Dhaka, January 26, 2015 (Alochonaa): For two hours Mofizul Islam sat in front of a tiny mirror with a make-up box, pasting coloured powder on his wrinkled face, and neatly wearing a crown and a robe fit
for a Persian king.
On a night in 2013 I found the 50-year-old part-time vegetable vendor in a bamboo and cloth-made make-up room on a barren paddy-field 60 kilometres (37 miles) north of Dhaka, waiting to perform the the role of the king in a popular form of Bangladeshi folk drama. It was about 1.30am in night and outside the room two scantily-clad teenage girls were dancing on a mud and wood-built stage to the tune of Hindi film songs, being run from a music system amid loud cheers by around 500 wild spectators.
“I am not sure whether we’ll get the chance to perform tonight,” Islam said ruefully. “The crowd wants to see this dirty dancing. They want to dance with the girls.”
It’s the fifth night in a row Islam and other troupe members applied make-up and waited to perform a form of folk drama known as “Jatra” or “Jatrapala”, which is immensely popular in Muslim-majority Bangladesh and in some eastern parts of India.
The manager had announced that the drama, based on a tragic Persian love tale, would start at 1am and continue until the dawn. But the crowd was in no mood to waste their money on the drama. “The last four days we could do only two scenes. Every time we hit the stage, spectators booed. They shouted at us, saying they didn’t spend money to see the drama,” he said.
Dance and music are integral parts of Jatra, which has its origin in Hindu religious tales about a millennium ago.The centuries old tradition is mainlystaged in the night during the Bangladeshi dry season starting from
November through April.
For centuries women in impeccable saris would dance to hymns or patriotic songs to mark the start or break of a Jatra. Crowds would spend the whole night watching the drama full of melodramatic dialogues and stories based on historic figures and myths.
But these days in a sign of the modern age encroaching upon Bangladesh’s sleepy villages, the dances have been invaded by vulgar strip shows. Popular Hindi songs have replaced hymns, and short skirts and T-shirts
have made way for saris.
Experts say the “strip” shows are now so popular in villages and rural towns that they are killing this rich art form. And it comes at a time when the deeply conservative nation has also witnessed the rise of radical Islam.
Topless Nude Show
As Islam and other actors of the troupe called Keya Jatra Unit were applying finishing touches to their make-up and costumes inside the green room, Princess Moni, a teenage girl, was busy shaking and twisting her body to Kazra Re, a hit Hindi film song, on the stage.
Soon she removed her body-hugging T-shirt to be left with only a bra and a short skirt. She threw it to the wild crowd with dozens jumping to grab the rare property. A drunk man hit the stage with boozey steps and danced with the girls. He then proceeded to shower a pile of cash on the body of one of the girls while thesecond girl hurled herself to the crowd which included a member of a law enforcing agency who gleefully opened his money-bag and tucked in some cash onto her revealing cleavage.
For Milon Kanti Dey, a stalwart of the Jatra industry, scenes like these are “innocuous” compared to the “topless nude” shows now being shown by some Jatra troupes in remote parts of the country. “These dances are basically porn shows. It’s eating up whatever is left of this beautiful drama form,” he said.Dey, who heads an actors’ lobby group, said at least 200 Jatra companies, which in their heyday employed tens of thousands of people, have folded up in recent years after failing to adapt to the new reality.
“Some of the great Jatra actors have quit the profession out of shame. They can’t endure the pain of spending all night waiting for the opportunity to act while dancing girls entertain the crowd,” he said.
In 2012 Dey and hundreds of Jatra actors launched a year-long campaign to clean up the industry and in August that year the government responded by enacting the nation’s first ever “rules” to regulate the Jatra shows.
The Jatra Development Guidelines calls for a ban on all “obscene” dances and empowers the state-run Shilpakala Academy, (Academy of Fine and Performing Arts) to approve only the “clean” Jatra troupes and bar
any shows that don’t stay true to the drama.
“We hope the dark cloud that has been cast over the Jatra industry will go away after the enforcement of the guidelines. It will help Jatra groups fight off obscenity,” academy chief Liakot Ali Lucky said.
But experts and many Jatra troupe owners are skeptical whether the new rules will make an impact. They blame a radical change in people’s taste and entertainment for the invasion of sex in the folk drama.
With few opportunities available for men to watch risque entertainment in this socially-conservative nation, Jatra groups have realised there is a huge untapped business opportunity . The authorities, who generally clamp down anything that hurts the nation’s religious and moral values, tend to overlook the dances because the shows are increasing popular among rural youths and mostly take place after midnight.
“No doubt certain sections of the people like this dancing. These dances are real-life reflections of what we see on cable TV and at cinemas,” said Sudip Chakraborthy, a professor of theatre at Dhaka University.
Professor Chakraborthy, who wrote on Jatra dramas’ rich contribution to Bangladesh’s history and culture, said because of the dances, Jatra drama was now “almost dead” except in some Hindu religious ceremonies
where it is part of the rituals.
“Jatra is no longer a family or social entertainment,” he said, adding that in some regions the Islamists have risen up against Jatra because of “this porn invasion,”.
$2,000 Monthly Salary
But Jatra troupe owners say the industry won’t survive if the “strip-shows”are curbed. “The reality is it’s hugely popular. You drop this dance from the show, I am sure none will turn up to watch a Jatra. And we can’t pay
salary to our actors,” said Masum Chowdhury, head of the Keya Jatra Unit.
Asad, 25, a spectator who uses one name and works at a textile factory five kilometres from the Jatra stage, echoed the same sentiment. Three of his friends bought tickets at $2 a piece to watch the show.
“We are here to see strip dance, not the drama. This is special,” Asad said, adding that many of colleagues have watched the show. “It’s harmless entertainment,” he said. Although the people of the area are “more than 95 percent Muslim and overwhelmingly”, there has been no protest against the show, said an organiser, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
“We’ve been staging the shows for almost every year over the last decade and never did we face any resistance from the Muslim clerics,” he said.
It was 3.30am and Keya’s dancing queen, Princess Ratna, who is paid 160,000 taka ($2,000) a month has entered the stage, flaunting her plump and curvaceous body amid whistles and thunderous clapping.
By now Islam has started removing his Persian king’s robe and takenoff his fake crown. He has lit up a cigarette provided by one of his colleagues, Mehedy Hasan, 24, who was to play the male lover of the Persian princess in the tragic drama.”I feel sorry for this young man,” he told me, placing one of his hands onto the shoulder of Hasan.
“In my young days we performed in front of 10,000-15,000 people. Villagers would go mad. Jatra dialogues were on every villager’s lip,” he said with a sigh. “Where are those days? What happened to this people?”
*Shafiqul Alam is a Dhaka based journalist. He conducted this field study in 2013
** The copyright of the Cover Photo belongs to Munir uz ZAMAN
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