Jatra Pala or Jatra is the traditional open-air folk opera and integral part of Bengali folk life. It is a form of folk drama combining acting, songs, music, dance, characterized by stylized dialogue delivery and exaggerated gestures and orations, was an unparalleled medium of entertainment for the rural people. Jatra has played a vital role in forming traditional theatre art of Bengal. The literal meaning of the Bangla word jatra is 'Beginning of a journey'. In early times there was a rite in which people used to perform drama or at an open space or beside a street; from where the term 'Jatra' (Journey) derived. Pala resembles a jatra but is not as elaborate. For instance, the Pala does a full-fledged cast nor does it have scene-wise divisions. Pala is a long musical narrative that describes episodes from the Mahabharata, Ramayana or other Puranic Texts. It is the earlier form of Jatra and usually performed in front of a temple.
Jatra is performed on a simple stage with the spectators surrounding it on all sides. The chorus and the musicians take their position off stage. There no stage properties except a single seat meant to serve various functions, as a throne, a bed or a way-side bench. One side is reserved for women and the other side is reserved for men spectators. The players often deliver dialogues in thunder voice and an improvised way to catch the attention of the spectators seated on all sides. They laugh, they cry, they sing, they fight, they do all on the main stage. Huge bulbs, including colorful lights placed for coloring the stage when the hero-heroine will sing and dance. These lightnings are also used when there is a battle going on. The Jatra Pala lasts for four long hours with full action packed dialogue. Some six to seven songs are also performed in the play. It is over-dramatic but this is more acceptable to the general people. The season of Jatra starts from September actually Durga Puja (a Hindu Festival) and ends when the monsoons are just about to come. The whole troupe travel to rural places mainly and perform their play.
The Jatra is believed to have started in the 16th century, when Baikuntha Natta and his brother established an musical drama group named "Machrang Baikuntha Sangeet Samaj’ also familiar as Natta's group in west Bengal. In the early years the group used to perform in different landlord’s palaces. As time passed on they started to perform in different villages, small towns and also in cities like Kolkata. In the early 1950s, Natta group started to use handbills for publicity. From the mid 50’s they started to publish their advertisements in the local magazines. Very soon they earned a good name in Bengal’s folk theater and then in stage theater. By the 18th century jatra had developed a good number of forms like Shakti jatra, Nath jatra and Pala jatra. Krishna jatra and Chaitanya jatra.
In the meantime Jatra pala started its journey in Bangladesh too. It started from a small village of Barishal known as Machrang and gradually to other cities. Jatra peaked in the period from 1947 to 1971 when 22 jatra troupes were established. At that point of time, most of the jatra groups dwelled at Brahmanbaria. Joydurga Opera (1947), Volanath Opera (1955) and Vagyalokkhi Opera (1960) of Brahmanbaria, Raycompany Jatraparty (1949) Bashanti Muktomancha Natyaprotishthan (1954) of Gopalgang, Babul Opera (1958) of Chittagong , Bulbul Opera (1967) of Mymensingh, New Bashanti Opera of Faridpur (1968) and Dipali Opera (1969) of Gopalgang were some of the noteworthy groups of this period.
At the very beginning jatras were not drama but a musical narrative, song or Pala, based on stories, written on religious, mythological, historical plots. Different parts of epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata was also performed. Later on Jatra start to took place beside Palas, while sometimes replacing it. Current socio-political environment also had a prominent effect on Jatras. After this some Bhakti cult also being played and became quite popular like Behula Lakhhindar, Manasa serpents, Chandi mangal etc. Jatra plays now no longer limited to the mythological, historical or fantastical subjects include social themes to suit modern taste.
Till the 70s there was no actress in Jatrapala. Male actors used to play the female character. Most actors add the suffix Rani (graceful lady) to their name to distinguish themselves as female artist. Babul Opera revolutionized jatra by casting women artistes in this art form for the first time in Bangladesh.
There are about 210 registered Jatra Groups in Bangladesh but only few are active. Around 20,000 jatra artistes from over 200 troupes, have become almost jobless or have changed their profession, as authorities do not allow them to stage shows due to protest of radical religious groups and introduction of other forms of modern art. The change of audience taste is also another reason that thrown aside the talent and skill of the Jatra artists and Bengali art is losing its glory.