Jatra or travelling theatre, as one knows, is a form where theatre artists travel from village to village and perform to large audiences who would gather together on a field where a temporary wooden stage or jatra pala would be installed. A prominent folk theatre form of undivided Bengal (now Bangladesh and West Bengal), it relied on using a combination of dialogues, monologues, songs and instrumental music to narrate stories from Hindu religious folktales such as Krishna Leela, Devi Thakurani, Kangsa Badh, Kaliadaman and also historical events which would focus on social issues.
Photographer Soumya Sankar Bose captures the long lost era in his project, Let’s Sing an Old Song, on display at Kolkata-based Experimenter Outpost till September 21. He goes on an exploratory journey and throws light on an age that otherwise would have remained in the dark. Though black and white, the photographs are bringing to life the soul of the times.
A student of Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, Dhaka, Soumya has exhibited at group and solo shows in Delhi, Goa, Kolkata, New York, Texas and, of course, Dhaka. He draws inspiration from his roots to showcase the society he lives in.
“In 2017, after the Jatra project had been completed, I travelled back to the remote places where these artists continue to live. I installed an exhibition in every location for a day or two and invited one Jatra actor to speak about his work and life. It is important for me to do this as I want to learn and understand what my collaborators think of my work.”
Soumya is one of those rare photographers who has a deep sense of understanding about the subject he is working on because of his own personal connection. “My uncle was once part of the Jatra. I knew I had to work on this project when he retired from the Jatra and joined a railway factory, hoping to earn a living.
I began photographing artists who are now unemployed but were once gigantic figures of the Jatra.” He lived with the actors, discussed with them their passion and love for Jatra and then set out to photograph them which makes them not just staged portraits but memoirs. They capture the soul of the artist and the character.
But all this was not easy work. It was hard to find the artists and it took almost three years to complete the project. Most of the performers were difficult to trace. Soumya would set out on foot asking for directions and leads and often reach a dead end. But his persistence finally paid off. The work was supported under the Arts Practice Programme at India Foundation for the Arts.