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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Prolegomenon to an understanding of the Jatra of India : the travelling popular theatre of the state of West Bengal Farber, Carole


This thesis presents the first extended ethnographic account of a popular professional theatrical form and life-style—the jatra of West Bengal, India. The research material presented and analysed was collected from 1970-1972 in West Bengal and the immediately surrounding states of Assam, Orissa and Bihar. The cognitive universe of the jatra jagat (world), the cultural practice of the jatra business, and the interactional constraints operating among the various categories of people within the jatra profession, are described and interpreted. In addition, this thesis presents the first systematically and anthropologically annotated translation of a popularly performed jatra play, Pariah Paiser Pvithibi (The World for F-ive Paisa). The central point of the thesis revolves around an interpretation of the concerns of the professional jatra business—an aesthetic business, the business of cultural performance. The argument is that this performance form, from its asserted putative origin, has been a critical and self-reflective commentary on Bengali social and cultural life. The jatra is inextricably bound within the existential and cultural dilemmas of Bengali life, dilemmas and contradictions that traditionally were resolved at both metaphysical and practical levels. Now that the jatra is embedded within a capitalist business world, critical commentaries and revolutionary desires remain unresolved within the profession itself. In spite of this, the jatra remains critical of both itself and Bengali social and cultural life, embedded as it is in the current context of feared and despised Western cultural imperialism and internal domination. The anthropological interpretation and analysis presented in the thesis is informed from a number of sources; the views expressed by people within the jatra world, the work in anthropology that currently goes under the heading of 'symbolic anthropology', critical theory and literary criticism, and semiotics. With these points of view in mind, the thesis presents an analysis of the jatra advertising system, the jatra performance system, and a larger peripatetic performance system, as well as a statement about the interpretation of meaning in Bengali life.

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