Rabindranath Tagore and Jatragan | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, May 16, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, May 16, 2020

Rabindranath Tagore and Jatragan

Rabindranath Tagore's (1861-1941) childhood and adolescent memories of stage performance involve both Jatra and theatre. His elder brother Jyotirindranath Tagore (1849-1825) had composed a play called Sarojini (1875) in the fashion of a jatra alongside burlesques like Kinchit Jogajog (1872) and Hathat Nabab (1884) and plays like Purushbikram Natak (1874) and Alik Babu (1900). Jyotirindranath's Sarojini was performed by professional jatra artists and the show took place inside the Jorasanko Thakurbari. Jatra shows were popular during Tagore's time and Rabindranath as a child had first-hand experience of watching them. Though generally children were not allowed to be audience to those, there was one exceptional occasion when they were allowed to watch a jatra named Nal Damayanti based on the Mahabharata. In his memoir titled Chelebela Tagore recalls his immaturity and his experience of watching an incomplete jatra performance.

Tagore himself never composed any Jatrapala per se, neither was any of his plays except Bisarjan ever performed by any jatra-group. But the influence of indigenous drama or jatra can be easily traced in many of his plays. By adding various elements of jatra he had endowed his plays with a novel significance. It is often very difficult to differentiate between a jatra and a stage play by looking at their scripts alone. But there are huge differences between the stage conventions used by the two. A stage-play is invariably influenced by Western traditions. On the other hand, jatra employs Bengal's unique indigenous dramatic traditions. A close analysis reveals that the styles of writing used by the two are also distinct. In his plays Tagore nurtured both jatra and Bengal's own consciousness towards theatrical tradition. From the memoir of Pramathanath Bishi (1901-1985) one comes to know that Tagore himself considered writing jatras:

The success of our jatra performances prompted Rabindranath to write jatra too. One day he told me, "see, I am thinking of penning jatra." I said, "all avenues of literature have your footprints; won't you leave a few by-lanes for apprentices like us?" I don't know what he had thought after I finished my words. But after some thinking he replied, "alright, go." As if to say "I am sparing that for you." (Pramathanath Bishi, Rabindranath O Shantiniketan, Visva-Bharati Publishing Dept.,Shantiniketan, 1372, p.181)

The character of Bibek (conscience) which is an integral part of jatra conventions, can be found in Tagore's plays too. In plays like Chirakumar Sabha (1907), Sharadotsav (1908), Raja (1910), Achalayatan (1912), Dakghar (1912), Falguni (1916), Muktadhara (1923), Raktakarabi (1926), Rather Rashi (1926), Tapati (1930) he used parables and uktigeet (songs sung in jatra that begin by quoting from others) akin to the songs sung by Bibek and Niyati (fate) in jatra. Characters in Tagore's plays who may be said to parallel Bibek are Akshay in Chirakumar Sabha, Thakurdada in Sharadotsav, Baul and Pagol in Raja, Dadathakur in Dakghar, Andhabaul in Falguni, Dhananjoy Bairagi in Muktadhara, Bishu Pagal in Raktakarabi, Bipasha in Tapati, Aparna in Bisarjan, the poet and the hermit in Rather Rashi etc.

He never felt the need to borrow a character representing conscience from the Western traditions. Little doubt that Tagore created the characters akin to Bibek in his plays treading on the path of a thousand-year old Bengali dramatic tradition. Not just the character of Bibek, but researcher Naren Biswas believes that even Aparna's character in Bisarjan is a "centenary edition of Bibek in jatra" (Naren Biswas, Prasanga:Sahitya- Sanskriti, Bangla Academy, Dhaka, 1989, p. 152.) Tagore's commitment to tradition endows a unique richness to his plays. Tagore could never accept the westernized concept of a stage for his plays. He explained his views as:

"The stage inside the mind of a thinker has no dearth of space. Magicians weave scenes there. Such a stage, such scene is the destination of a playwright; no imitated stage, no spurious scene can fit the imagination of a poet" (Rabindranath Tagore, 'Rangamancha,' Rabindra Rachanabali, Vol. 5, Visva-Bharati, Kolkata, Reprint, 1974(Bhadra, 1381), pp. 451-52).

Lyrical-tendency in Tagore's plays is an integral part of his style. But in the original performances we notice an abundance of music and songs. Especially in Krishnajatra music is used as a major element.

Though Tagore got his idea from the character of Bibek in jatra, he made his characters different from the conventional figure. Thus, we find Thakurda in Sharadotsav as a playmate of the boys too. In the play Raja the characters of Baul and Pagal were added. Moreover, in the character of Panchak in Achalayatan, one can trace the effects of jatra. In the play Tapati, Tagore moved closer to Bengal's indigenous theatrical style i.e. jatra by opting out the use of backdrop.

Tagore not only recognized the importance of jatra, but he also accepted it alongside his own theatrical ideas. We can consider Kabi (poet) and Sannyasi (ascetic) in Rather Rashi as characters created out of the influence of jatra. The character of Andha Baul (the blind minstrel) in Falguni also reminds us of Bibek of jatra. In fact, he is a more intense form of Bibek. We can then very well understand that even Andha Baul can be a guide to life, kindling the rays of hope by rectifying errors of life.

It is not difficult to discover similarities between Tagore's dance-drama and the narrative opera style of jatra. Presence of dance in jatra is a natural tendency. But even after coming across the era of narrative opera, we find that in the modern era Tagore retains that dance tradition.

If we consider the aspect of theatrical sensibility, we can find remote similarities between Tagore's plays and jatra. Issues prominent in jatra like the conflict between good and evil, triumphs of morality, religion and humanity also find apt modern expressions in Tagore's plays.

There is no denying the fact that as a playwright Tagore is original and modern. But he had also proudly acknowledged that he had been influenced by the thousand-year old tradition of jatra in Bengal. And the conventional Bibek of jatra has been converted to indispensible characters in his plays. The portrayal of stoicism in jatra's Bibek and his invocation to pronounce the revelation while being outside the plot- all have been rejected by Tagore to reconstruct his own version of Bibek considering the need of time. In this way by simultaneous acceptances and rejections Tagore has enriched his creative treasure

 "Atithi" is a famous short story by Tagore. Its success as a motion picture is also reputed. The hero of this story becomes a companion to a boat-riding troubadour circus group. In the story the reader gets to know about various folk performances like jatra, panchali, poets' assemblies and dance shows that were important components of contemporary village fairs.

Tagore included the context of jatra in his novels as well. We get more references of jatragan in the novel Noukadubi. A conversation between Kamala, Shailo, and Umesh portrays an incident prior to the beginning of a jatra show.

Tagore firmly believed that jatra can be used effectively as a medium of public education. Hence, he had introduced various features of jatra in his plays. He even thought of propagating national history and tradition through such native performances. He believed that a jatra can have more impact on the mass than books.

Tagore realized the value of jatra and considered it as Bengal's cultural heritage. He considered this public medium of education as a chief implement for cultural development. Therefore, he had developed plans to patronize jatra. Tagore understood how jatra is connected to our roots, and hence he showed strong inclination towards this dramatic form of folk literature.


Tapan Bagchi is a poet and Folklorist of Bangladesh. He is also a Deputy Director at Bangla Academy, Dhaka. Translated by Swati Roy Chowdhury, an Assistant Professor of English at Mankar College, Burdwan, India.

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