Kumar Bapi of Sonar Bangla Jatra is beaming. After two years of Covid-19, West Bengal’s jatra groups have set up temporary booking counters adjacent to the Paschim Banga Jatra Academy in Baghbazar, Kolkata to start bookings of the season. His troupe is ready with new jatra pala Rupashir Kobale Kolir Kaalpurush and he aspires to conduct more than 100 shows this season. Though the increasing cases of Covid-19 in the state have become a cause of worry, Bapi believes that jatra, one of India’s oldest folk art forms, still has its market. “We have seen the worst in the last two years. At least, 2021 was better. But in 2020, our artistes slipped into abject poverty. Some started selling vegetables and fishes and then there were some who even became cooks. This year, everything is going according to plans till now. We just hope the Covid-19 doesn’t come back,” he said.
On Wednesday, Bengal saw a spike in coronavirus cases with 2,352 new infections and three people were also reported to be dead. Presently, Bengal has 14,270 active cases as per the state health department.
The pandemic has crippled the already struggling jatra groups of Bengal. Now, the rising cases of coronavirus in the state has left those involved with the industry a bit worried. As the troupes start the booking season with renewed energy and new palas go on floors, the surge in coronavirus cases in Bengal are the biggest risk. Kumar Neel of New Jatralok is jittery as a lot of money has been invested in their new pala, Bekar Swamir 420 Bou. The group has roped in popular Bengali actress Chandrayee Ghosh of Kiranmala fame to play the lead role. The pala also stars Anubhav, who is also the joint secretary of Sangrami Jatra Prahari.
“Covid-19 has ruined us enough and we won’t be able to bear any more losses. A number of jatra actors and technicians even left the profession during the pandemic to seek livelihood elsewhere. Jatra is a performing art, which requires active participation of people and if Covid-19 returns, then we will be left with nothing,” said Kumar Neel.
Nihar Ranjan Ghosh of Akashdeep Opera has been involved with this profession for over 35 years. He has witnessed several transitions but never witnessed the turmoil which he saw during Covid-19 pandemic. “Most of the jatra actors come from humble backgrounds. So, when Covid-19 struck, they were left with no job. They were as poor as a church mouse and did odd jobs like selling vegetables or working as a painter. If Covid-19 returns, it would be extremely damaging for the Bengal jatra industry. We need to be careful and follow the protocols,” he said.
Minister Aroop Biswas, also the president of Paschim Banga Jatra Academy, recently released ‘Jatra Darpan 2022’. The brochure has the details of this season’s palas and contacts of producers and groups. This brochure is sent to all MLAs, MPs, district magistrates and SPs so that they can get in touch with the troupes and book their show.
“For the last two-and-half years, we couldn’t organize a programme at Paschim Banga Jatra Academy with so many people due to Covid-19. Mr Amanush has been awarded for staging the maximum number of shows in the last season. It did 142 shows last season. Hope, this year we all can do 242 shows,” said Biswas.
Actors Piyali, Mouli, Abhiraj and Pamela are elated that jatra is back with such vigour. “There’s no work from home option in our profession. There’s no greater joy to be back to where we belong,” said Abhiraj.
Meanwhile, Pamela has a different opinion. “People are tired of Covid-19. They have already lived with it for two years.”