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Last Updated: Friday, 5 August 2005, 12:39 GMT 13:39 UK
Rural theatre and the London bombs

By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Calcutta

London Burning poster
The poster shows a skyline that is more New York than London

The London bomb blasts have found a curious echo in a popular Indian folk theatre tradition.

A month after four explosions killed more than 50 people in London, a folk theatre group in the eastern Indian city of Calcutta is putting finishing touches to a production based on the attacks.

The play, London Burning, is a reinvention of jatra, a centuries-old travelling theatre tradition hugely popular in villages in the region.

Indian epics and mythological tales have traditionally been the staple fodder for jatra.

Jatra usually consists of four-hour-long, high-energy plays featuring loud music, harsh lighting and extravagant props played out on giant stages under open skies.

But groups like the Digbijoy Opera - one of Calcutta's 55-odd jatra troupes - believe that plays based on "sensational breaking news" are now a bigger draw with rural audiences.

So director Haradhan Roy is hard at work at the 24-year-old group's poky office, pushing his 200-member group to put London Burning on stage by mid-October.

'A fluid script'

The group has hired technicians from all over India to build motorised plywood trains and buses and props of prominent London landmarks to recreate the incident.

"We will be updating the play with all the developments that take place in the blast investigation till October. It's a fluid script, " says Roy.

Jatra actor playing Saddam Hussain
Saddam Hussain jatra style - the "imprisoned hero"

The hero, he says, will be a Scotland Yard officer "heading the investigation" to be played by a "young, wheatish (fairer-skinned) Bengali actor" who will speak a smattering of English, accessible to village audiences.

London Burning with its busy poster of the cast, burning trains and buses and a skyline which looks more like New York than London has been already sold out for 75 nights starting October all over West Bengal state.

Roy promises a lot of pyrotechnics in the four-stage play, with the action being played out on a 40-metre ramp in the background, while the drama plays out on a stage in front.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair is being played by troupe member, Partha Sarathi, a 48-year-old jatra veteran who has played "prominent international leaders" on stage in the past.

"There will be a message - terrorism does not pay. We will try to showcase London's multicultural life in the play - how different communities live together," says Roy.

Roy confesses to be a news junkie, reading papers all the time to lift themes.

He has hired in-house regulars who play George W Bush, Tony Blair, Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussain and "some G-8 members who I can't remember".

Heavy on spectacle

"Current affairs jatra", as Roy prefers to call this genre, has a curious political correctness, possibly dictated by what he feels village audiences want.

We obviously try to touch a chord with audiences on such sensitive incidents by taking a stand
Haradhan Roy

Six years ago, his group kicked off the trend with a couple of plays on the Kargil conflict between India and Pakistan and militancy in Indian-administered Kashmir. The plots were strongly anti-Pakistani.

Then came a play on the 9/11 attacks on the United States. It played for more than 200 nights and was heavy on spectacle rather than drama.

The next big production - The Imprisoned Hero Saddam - on the capture of Saddam Hussain, was sympathetic to the former Iraqi president and lectured America on how "not to treat international leaders".

"People here thought he was unfairly treated by America, that his country was invaded on a false pretext. So we preferred to show Saddam's brighter side of a resistance hero to the audiences," says Roy.


Last year's play was centred on a much talked-about hanging of a Calcutta security guard found guilty of raping a schoolgirl.

Director Haradhan Roy
Director Haradhan Roy is a "news junkie"

But Dhananjoy On The Gallows, named after the death-row prisoner Dhananjoy Chatterjee, was banned by the state government.

The case divided Bengali society, with human rights groups and the underclass fiercely protesting at the execution, while the upper class broadly supported it.

In Roy's play the security guard was portrayed as an innocent victim of circumstance. Performances resumed after he tweaked the plot and changed its name.

"We obviously try to touch a chord with audiences on such sensitive incidents by taking a stand. We may be right, we may be wrong, it all depends on whether we have gauged the popular pulse," says Roy.

But Samir Sen, who owns a jatra troupe and heads an association of troupe owners, says a lot of these current affairs jatras are basically "action-packed extravaganzas" with little scope for acting.

"In this age of round the clock news television, even villagers are hooked to current events. These plays are trying to whet their appetite and take them closer to these events with these plays," says Mr Sen.

No wonder the upcoming attraction of the new play season is the play on the London bombings and one on last December's tsunami - The All Consuming Tsunami.

"Both are tales of bravery against adversity. People like such things. This is a globalised world," says Roy.

But whether villagers are prepared to cough up anything between 10 to 60 rupees (23 US cents to $1.40) to watch the latest "current affairs jatra" will become clear soon.

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