Jatra – Folk Theatre in Bangladesh

The word “Jatra”, directly translated, means ‘going’ or ‘journey’. This an apt description of the popular folk theatre in Bangladesh. It is through this ‘journey’ that many religious values and principles were strongly communicated in the past. Today, however, this is not always the case in modern Jatra, with many changes having occurred, specifically in the writing of plays.

In times past Jatra in Bangladesh encompassed subjects such as mythological, fantastical and historical figures, nevertheless, modernization has brought about an array of social themes more suited to the educated and enlightened public in present day society. Fascinatingly, Jatras encompass a variety of skills such as music, singing and acting. Adding to the atmosphere of Jatra performances are loud thunderous music, dramatic props, harsh lighting and the ever expected stylized delivery with overexaggerated tones, gestures and orations. All of this is typically set on a simple outdoor stage with the musicians and chorus standing off stage. Spectators attending folk theatre performances in Bangladesh enjoy an up-close-and-personal experience as they surround the stage on all sides.

Jatra is common to Bangladesh as well as the province of West Bengal in India. Many people believe that Jatra originally developed from the ceremonial functions that were performed before families or loved ones departed for a distant destination. From a more religious perspective, it has also been assumed that the many processions dedicated to gods and goddesses, such as the festival of Rathayatra, may also have contributed greatly to the development of Jatra. Regardless, this historical performance can be traced back to 1548.

Many changes have occurred since then. The greatest change took place after the First World War, which saw Jatras being strongly influenced by patriotic and nationalistic themes. Nevertheless, sentimental love and religious myths have continued to inspire the many Jatras that exist even today. It was only in the late 1940’s that female roles were introduced to what had always been an all male cast. Today Bangladesh’s Jatra continues to play its role, expressing the local Bangladeshi culture and, as well as captivating the imaginations of public audiences.