Kolkata: West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee is perhaps too busy at state secretariat Writers’ Building to start campaigning for civic elections in 2013, but her party has hit upon the jatra—a melodramatic folk theatre form with a large rural following—as the ideal vehicle to start carrying her message home.
Several plays are now in production at Chitpore Road in north Kolkata, where all jatra groups are based, about the rise of Banerjee and the vanquishing of the Left, a tale not without its dramatic possibilities.
After being written off in politics several times, Banerjee led the Trinamool Congress to a landslide victory in the assembly election in West Bengal this year, ending the Left Front’s 34-year unbroken rule.
The panchayat, or village council, remains the last frontier to be conquered by the party, which in the 2008 election couldn’t field candidates in thousands of seats.
With panchayat polls approaching, and the Trinamool Congress sniffing the possibility of a statewide victory for the first time, the party’s key leaders are backing jatras on Banerjee as an effective tool to reach out to people in rural areas.
They are booking shows months in advance. According to Prasanta Chakrabarty, manager of one of the theatre groups, its play received 24 bookings even before rehearsals begun.
It’s a good way of telling her story in two-three hours, says Sisir Adhikari, a Trinamool Congress parliamentarian and junior minister for rural development.
The theatre groups say they weren’t in any manner pressured into producing these plays, though they have been told to avoid controversial issues.
“We have been asked to focus on her victory, highlighting more on her struggle as an opposition leader,” says Chakrabarty of Digvijoyee Opera, which is giving final touches to its play Mahasangrame Joyee Mamata (Victorious Mamata).
The attempt clearly is to refresh memories of Banerjee’s struggle as an opposition leader and of her pro-farmer movements, which led to her victory in the assembly election.
“Unless we seize the panchayats, it would be impossible for us to establish ourselves in power for the long haul,” said a close confidante and a member of Banerjee’s cabinet, who requested anonymity.
“With so much to do at Writers’ Building, she can’t spend as much time as she would have loved to ahead of the 2013 panchayat election,” he added. “There has to be a way to connect with the rural masses, and jatras appear to be the perfect tool at this point.”
This explains why Bratya Basu, a playwright and minister for education in West Bengal, has agreed to write the script of a jatra on Banerjee, which would focus on socio-economic changes being brought about by her.
Narrated by a farmer couple, from whom land was seized for Tata Motor Ltd’s proposed small-car factory in Singur, the play will tell the story of how land was restored to them, according to producer Kali Ghosh.
“Farmers, who feared losing land during the Left rule, want assurance that they won’t face such threats from this government,” he says.
Last year, Ghosh produced two plays based on the then ongoing political strife. “They got record runs,” he says. But going by the bookings made so far, the latest one promises to be more successful than any in the past. Beginning September, the theatre groups will start performing these jatras.
Confident about the commercial viability of these plays, producers are experimenting with stagecraft. Digvijoyee Opera is planning to combine four stages to depict real life incidents such as a train accident and Banerjee’s whirlwind helicopter tours ahead of the assembly elections, according to manager Chakrabarty.
The biggest challenge for the theatre groups now is to find so many lead actors who resemble Banerjee and can copy her mannerisms. Some are still searching for the right person; some are betting on actors who have played Banerjee before.
“Our actress has already picked up Banerjee’s mannerisms—the way she speaks, the way she walks,” says Kanak Bhattacharya of Ananda Bina Opera. “Just wait and see—people will go berserk when they see her on stage.”
Leftist playwrights have taken note of this new craze and are launching jatras in defence.
Meghdoot Ganguly of Bhairav Opera is penning a critique on life in West Bengal in “these changing times”. “Political killing, conspiracy, police incursions—I am sure people didn’t ask for this,” says Ganguly, whose father Bhairav Ganguly had written a celebrated play, Ma, Maati, Manush.
Banerjee has seized the title of that 30-year-old play as her key political slogan—it means mother, land and people.
“It is true that jatras wield considerable influence among the rural masses, but the political theatre is not about plays and dramatics only,” said Communist Party of India (Marxist) state committee member Robin Deb.