The name literally means 'going' or 'journey'.
It is performing art combining acting, songs,
music and dance, stylised delivery, exaggerated
gestures and orations, all bordering on melodrama.
Jatra is believed to have developed from ceremonial
functions conducted before setting out on
a journey. Yet others believe that it developed
from processions brought out in honour of
The original Jatra as an art form may be
traced back to at least the 16th century.
In Chaitanyabhagavad (1548), Brindavan
Das describes a dramatic performance during
which Sri Chaitanya (who founded the Bhakti
movement in Bengal) himself played the role
of Rukmini (Krishna’s wife). There were
no actresses, and female roles were played
by male actors, who were supported by musical
and choral accompaniment. A typical jatra
was held in open space, on level ground, with
the audience seated round the stage. There
was no raised platform or curtain. There were
occasional exchanges between spectators and
A jatra performance generally lasted about
four hours and was divided into five acts
– an influence of the 19th century colonial
theatre. Following each act, the prompter
would ring a bell to signal the end of the
act. During the intervals between acts, there
were songs, dances and comic displays aplenty.
The Jatra performance usually ended a little
before daybreak. The themes were mainly religious.
Jatras were also conducted in temple
yards, public grounds and courtyards of homes.
The rising popularity of jatra in the 18th
century led to improvisation of elevated stages,
comprising bamboo poles and planks or alternatively
wooden platforms. However the audience continued
still continued to sit round the stage.
The accompanying musical instruments included
the Dholak, (a small drum) Kartal
(cymbals) mandira (a variety of cymbals)
and Khol (a terracotta two-sided
drum used in northern and eastern India for
accompaniment with devotional music. One sides
of the khol is much smaller than the other.
Both sides are covered with animal hide. The
hide on the smaller side is covered with a
dried paste so that different regions of the
surface will sound different. The drum is
played with palms and fingers of both hands)
The Adhikari, manager of the jatra
troupe often doubled up as the narrator, commenting
on the songs and dialogues and providing a
link between the scenes. The social decadence
of the early 19th century was reflected in
the jatra, which became increasingly
crude and vulgar.
Gradually a number of reforms were introduced.
Classical ragas were replaced with popular
tunes. The number of dances and dancers was
reduced. Female roles continued to be acted
by male actors, but the convention of singing
by proxy was introduced. The songs of male
characters were sung by male singers, while
those of female characters were sung by young
actors. Live orchestra incorporated a number
of western instruments e.g. violin, harmonium
A major change took place in the jatra,
after the World War I when nationalistic and
patriotic themes were incorporated into it.
the jatra. Though religious myths and sentimental
romances still continued, yet nationalism
and patriotic fervour of Bengal also found
its expression in the jatra. Decades
later, when the struggle for independence
was nearing its climax, the socio-political
content of jatra surpassed religious themes.
A major change that took place around this
time was in the induction of actresses to
enact female roles.