A Photographer’s Search For The Vanishing Stars Of Bengali Folk Theater

Photographer Soumya Sankar Bose remembers how Jatra, a style of folk theater, was popular during his childhood in West Bengal. But 10 years after moving out, Bose returned home to find that Jatra was no longer celebrated nearly as much. The genre’s brightest stars, once major celebrities, were fading from view. Even his own uncle, a famous Jatra performer, had to take a job at a train station to make ends meet.

Jatra originated in Bangladesh and the eastern Indian states of Odisha and Bihar. It’s a living and vibrant form of theater, usually performed on open-air stages, inspired by Hindu mythology, popular legends and contemporary events.

Some historians believe Jatra can be traced as far back as the 16th century, according to Bose, when it emerged as a new way for performers to explore the spiritual bond between a devotee and his personal god. Later, during British colonial rule, it was used to give voice to political messages.

Today, Jatra is increasingly a relic of the past, as troupes struggle to hold on to audiences more captivated by film and television than by folk theater.

Moved by his uncle’s experience, Bose, 28, decided to pick up his camera and go on a multiyear journey to document an art tradition that is slowly vanishing.

NPR’s Amr Alfiky spoke with Bose about his journey across India and Bangladesh documenting the dying art of Jatra. His answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Can you tell me about your background?

I was born and raised in the small Indian town of Midnapore. My father used to work for the Indian Railways and my mother was a housewife. In India, it’s hard to do art when you’re from a lower middle class family. In Midnapore, we didn’t have any opportunity to learn photography, so like many other young Indians, I also took a course in engineering. I wasn’t interested in engineering at all, but it helped me to move to Kolkata, where I met new people, made friends and started attending photography workshops.

In my work, I always try to find an incident which was never documented or underreported and is fading from our minds with time. Both my previous and current works stem from the present — with the Jatra performers reminiscing about their forgotten glory and those in [the photo series] Full Moon imagining the possibility of a time free from societal judgment and tabooing. I always try to create a space where people can express their personal experiences and feelings outside of their lived realities.

As a result of living in a society that prevents us from living a normal life, the main goal of my work is to imagine a world in which there is freedom to live according to one’s own desires. Whenever I start a new project, I try to build a relationship with the project and then I move forward with it. This closeness actually inspires me the most and is what my images and my works whisper about. I always try to push myself against boundaries in a different course of action by documenting reality and the psychological impacts of the subject matter.

What made you decide to do this project?

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

How long did you spend working on this project?

It took almost three years, from 2013 to 2016, to complete this project because it was hard to find everyone. Most of the retired artists are old and hardly use mobile phones. It was really difficult for me to connect with them. One artist [would tell] me that one of his co-artists lives in some area, then I used to target the location and then start asking random people if they knew that person or at least know where they lived. That’s how I found them mostly.

Do you know how many Jatra artists exist now? And how many actors did you end up finding and photographing?

It’s impossible to say how many Jatra artists are still working professionally. … I was able to photograph almost 50 artists and have archival photos of more than 100 artists.

How much time did you spend with each actor? What did you spend your time with them doing?

My work was mainly on the Jatra artists, characters played by them and the psychology that drives them to be a part of this folk cult form. It is of extreme importance for me to go to the artists, know of their mental status, the way they perceive society, the way the society perceives them and also to hear from them the stories of their lives through events, narrations and anecdotes of their daily lives on and offstage.

I have gone to these artists many times. Some of them have shown me their personal diaries, where they have made notes on each day they have spent as Jatra artists. Some of them have shown photographs of those times. Some, again, have maintained meticulous collections of newspaper cutouts of their active days onstage. Several stories of their life and living have been archived by the artists themselves.

What story do you recall the most from any of your characters?

I met Kanhai Babu and Pradip Babu at Ghatal, Medinipur district. There is an image of them as a married couple. According to Kanhai Babu, that particular photograph was taken in 1965 after their first Jatra show. But what Pradip Babu believes is that it was before the show during the rehearsals. Both of them are now in their 70s, and so many memories have faded away with time. The group was there, the rehearsal was there, the show was there, but both of them are carrying different timelines of an exact incident. It’s difficult to find out what actually had happened. And I think that’s the beauty of unfolding the past.

Soumya Sankar Bose is an Indian documentary photographer based in Kolkata, India. His project about Jatra was made possible by a grant from India Foundation for the Arts under the Arts Practice Program.

Amr Alfiky is NPR’s photo intern.

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