Rudra Prasad Mishra, 37, the lead actor of Radha Pindhila Meera Sindura, who earns around Rs 15 lakh a year after a decade in jatras, says no amount of money can make up for the lost family time. Last year, Mishra had to be back on stage soon after burying his three-year-old daughter, who was allegedly killed by his wife over a domestic row. “I could not even grieve properly,” says Mishra, now separated from his wife.

jatra, odisha, odisha jatra groups, jatra groups odisha, odisha news, jatra group accident, odisha artistes accident, odisha bus accident, odisha news, india news The 40-seater bus in which the Konark troupe travels.

Rajkumar Rath, the main singer of the troupe, could not attend the funeral of his father four years ago. Like most days, after performing till morning, he and the other artistes had gone to bed putting their mobile phones on silent. “My family members kept trying to inform me,” says Rath.

After 12 years of singing in wedding bands and at birthdays and orchestra parties for as low as Rs 50 a day, and later working as a driver for senior artistes in the troupe, the 41-year-old still earns very little.

But Rath says he can’t really complain. “I have to support my wife and two kids.”

Seven-month pregnant Sarojini Swain, 30, one of the protagonists in the play, wishes she could take maternity leave. Her husband Sridhar does odd roles in Konark’s plays. Everytime she goes up on stage, Sarojini is afraid. “Not of an accident, but about the floodlights affecting my unborn child. I sweat buckets,” she says.

Daitari Panda, who has made a name as villain over 38 years, recently formed an association of jatra artistes to fight for their rights. Its first meeting will be held on June 17, where “security” and other “long-standing issues” will be discussed.

Despite the better remuneration, the artistes have little to look forward to, he says. “None of the owners of the troupes ever gets us insured. We can’t have ice-cream and other cold stuff lest we catch a cold. A jatra artiste can’t afford to fall ill and is expected to perform through the year.”

***

The dance on the Dhakulei stage is still in full flow. As a skimpily-dressed girl sways to an Odia hit, a middle-aged woman grabs her son by the arm and admonishes him, “You don’t seem to study your textbooks as intently as you are watching that useless girl!”

Three girls come with their mother, carrying a frayed paper carton that they spread on the ground before sitting. A few men in their 20s take selfies.

jatra, odisha, odisha jatra groups, jatra groups odisha, odisha news, jatra group accident, odisha artistes accident, odisha bus accident, odisha news, india news The crowd that stays awake through the night for the performance, without even a fan.

The audience is more excited than usual as today’s is a “free” show. Such shows are mostly held March to May when the jatra troupes have taken the entire money upfront from the organisers and are not yet looking for ticket sale proceeds.

One by one, the halogen lights start getting brighter, indicating the start of the play.

As the music gets louder, Baban Behera, a small-time trader, turns excitedly to his 11-year-grandson Ranjan, asking, “Can you stay awake the entire night?”

As the boy nods, craning his neck to see the stage, Behera smiles, “Though there is some vulgarity, jatras depict social tensions, unlike Odia movies.”

Backstage, artistes gather near the stage. Just before they climb on, they bow quickly before the makeshift temple, the vermillion on the gods gleaming under the lights.

Ratikant Parida waits patiently for his turn, going through his WhatsApp messages as he sits on one of the iron trunks containing the costumes. Basant Sahu chants some mantras, his eyes closed.

A helper sent by the organisers moves around carrying milk-less tea, that he offers in small plastic cups.

“We can’t afford to eat after evening lest we feel drowsy. But in the afternoon, our greatest worry is getting proper sleep rather than food,” says Parida, as he gets off the stage after some power-packed dialogue. He quickly discards his shirt drenched in sweat for an ironed one.

A few feet away, Rudra Prasad Mishra puts on a red cape, and sits down to sip tea. The respite is brief. As the play inches towards its final act, Mishra and Parida are required to run on and off the stage, panting as they change from black shirts to red ones. The two costume assistants are as busy, ensuring each used cloth goes back into trunks, separate for male and female actors.

While the play goes on, the actors too simultaneously put away their belongings.

jatra, odisha, odisha jatra groups, jatra groups odisha, odisha news, jatra group accident, odisha artistes accident, odisha bus accident, odisha news, india news Some of the technicians, cooks and labourers sleeping on trunks. Their job — packing the props and costumes — begins once the play is over.

Around 4 am, a dozen labourers who have been sleeping for the better part of the night get active. It’s their job to pack the props. One of the dancers packs the gods and goddesses into one of the trunks.

Within an hour of the audience leaving, around 6 am, the troupe is ready to move.

The next stop is a village in Jajpur district, around 60 km away. The owner of the group belongs to the district.

While trunks with the props and costumes are loaded onto a truck, around 30 artistes, carrying their belongings in rucksacks or airbags, walk up to a 40-seater bus.

Plonking down into a front seat, Sahu declares, “I am hungry, I need breakfast.”

Rath, the singer, talks of how he once rammed a WagonR he was driving into some electric poles. “I was tired after singing through the night,” he says.

Settling carefully into her seat on the bus, the pregnant Sarojini says she is looking forward to catching some sleep. “If I don’t do this (the jatra), someone will do it,” she says. “Why should I complain?”

The day the music died

The accident took away Bargarh jatra’s owner, anchor, main actors, musician

The April 17 bus accident that killed 27 of its troupe members may have shut down Bargarh-based jatra troupe Bharati Gananatya forever. Among those who died in the accident were the troupe’s owner Sitaram Pradhan, its anchor, its manager, its protagonist as well as its heroine-cum-comedienne-cum-vamp, apart from the driver of the rented bus they were in.

Survivors allege driver Ashokdeep was drunk and angry with Sitaram over some payment. Others say the reason was more simple: that he was tired, like the rest of the troupe, after a long night. Police have arrested the owner of the bus on charges of plying the vehicle without a fitness certificate.

No one in Sitaram’s Remta village, where the troupe rehearsed its plays, wants to talk about that night, their wounds still fresh.

The troupe had been started by Sitaram’s grandparents 35-40 years ago. After a successful run, it had suffered losses and shut down. Around 15 years ago, Sitaram re-started it, putting in about Rs 20 lakh of his own.

Younger brother Dasarath Pradhan says the whole family was involved in keeping Bharati running, either taking care of backstage operations or playing small roles. It had once again tasted success, being in demand throughout western Odisha, which has around eight-10 regular jatra troupes, as well as parts of Chhattisgarh.

It was on Sitaram’s request that writer Bijoy Das had written Sitaram Paeen Ayodhya Kande, the last play staged by the troupe before the accident. The title had his and wife Ayodhya’s name in it. She was at home when the accident killed him.

Sitaram Paeen Ayodhya Kande had been a major hit, with its last performance in Deogarh district attracting over 20,000 people.

jatra, odisha, odisha jatra groups, jatra groups odisha, odisha news, jatra group accident, odisha artistes accident, odisha bus accident, odisha news, india news Nirakar Budek, the priest attached to the group.

“I don’t think we can re-start the troupe,” Dasarath says. “We need at least Rs 5-8 lakh just to hire new artistes and buy costumes and props.”

The others call the loss of percussionist Rasanand Mahanand, a Dalit who played the mouth organ, clarinet and flute with equal felicity, the biggest setback. Mahananda had been playing percussion instruments since the age of 11, and had his own band. “Bharati’s popularity was as much due to the acting as Mahananda’s skills. He would set the tempo for the play. There is no one like him in the area,” says Remta villager Tarani Debata.

Mahananda’s widow Laxmi is inconsolable. “What do I do with the

Rs 2 lakh the government gave us? He was the king of my life,” she says.

Kashinath Pradhan, 35, who would be the anchor at Bharati’s performances, had been diagnosed with a major back problem last year. His family had urged him to give up acting, but there were three daughters, a diabetic wife and ageing parents to provide for.

Angad Pradhan, who played Rama in Sitaram Paeen Ayodhya Kande, was a stage veteran of 20 years. “He played all the major roles,” says younger brother Ashok Pradhan.

Sukanti Parida, 36, who played Sita, had had a difficult childhood, with her father deserting her mother Dukhi shortly after her birth. “She could play the heroine, vamp and a comedienne with equal ease and so got roles in different troupes. Before the accident, she had performed for a month in Berhampur, for which she got

Rs 20,000. As Bharati’s actress had disappeared just before the last play, the owner and the manager had coaxed Sukanti to join them,” says Dukhi.

Laxmipriya, who was among the survivors, along with nine-month-old Dipika, has other worries. An orphan, Laxmipriya would dance in the jatra or did small roles. She got married to Rajkumar Patel, a sound operator with the troupe, 12 years ago, after they fell in love.

Laxmipriya has received Rs 4 lakh as ex-gratia after the accident that killed Patel and their son Dipak. “Though my in-laws never accepted me, now they want me to stay with them due to the money. They are pressuring me,” says Laxmipriya.

Local Congressman Pradyumna Tripathy says that even if they pitched in, putting the troupe back together again would be difficult. “The group has lost its driving force, its owner. I don’t foresee it happening in the next couple of years.”

jatra, odisha, odisha jatra groups, jatra groups odisha, odisha news, jatra group accident, odisha artistes accident, odisha bus accident, odisha news, india news The troupe’s last show drew 20,000 people.