Kolkata: When the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, began its 32 years of as-yet unbroken rule in West Bengal in 1977, there were several cultural components to the advent. Among them was the jatra (Bengali folk theatre), Maa, maati, manush (Mother, land, people), which became a rage in the rural areas of the state because its Leftist message struck a chord with the people.
Three decades later, the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress—West Bengal’s principal opposition party and the CPM’s bitter political rival—has seized on the very same jatra. Not only has its script been rewritten to suit the current political scenario, Trinamool has made Maa, mati, manush its main slogan, starting with its agitation against land acquisition in Singur for the Tata Motors LtdNano factory, which forced it to abandon its plan for the site.
Gaining strength: Jatra posters put up in Natun Bazar. Political parties in Bengal are using folk theatre to connect with the rural population. Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
The 2011 assembly election could just mark a watershed, with Banerjee gaining strength in recent polls as she tries to bring the CPM’s run to an end. No wonder, then, that the political parties are tightening their grip on jatra, a powerful tool for communicating with the rural population.
The plays have forsaken the usual social and mythological themes to deal with issues such as land acquisition, industrialization and exploitation of the underprivileged.
Apart from the rewritten Maa, mati, manush, at least six other jatras including Maa, mati, manush kandchhe: Agnikanya aschhe (Mother, land, people weep: the dragon lady comes) and Maa, matir lorai (mother and land struggle) are doing brisk business.
The trend has all but drowned out the voices of those who view the politics as a crass innovation.
“But this is bad art,” says Sovanlal Dutta Gupta, a social scientist and former professor at Calcutta University. “All forms of theatre in West Bengal are now under the influence of political parties… This, in my view, is unfortunate.”
Subtlety is not a strong point of the new jatras. The references are direct—most of them feature clearly identifiable people with just the names changed—and the stories are almost identical: a corrupt government grabbing land, a fearless leader resisting this and eventually seizing power with overwhelming support from the people.
“Social themes aren’t selling any more,” says Ranjit Chakraborty of Shilpalok Opera, the troupe behind the Maa, matir lorai. “That people now want jatras like these is evident from our ticket sales.”
Since September, Maa, matir lorai has been staged 25-28 times each month, and ticket sales were, on average, 50% higher than other plays produced by Shilpalok Opera lately.
While it appears that Trinamool Congress has a lock on the jatra scene, there are plays giving the CPM version as well: Ghum kereche maa mati manush (Sleepless mother, land and people) is about political resistance against land acquisition being motivated by vested interests and personal greed.
Powerful tool: A man sits next to a jatra poster in Natun Bazar. The plays have forsaken the usual themes to deal with issues such as land. Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
Political leaders are now keeping a close tab on folk theatre, though initially the troupes had begun staging the plays on their own, sensing the appetite for them, according to a renowned jatra actor who did not want to be named. The political jatras started in the middle of 2007 after the agitation in Nandigram, he recalls.
The West Bengal government had proposed a chemical hub at Nandigram in East Midnapore district, but even before land acquisition notices were issued, local protests forced the government to pull the plug on the project. In the political clashes that convulsed the area, dozens were killed, some of them in police firing.
“These days political leaders often sit through our rehearsals, and even suggest changes to the script,” says the jatra performer. “And if satisfied with the rehearsals, they would make sure that the jatra gets a good (run) and makes good money.”
Trinamool says it isn’t directly encouraging troupes to stage political plays. The success of the plays is merely a reflection of the support that Banerjee has built up, according to Partha Chatterjee, a party leader.
“They are adapting Mamata Banerjee’s writings and ideas,” says Chatterjee, also leader of the opposition in the state assembly. “Our party’s movement is now so popular that people can immediately relate to jatras inspired by Banerjee’s ideas... That’s why they are commercially so successful.”
Even ultra-left political groups are actively using folk theatre to spread the message. Lahate miye lalgarh (Bloodstained Lalgarh) in the Santhali language deals with the exploitation of the tribal people in the economically backward areas of the state. Similar plays in Santhali and Bengali dialects are being staged in districts such as East Midnapore, West Midnapore, Birbhum and Malda, almost all of them dealing with the exploitation of the downtrodden.
“We are keeping a watch on the content of these plays,” says Surajit Kar Purakayastha, inspector general of police (law and order). “We are suspicious because, on the one hand, we don’t understand the language, and on the other, we understand the political motivation behind these plays.”
Even as the Trinamool Congress tightens its grip on jatras, the CPM is hitting back with professional theatre groups. Theatre actor and director Chandan Sen is planning a production on the Maoists, whose violent campaign has been characterized by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as the single biggest internal security threat facing India.
“The aim is to make a distinction between true revolutionary leaders like Che Guevara and the mercenaries killing people in West Bengal’s tribal areas in the name of class struggle,” says Sen.
CPM denies influencing playwrights. “These plays are their own creation,” says Rabin Deb, a CPM state secretariat member. “We are different from the Trinamool Congress, which is using theatre to garner support for their ideology.”
After the Nandigram agitation, Banerjee won the support of several leading theatre personalities such as Saonli Mitra, Bratya Basu and Kaushik Sen. They campaigned for “change” during the April-May general election, and are now churning out plays that have strong political themes.
Kaushik Sen says however that “we aren’t taking sides. Though we deal with political issues, violence and vandalism that we are witnessing everyday, our plays are unbiased.”