A Dying Mass Culture

The Rise and Fall of ‘Yatra’

Sukanta Sarkar

Regarding the definition of Yatra, the encyclopedia says, 'Pious Hindus hold a single festival to commemorate the miracles of their gods and goddesses. The ‘lower classes’ of the country of Bangladesh used to call the festival of worldly gods as 'Jat'. Many people think that this word 'Jat' is a modified form of Jatra. Sun has a close relationship with human life. People have worshiped the sun since ancient times. There have been flamboyant celebrations of the sun's northward and southward journeys through dance and song among the agriculturists. The word Yatra may also have come from there. Devotees went out from village to village singing and dancing in bhakti movement. They spread the word of gods and goddesses among the people through drama festivals in temples. Some think that this unique gathering of dance and song has gradually taken the form of a journey–Yatra. According to noted Palakar, actor Phanibhushan Vidyavinod, ‘the first Palagan (Yatra) was created to describe Lord Krishna's Leela. At the very beginning, the narration of various events in the life of Lord Krishna is called Yatra. Later, the expression of mythological figures and stories through song and dance was called yatra’. On the whole, it can be said that the journey of Yatra starts from Dev-Dharmotsava.

No one could say anything exactly about the beginning of the Yatra in Bengal. Most of the Yatra experts believe that Yatra started in Bengal from the time of Bhakti Movement i.e, early 15th century AD. According to the renowned Yatra-personality late Makhanlal Notto, Palagan started in Bengal from Sri Chaitanya. He wrote, 'That is about five and a half hundred years ago. Nimai Sannyasi will preach Vaishnavism. He is eager to spread the word of God in the society. But, how to explain the glory of his serious words in rural simple life! He takes the medium-ship of Palagan. A medium that can make difficult things easy. Simple, almost illiterate people can absolve in their minds. That medium is Palagan or Yatra.’ According to some, in Bengal Yatra begins from here.

In the earlier days, there were jurigans. There was still no concept of stage. There was no splendid attire for the Yatra. Palagans were organised in rural streets in ordinary clothes. Audience used to sit round. Acting took place in the middle space. The musicians sat on the left or right side. These are the juridars or singers. Their job was to explain each scene through songs. Before acting in each scene, the juridars used to make the point clear to the audience through songs. The singers who used to perform the introductory song were called Viveks.Then the actors would act out the scene. In this way, one by one, it proceeded with the story. This was the original 'form' of the Yatra.

Yatra was the only pastime of rural Bengal. Bangla means undivided Bengal. From the Krishna Yatra to a more mature form the Palagan that was created was entirely in East Bengal. East Bengal had a long tradition of education. The culture there was a bit different. The Palakars (writers) of East Bengal have written as many stories about Puranas and history as have not been written anywhere else. They preferred to read and write mythological stories rather than social issues. After Purana came history. After writing Palas based on Ramayana and Mahabharata, Palakars of East Bengal started presenting the history of the country for the common people in a simple way. Barisal and Faridpur, two districts of East Bengal, were the starting points of the Yatra. Numerous opera houses were in that region. Ticket booking to view Yatra began from this area. Anyone who wanted to see the Yatra, he could see, but buying a ticket. The ritual of listening to Palagan by buying ticket increased the importance of Pala to the audience. Paying attention from different districts, singing songs from one district to another district was all courtesy of East Bengal.

However, there is a difference in Yatra with different folk songs of Bengal. Yatra is seen by some as a folk song passage. Various folk songs used to feature artists or poets who came from the lower strata of society. But the Yatra was a little different. Going there, all levels of society became united. Actors from middle-class families as well as from fishermen’s families joined the Yatra. This coming together irrespective of caste and religion is definitely a remarkable aspect of the Yatra.

19th century is the century of renaissance. This renaissance was confined to a certain educated community. Its impact on common people was not seen in that way. At that time Krishnanagar was a developed city along with Calcutta. Alcoholism, charas, ganja grabbed most of the Babu community in Calcutta. The rich people who could spend money on pujas and the more money they could give to the British, those people were more popular in society. Baiji dance was a custom then. Rich people used to spend a lot of money for Baiji dance. In Krishnanagar too, most of the people who surrounded the institutions established by Rajbari and British were of low and selfish character. In addition, there were lawyers, mokhtars, bureaucrats. Through all of them, an ugly feeling was spread in the society.

It is said about Ramtanu Lahiri and the Babu Community in Bengali society at that time, 'They have wavy Bauri hair and mustaches on their teeth. Dressed in a fine dhoti, a fine muslin and kemrik banyan on the body, a well-cut vani at the neck and Chinese house shoes with thick anklets. These Babus used to sleep during the day, fly kites, watch nightingale fights, play sitar-esraj, veena etc., listen to poets, haf-akrai, panchali etc. and spend the night listening songs and having fun at the lights of the baranganas.’

This babu community and elites used to indulge in drama by watching performances in Rangalaya made by the British without seeing the Yatra. As a result, a new era began in Bangladeshi drama. 'Oriental Theatre' was set up at Garanhata under the guidance of Mr Klinger Sahib who was associated with Sansusi Theatre. It was here that Shakespeare's Othello was performed in English for the first time by only Hindu youths. Then, one by one, several theatres were built up in the city of Calcutta in that century. As educated and elite people were keenly interested in theatre, the uneducated and less educated usually took responsibility for performing Yatra Natyaras. Yatra palas began to be composed, conducted and performed according to the tastes of the audience.
Yatra or Palagan lost its prestige and interest to the urban Babus or educated community due to the influence of Renaissance, but its journey did not stop. In the slums of the city and in the vast rural Bengal, where the majority of Bengalis live, the majority of whom are poor and destitute, the Yatra became the main form of entertainment for the vast Bengali society. From the beginning of the 20th century, the content of the journey started to change little by little. Leaving history, social issues also started to become the subject of Yatra pala. Here comes the story of love and social decency. From the beginning of this century to independence, various movements, Hindu-Muslim unity, famine and the pain of partition began to be composed and performed through Yatra. In Calcutta, mainly Chitpur, one after another Yatra Dal [group] was formed. In different districts, especially in Medinipur district, several yatra groups came into existence. The popularity of Chitpur teams in rural Bengal was no less than that of city cinema. From the mid-1960s, there was special interest in writing palas about social problems and revolutions. This interest arises among palakars by focusing on the interest of the audience. From this time, light and technical gadgets started to be used in the Yatra show. This golden trend of Yatra culture flowed smoothly till the 8th decade. Little by little the situation started to change from the middle of the 9th decade.

Even three decades ago, when asked who satisfy the entertainment hunger of most of the people in Bengal? The answer was, Yatra. In the mid-1980s, there was a slump in Bengali cinema. At that time, many actors and actresses, starting from silver screen heroes and heroines, came to act in Yatra. The people of rural Bengal became excited to see those heroes and heroines of the screen in person in their village fields. From that time the real ups and downs in the Yatra culture started little by little. What became bigger than the content of the Pala was which movie actors and actresses were in which Pala. After walking like this for some time, it was seen that the video halls entered in rural Bengal. Then gradually, one or two TVs came to many houses in the village. Serials of different TV channels attracted the village people. In the evening, along with the people of the city, the people of the village also sat down in front of TV. If one can get such entertainment at home every day, who wants to go to see the trip sitting on a mat in the field after the harvesting season.

So, the cortege is going on quietly!

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Vol 56, No. 12, Sep 17 - 23, 2023