A couple of months ago, the internet witnessed the resurfacing of Ritwik Ghatak’s short film Amar Lenin, rescued by the British Film Institute from the archives and subsequently restored and released in the public domain. The 18-minute long film was made in 1970 to commemorate the birth centenary of Vladimir Lenin. It begins begins with a rare documentary footage of an unusual generic hybrid – a dramatic rendering of Lenin’s life and philosophy in the format of the traditional folk theatre of rural Bengal, the jatra.

The first few minutes of the film shows the unnamed protagonist, presumably an agricultural labourer, being introduced to the teachings of Lenin and Marx via a jatra performance. At a glance the scene seems familiar: a traditional jatra stage circled by men, women, some nursing infants, utterly captivated by the figures on the stage. Except what holds them in thrall aren’t mythological heroes or Hindu deities, but the thinkers and revolutionaries of a distant land, dressed in period European costume, speaking in Bangla.

The actor playing Lenin is dwarfed by the gigantic picture of Lenin splashed across the backdrop, lit by flickering gaslights and looming eerily across the night-sky of rural Bengal, heightening the surreal effect of this dissonant meta-theatrical illusion. The voice-over drowns out the dialogue spoken onstage and proceeds to tell us how performances such as this effectively rendered the revolutionary word into flesh for countless youths across, vivifying theory and history with a forceful immediacy. Songs form the cornerstone of any jatra performance, and this one ends with a rousing recital of L’Internationale in Bangla, accompanied by traditional jatra instrumentalists, blending the unfamiliar content seamlessly into the familiar format.

Amar Lenin by Ritwik Ghatak (1970).

The film goes on to show jatra as the first point of contact between the revolutionary ideology of communism and the remote, rural communities of Bengal. As the young protagonist of the film learns more about Lenin, he goes on to attend political rallies in Calcutta, and begins reading and spreading awareness about workers’ rights, blossoming into an approximation of what Gramsci called the “organic intellectual”.

By all means, Ghatak’s narrative is idealised. But standing at this juncture of history, committed, as we are, to viewing with increasing suspicion any reference to leftist politics, and banishing all of its memories into an abyss of collective oblivion, the idea of Marxist jatra – conflating leftist politics with the religious folk theatre of rural Bengal – pushes the limits of credulity, and simultaneously demands acknowledgement.

Jatra as electoral tool

Despite its roots in community-based, ritualistic (largely Hindu) performances, since the colonial times jatra had been used to discuss, stage, and disseminate awareness regarding issues of political relevance. Post-independence, anti-colonial themes in jatras were famously revived by actor and playwright Utpal Dutt to depict class struggle – Jallianwala Bag (1969), Sanyasir Tarobari (1972), Mao Tse-Tung (1974) were a few of the most popular and radical palas composed and performed by him. Dutt recognised the immense potential of the form, given its centuries-long history and intimate proximity with the lives and minds of the disenfranchised rural poor, and which could be activated to tap the pulsating political energy trapped within this oppressed collective.

In the last decade, jatra has been used as an electoral tool by the ruling party in West Bengal. Jawaharlal Nehru University scholar Gourab, who works on political jatra, points out that appropriating the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s time-honoured slogans in the jatra format and adapting them to critique its crumbling regime was one of the strategies used by the Trinamool Congress to gain widespread popularity in the rural areas in the 2011 elections. Their defining slogan ‘Ma Maati Manush’ was drawn from an old 1970s pala Ghum Kerechhe Maa Maati Manush.

In 2009, CPI(M) revived it in the wake of the Singur-Nandigram crisis to hit back at TMC’s growing popularity and to spread awareness about the “industrialization” drive. However, as Gourab points out, what is curious is that in their heyday the Left Front government barely ever made use of the jatra as a campaigning gambit.

Karl Marx in Bengal

The kind of jatra documented in Ghatak’s film became popular in the late 1960s and early 1970s, before the consolidation of the Left Front rule, during a period of turbulence as Bengal slipped in and out of President’s rule, torn by the Naxalite uprisings and the vacillations of the United Front government. These were contemporaneous with Utpal Dutt’s palas, but were distinct in that instead of largely depending on episodes drawn from Indian history, they exclusively featured biographical accounts of the lives of Marx, Lenin et al and thus constructed a mythology of their own.

The nature of the jatra, traditionally used to depict episodes from Hindu mythology, lent itself easily to these alternate hagiographies, and proved to be immensely popular in rural Bengal. The legendary playwright Shambhu Bagh wrote a number of these palas. Shanti Gopal Pal, the doyen of jatra in the last few decades of the twentieth century, earned lasting fame by playing Lenin and Marx in a number of these palas.

Despite their great popular appeal, by and large these palas remain undocumented, Ghatak’s footage being possibly the only extant recording of a performance of this kind of communist mythology jatra. Texts are hard to come by, but one on which Gourab is working is an account of Karl Marx’s life in London written by Bagh, and gives us a fascinating insight into the details of these performances.

Karl Marx (1972) presents in lucid Bengali the concepts of alienation of labour, proletariat art, Marx’s distrust of democratic socialism, the interlinked evils of colonialism and capitalism. In true jatra spirit, the text also weaves in gloriously melodramatic depictions of Marx’s poverty-ridden existence, tear-jerking spectacles of his starving children, the poignant death of his son Edgar, a clandestine love affair involving one of his daughters – all designed to resonate with the audience. Popular revolutionary anthems like L’Internationale and Comrade the Bugles are Sounding are rendered in Bengali.

In one scene, in a blend of typically Bengali sentimentality and absurdity, Marx’s famished daughters run to the milkman and embraces him, calling him “doodhwala kaka” (one can only imagine how a nineteenth-century English milkman would have reacted to two German Jewish girls calling him “uncle”!) and say “Your milk is so sweet.” To which the milkman replies, without missing a beat, “That’s not my milk, that’s my cow’s milk.”

Ideology and faith

The form of the jatra helped engender a peculiar bond of familiar, and even familial intimacy between two very distant historical moments.

The use of folk performative rituals in the dissemination of political ideology and history is not remarkable in itself. Communist, socialist, and indeed other regimes and movements across the world, throughout history, have made use of it. But by and large jatra has remained a form largely associated with Hindu festivals and rituals, often imbued with reactionary, even, as Dutt had suggested, communal possibilities. The Leftist jatra of the 1960s and 1970s managed to use this emphatically religious performance to not just popularise the message of class struggle and capitalist oppression, but also to apotheosise avowedly and vehemently anti-religious thinkers and give voice to excursuses on the fraud of religion. This seems almost incredible at a time when deities are litigants in the Supreme Court, and “acts of God” are routinely evoked to justify inequitable public policy.

Doyeeta Majumder is an Assistant Professor at the Department of English, Jadavpur University.