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Theatre in Bengal: Shedding The Past

Theatre in Bengal: Shedding The Past

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As the art and craft of enactment entertainment moved forward, the Jatra evolved across genres, from religious in content, musical in form to the prose-based humanist approach in early 19th century

By Sandip Ghosh

PART – 3

It is an interesting procession of forms of theatre that followed in the tableaux of history, as we noted in our second episode.

After the demise of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, many such myth-based dramas related to Lord Krishna’s life were performed, including those of Kaliadaman, in which Lord Krishna as a child destroys the terrible serpent sent to kill him.

These dramas were serialised and can still be seen in the “Nauka Bilash” procession of Tangail district, currently in Bangladesh’s Dhaka division.

Scholars opine that the Shaiva tradition also resonate this tradition in the name of Chandi Yatra, whose base was the literary compendium titled “Chandi Mangal”.

The uniqueness of this form of performance was that every scene was enacted on a different platform under the open sky. These platforms used to be set up given the specific locale and its environment.

The second aspect is that as and when the actors moved from on stage to another, the audience also moved with them.

These entertainment programmes used to be organised on certain special occasions and especially religious celebrations in honour of certain gods and goddesses.

In the second half of the 18th century, professional performing groups would enact episodes of Lord Krishna’s life, but these started being enacted not in stages under the open sky, but inside covered stages inside temples, called Naat-Mandir (naat meaning theatre).

What is critically important is that from then on, such performances were no longer being held only on religious occasions, but on any day or days that the professional investors financing these performances decided according to their marketing plans.

In general they were known as “Kaliyadaman Jatra”.

It is possible that there were links between these Jatras and the Sanskrit-based plays of Nabadweep(the birthplace of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu) which enjoyed the financial munificence of the local kings.

The subject of these Kaliyadaman enactments were derived from the lores related to Lord Krishna, but some were based on local folklores.

There would be one ‘adhikari’ or owner and director of the group, who would play the role of either Vrinda, a friend of Radha, or Muni Gosain, or Narada, and would on stage direct the entire performance in the mien of a narrator.

The narrator would recite the story in a prose form that sometimes was done impromptu, along with music scored in advance.

The rest of the story would unfold through the dialogue between the male and female characters in the Jatra.

Shishuram Adhikary was the pioneer of such a form of middle-age theatre, around the middle of the 18th century.

Like the Kaliyadaman episodes, there were other narratives that formed the storyline of some Jatras, though the form and structure of the enactment were the same.

Some of these were “Chaitanya Jatra” (after the life of Chaitanya Dev, the iconic Vaishnavite reformer of Hinduism); “Ram Jatra” (based on the Ramayan); and “Chandi Jatra” (based on the stories of ChandiMangal, a medieval Bengali literature).

For the uninitiated, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was a 15th century Indian saint and founder of Achintya Bheda Abheda. Devotees consider him an incarnation of the Lord Krishna. Mahaprabhu’s life had several dramatic aspects, especially of conflicts, his being a Hindu movement under Muslim Mughal rule.

Chandi Mangal is an important subgenre of Mangalkavya, the most significant genre of medieval Bengali literature. The texts belonging to this subgenre eulogise Chandior Abhaya, primarily a folk goddess, but subsequently identified with the Puranic goddess Chandi.

It may be clearly noted from Chaitanya Jatra and Chandi Jatra, that by now (mid-18th century onwards) the term “Jatra” started being used to describe such entertainment events.

Towards the beginning of the 19th century started the Raas Jatra alongside other local themes. In these performances, the themes centre around the Leela (or Divine Play) of Lord Krishna and the mythologically sacred Vrindavan milkmaids.

After 1840s, we see the Kaliyadaman story losing its grip on mass imagination and being replaced by Krishna Jatra. This is popular even now in Bengal.

Though the content of both Ras Jatra and Krishna Jatra were based on stories related to the life or Lord Krishna, Krishna Jatra as a form was entirely dialogue-based, and that too in prose.

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However, it lost its mass appeal towards the beginning of the 20th century. Such structural changes were also seen in Chandi Jatra and Bhashan Jatra. But the latter is still extant among Bengali people.

The first part of the 19th century saw the onset of a qualitative change in the social structure of the Hindu Bengali community, especially in urban areas such as Calcutta (now Kolkata).

In short, we can say this transformation was based on realism, against religious orthodox thinking.

The Calcutta-based nationalistic theatre movement enthusiastically embraced this change. That is why around 1820, the metamorphosed form of Jatra shed its skin of the Krishna Jatra.

This new Jatra was completely focused on a non-religious content of entertainment, at a much more humanist level.

However, structurally, this was still banking on the moribund Krishna Jatra.

This new Jatra was organised by professional groups, of which the best known was “Gopal Urer Daul” (1819-1859).

But from 1960, this form of Jatra went to the wings and was replaced by dance-dramas. This was marked by a strange and exciting cocktail of the devotional aspects of Krishna Jatra, imbued with European realism.

And eventually, the emphasis on songs and dances were replaced by the still more advanced prose-based dialogue and just about the onset of Bengali theatre as we know it today


(To be continued)

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