When Soumya Sankar Bose’s uncle retired as an actor and joined a railway factory to earn a living, it was not the new workplace that caught Bose’s attention, but the mythological world of folklore that his uncle left behind. The documentary photographer then set out on a journey to map the lives of the long forgotten heroes of Jatra - a folk theatre form that originated in 16th century Bengal.
Jatra is a theatre-based folk art celebrating Indian mythology and history performed on wooden stages without barriers ensuring unhindered communication between the actors and the audience. Partition marred the sanctity of Jatra - productions based on Hindu mythology like Krishnaleela, Debi Thakurani and Kanswadh could not be performed in erstwhile East-Pakistan and this side of the border saw no acts on Siraj-ud-daulla, Shah-Jahan or Akbar. Jatra continued to dominate the cultural landscape until it was finally, and gradually, claimed by the advent of technological entertainment. Television sets replaced gigantic Jatra personalities who are now struggling to make ends meet.
Bose, who was first introduced to photography at the age of eleven when his mother gifted him a Kodak KB 10 during Durga Puja, has been archiving and photographing these theatre giants who are trying to cope with the struggles of employment - his uncle too had to go through the same struggles of employment. “My uncle was a Jatra artiste but had to quit the stage and take up work in a Railways factory in 2010. During 1960-70 people used to know my grand uncle as Asgar Ali of Jatra and he passed away a few months back. I got to know about these incidents in 2013 after returning from Pathshala and I began archiving and photographing those artistes who are now unemployed but were once gigantic figures of the Jatra,” he says.
When asked about the dying art forms in our country and our responsibility towards their sustenance, Bose is quick to clarify his stand and where he wants to throw the light of his lens: “I am less concerned about the forms as I believe that so many researchers are working on these art forms officially or independently but I am more concerned for the artists who helped these forms to keep alive for decades and are now facing poverty. In my opinion we should start thinking about them also.”
“Jatra and it’s mythological stories will definitely remain in the pages of history as one of the famous Indian folk art form but those people who kept it alive are going to fade out,” he concludes.
He also plans to compose a book and a portfolio box to archive this ambitious project and make it available for sale and you can visit his work here.
Scroll down to witness artists frozen in time as the pictures celebrate not just an art long forgotten but people striving in obscurity.
All image are published with permission, courtesy of Soumya Sankar Bose.
“Dihirendra Nath Dihidar (75) retired from Jatra more than twenty-five years ago. He poses here as Asgar Ali with his grand son, Kharagpur.”
“Tonu Dey (73), a three-time award winner for best actor in the 1960s and 1970s, poses as a physically handicapped man. He discontinued his artistic career after undergoing bypass surgery in 2005. Midnapore.”
“Amar Dey (58) poses as a British official, a character he played several times in a patriotic Jatra play. He performed the role so well that a spectator once mistook him for a real British official and attacked him, Kharagpur.”
“Pradip Kumar Pal (59) is famous for his performances as Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. He now runs a stationery shop, Gambhira Nagar.”
“Sima Bose used to be a famous Jatra artist in the 1960s and 1970s. For the last ten years she has suffered from arthritis and cannot leave her bed, Kolkata.”