Stories with a twist

Visual Arts - Soumitra Das

  • Published 4.06.16

Jatra, the once-popular folk theatre form, may have deserted its former stronghold, Chitpur, but small jatra troupes are still alive in remote villages and towns like the one in Midnapore in which Soumya Sankar Bose lives. Bose is a 26-year-old photographer, and he has the courage of conviction to give up a career as an engineer and take up the camera as his medium of expression. But documentation is not his forte. He has to know a person closely enough to ask him to pose for him.

So the suite of black-and-white prints that Bose displayed at Max Mueller Bhavan (April 12-May 10) in an exhibition titled Gems of Jatra were not just about the artists but his relationship with them. Bose had been tinkering with a camera gifted by his mother from childhood, and he would take pictures of those who came visiting their home. He would build archives with these. This may sound suspiciously similar to the practice of an eminent Indian photographer, but Bose says he is plagued by fears of losing things dear to him in the future, and photography is one way of resisting the inevitable. After completing his engineering degree, he enrolled at Pathshala South Asian Media Institute based in Dhaka in 2012, but returned to India before the course was complete.

A grant from the India Foundation for the Arts enabled Bose to undertake the jatra project. Bose was introduced to the jatra artists of Belda, Midnapore, by his uncle, Shyamal Dihidar, a one-time performer himself. These artists are not renowned like their Chitpur counterparts, and perform in villages. These are obviously staged photographs, and Bose never tries to simulate actual performances. He shoots them at home or outdoors, and that invests the images with a certain incongruity that at times can be a little disturbing. They are performing for his camera nonetheless. And they wear the costumes and greasepaint that make them easily identifiable as the well-known characters they represent.

The grotesque protagonist of Ulka, with crooked legs and one eye popping out of his head, strikes a pose on a terrace. A Muslim ruler (they were perfectly manicured) in his finery relaxes on a charpoy while a child aims a camera at him. A police officer springs out of a bush and aims a pistol at invisible wrongdoers. There are others of some retired jatra stars too.

In one photograph, a newly-wed couple stand on a boat mid-river. The young groom uncovers the veil of the bride with a pallid and emaciated face. He is actually an old man and his wasted, chalk-white face could have been that of Death itself. Bose gives these stories a twist of his own.