Jatra (to go in procession) is a form of folk theatre popular in Bengal, where it originated, and in the eastern states of Orissa and Bihar as well as in Bangladesh. It is a very living and vivid form of music theatre and draws its plots from several sources, such as Hindu mythology, popular legends, and even current events.
There are several theories about the birth of jatra. It seems that it has its roots in the 15th century bhakti-related dance processions, which culminated in the temple courtyards. It gained wide popularity in the 18th century. During the colonial period, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was used to convey political messages.
Many writers have gained fame by writing texts for jatra. The themes are mostly derived from Hindu mythology and recount stories about Rama, Shiva or Kali. Later, historical romances and love stories were also adapted for the jatra stage. The scripts originally included songs and verse, while the prose dialogue was mainly improvised.
Nowadays a jatra play lasts about four hours. It consists of dialogue and the songs, which form a very important element of the whole. Singing is rather complex, since the music combines classical ragas, semi-classical melodies and folk tunes; the last are often related to minor characters in the play.
The instruments used in the orchestra include two kinds of drums, flutes, a violin, and cymbals. The actors themselves usually sing. However, one speciality of jatra is a kind of “double singing”. It means that the actor starts the song but soon a singer sitting among the orchestra either continues the song or supports the actor’s singing.
Jatra is often performed outdoors on a square platform from which a gangway leads through the audience to the dressing room. The gangway also serves as an acting area when needed. The stage is usually empty. One chair may serve several purposes; it may be a throne, a mountain, a chariot etc. The few props needed are brought and taken away by stage assistants.
Jatra has gone through several changes during its history. Men originally played the female roles too, but now mixed casts are popular. Due to the influence of movies the acting style aims at realism.The actors may come from different castes and professions. Many popular jatra actors have become wealthy stars.