A NIGHT AT THE JATRA

From my forthcoming book Before Tourists Come: Travels & Encounters in Bangladesh

“This is a good jatra group,” the official told us as we purchased tickets for the traditional Bengali stage drama. “In most places, people usually only want to watch the dancing girls, but this group has proved to them that the drama can be an attraction as well.”

An hour later, it was apparent we had been misinformed. My translator, Tapon, and I sat squashed onto the couches at the foot of the stage between a coterie of VIPs on the left and a bamboo fence on the right, behind which sat hundreds of men who watched the empty stage with famished eyes. The music—the same repetitive, tuneless, yet wildly hypnotic keyboard music that had been screaming over the fairground’s loudspeaker for the past hour—became even louder, and with a roar from the all-male crowd, a woman with kinky black hair flowing loose around her shoulders, her eyes heavily lined with black, and wearing a Wonder Woman-esque pointy studded bra-cum-sari blouse gyrated across the stage to a flood of shrieks and whistles. It was Bollywood meets Bangkok strip bar meets Bangladesh. One of our neighbors in the VIP seats called her over. When she leaned down to talk to him, he tucked a couple of mangy bills in her blouse and shouted something in her ear. He tossed the cushion from his seat onto the floor of the stage and she threw herself on top of it with, shall we say, feeling. The crowd in the cheap seats erupted.

After nearly an hour of dancing, the actors came on stage to perform the drama. But after just 15 restless minutes the melodrama was drowned out by chanting from the audience: “We want the dance! We want the dance!” When, in the service of their art, the actors refused to leave the stage, they were pelted with wads of straw (on which the men in the cheap seats were sitting) and whatever else the audience could get their hands on, until finally they were forced from the stage. As the last of them ducked behind the curtain the wild music started up and a whippet thin fourteen year old ran onstage, convulsing to the roars of the sea of raging testosterone.

Backstage, the theatre troupe’s manager and veteran actor, Wassim, shook his head over the incident. “The Jatra has changed,” he said. “We have always had dancers, but they used to be boys dressed up as girls. Now that real girls are dancing on stage, I fear our days are numbered.”