I knew I had to work on this project when an uncle retired from the Jatra and joined a railway factory, hoping to do what he could not as an artiste – earn a living. I began photographing artistes who are now unemployed but were once gigantic figures of the Jatra.

Dating back to the 16th century, the Jatra is a famous folk theatre form of Bengal, employing dialogue, monologue, songs and instrumental music to tell stories. Jatrapala, as the plays are called, are enacted on wooden stages without any barriers between the actors and the audience, facilitating direct communication. The plots vary from Indian mythology and historical incidents to something more contemporary and based on social issues.

The partition of India had a major impact on Jatra as artistes in the newly-formed East Pakistan (later Bangladesh), a Muslim-majority country, discontinued to enact Hindu religious folk tales such as Devithakurani, Krisnalila, Shiveromritopaan, Kongsobodh, Kaliya Daman, etc. On the other side of the border, artistes in West Bengal stopped playing Muslim characters such as Siraj ud-Daulah, Shah Jahan, Akbar, etc. The advent of cinema and TV in the 60s and 70s blew a deadly blow to the theatre art form. In 2001, over 300 Jatra companies employed over 20,000 people but their situation has come to forcing them to often offer free performances.

Helped by my uncle, I have been peeping into the daily lives of these artistes for the last six months and trying to get a trip to the past of the Jatra ashor with them for the briefest glimpses.

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Dr.Bholanath Banik (57) and Sudarshon Chakarbakarty (66), both immesely gifted artistes, have been working in the Jatra since 1960 but are now on the dole. Jagannath Hall, Bangladesh.

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Swapan Mondal(63) poses for a portrait  in the photo studio he has been running from 2008 after retiring from the Jatra. Durgapur, India.

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Amar Dey(58) poses as a British ruler, a character he had portrayed several times in Jatras based on patriotic themes. He was so natural in his way that once a spectator mistook him for a real British ruler and attacked. Kharagpur, India .

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My uncle Shyamal Dihidar (51) poses as a police officer. Gokulpore,India.

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Dihirendranath Dihidar(75) retired from the Jatra more than 25 years ago. He poses for a portrait as Asgar Ali with his grand son. Kharagpur,India.

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Tonu Dey(73) poses as a physically challenged person. He won the award for best actor thrice in between 1960 and70 but had to discontinue his artistic career after a bypass surgery in 2005. Midnapore, India.

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Salim(65) poses for a portrait in his own old rehearsal room. Shantinagar, Bangladesh.

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Mamoni Mukherjee(45 ),  a singer- performer, poses for a portrait on a Jatra stage at Panchkuri, Bangladesh.

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Sandip Chaterjee (58) started his journey as a Jatra artiste with his father in 1986. He closed down his father’s famous Jatra dol (house) Gono Nattyo  owing to financial troubles in 1994. Chinsurah, India.

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Arindam Manna(69) poses  as a female character at his own house. Patna Bazar, India.

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Dulal Addya(66) poses as Girish Chandra Ghosh, father of Bengali theatre. Barobazar,India.

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Sakti prasad Dutta (56) poses as the leader of the Santhal Rebellion of 1855-56, Sido. He played Sido’s character for about a thousand times in the Jatra. Patna Bazar,India.

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Biddyadhar Tilokrotno (63) poses as a Britisher at his own house. Habibpore, India.

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Sakti Samanto(60) poses as Vidyasagar,  an Indian Bengali polymath and a key figure of the Bengal Renaissance,  in a school where he used to entertain children after retiring from the Jatra. Jatra bari, Bangladesh.

Soumya Sankar Bose is a documentary photographer based in India. He has done his post graduate diploma in Photography from  Pathshala | South Asian Media Institute.


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