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Why the show must go on in Jangalmahal

A retired govt official is fighting to preserve unique forms of folk dance and theatre found only in tribal West Bengal.

art and culture Updated: Apr 01, 2018 08:49 IST
Dipanjan Sinha
Dipanjan Sinha
Hindustan Times
Folk dance,Folk theatre,Folk
The Paik martial dance form, traditionally performed by soldiers of the local king, involves leaps and displays of skill with sticks.

Chiriya Chiriani once kept villages in West Midnapore awake all night. This folk theatre format involves three characters — a young man, a young woman and an old man in the role of Aja (grandfatherly person). Aja is sort of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. As the young couple set out on a journey to meet, he tries to confuse them or seduce the young woman. In the end the two manage to get around him and come together.

The play is performed all night, with no stage or props. Just a group of villagers clustered around in a circle, reliving a tale whose essence has remained unchanged for hundreds of years but whose storyline is so flexible, it can be updated and adapted by each performing trio.

Chiriya Chiriani used to be staged on auspicious occasions — a festival puja, a wedding or even a big gathering of families in the village. The actors were usually local farmers who had learnt their role from their elders.

“Since the roles are passed down in an oral tradition, once the performances stop, there is no trace of them,” says Madhup De.

De, a retired deputy inspector of schools from West Midnapore, is leading an initiative to revive dying forms of folk theatre and dance like Chiriya Chiriani (Male Bird, Female Bird), and preserve a niche culture that is fading amid the violence and instability of a once-Maoist stronghold.

His focus is Jangalmahal, a heavily forested region on the western fringes of West Bengal that comprises 11 blocks across the districts of Jhargram, West Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia.

De worked in Midnapore town from the 1980s to his retirement in 2011, and has written four books on disappearing aspects of the local culture. Among the other folk forms he is trying to preserve are the Paik dance and Sitachuri, Bhanr Jatra, Champabati and Lalita Pala theatre forms.

‘These tales and folk forms are a reflection of a rich and vibrant history,’ says retired deputy inspector of schools, Madhup De, ‘one that has been undermined by the Maoist-affected region’s history of instability and violence.’ (Vipin Kumar / HT Photo)

These are just words to most Indians, but each holds the key to an ancient and rich tradition of storytelling not found elsewhere in the country.

Bhanr Jatra, for instance, is a type of folk jatra made up entirely of obscene humour and attended only by men. Paik is a dance form once performed by the soldiers (paiks in Bengali) of the local king as a way to remain fit for war. The martial dance involves leaps and displays of skill with sticks.

Sitachuri is a local version of a part of the Ramayana. In Champabati, a fake sadhu kidnaps a woman and she is rescued. Lalita Pala is a fictional account about how an idol of the Lodha Shabar community’s deity, called Nilmadhab, was stolen.

From memory

De grew up hearing these stories and attending jatra performances in the village where his parents owned a paddy farm. “My mother would tell us folk tales before we slept,” he says.

He eventually got a Masters in Bengali literature from Calcutta University and did a PhD thesis on the folk tales of Jangalmahal.

“When I got an opportunity to travel across the region for work in the 1980s, I started noting down details and discovering different versions in folk theatre with my wife,” he says.

Some of the theatre forms were disappearing even then.

By the time De retired, many of the folk theatre and dance forms that he had documented were no longer being performed. “I decided to preserve what I knew of them and started writing the books.” Jangalamahaler Lokjatra and Jangalmahaler Lokkatha were published in 2014 by Midnapore-based Sabyasachi publishers and Kolkata-based Monfakira publishers.

In the same year, De co-founded Jangal Mahal Udyog, an NGO to promote the folk culture of the region, with librarian Priyobroto Bera, anthropologist Pashupatiprasad Mahato, and retired bank official Surajit Sengupta, all from Jangalmahal. They organised their first event, the Jangal Mahal Utsav, in Kolkata that year.

“There were performances of Paik and of Jhumur, a collection of folk love songs,” says De.

Now, they want to take the forms back to their home. In February this year, they staged a smaller version of the festival in a school ground in Midnapore town, before a crowd of 2,000.

“The next step is to take it to the villages,” says Priyobrota Bera, secretary of the NGO.

Reviving these theatre forms is significant because this region has little formal history, De says. “These tales,” he adds, “show a community that had a rich and vibrant relationship with myths, religion, and each other.”

“This is a laudable effort. Reviving jatra will be a Herculean task because people from these villages have been migrating for generations,” says Satyabati Giri, retired professor of medieval Bengali and folk literature at Jadavpur University. “In a time when Hindi music and smartphone videos rule, a revival of jatra here would be a source of regional identity and pride.”

First Published: Mar 31, 2018 17:02 IST